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The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert – tragedy strikes in Washington state

January 12, 2021 8 comments

The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert (2014) French title: L’heure de plomb. Translated by François Happe.

For Matt Lawson, the hero of Bruce Holbert’s novel, this hour of Lead mentioned in Emily Dickinson’s poem happens in November 1918. He’s at school with his twin brother Luke and they have to go home during an intense snow storm. They leave school but soon realize they will not make it home and decide to go back to school until the weather improves. Their school mistress Linda Jefferson spots them and brings them home but despite her best effort, it’s too late for Luke. He dies of hypothermia.

At home, at their farm, their father Ed leaves the comfort of the house to go and look for them. He gets lost in the blizzard and doesn’t come back; his wife Helen won’t even find his body.

Matt is fourteen when this tragedy strikes. His father and his brother are dead, his mother is walled up in her grief and he’s the only man to run the farm. Luke was the bright and sociable twin. Matt is the quiet and slower one.

Now he lives in a silent household. Neither Helen or him know how to verbalize their grief and talk about their emotions. Stocked emotions erupts in fits of violence and Matt’s love finds an outlet in his dog and his horse.

Matt starts working hard on the farm, lives besides his mother and on Sundays, he drives the carriage around, looking for his father’s body. This is how he meets and falls in love with Wendy. He doesn’t have the social codes for courting her. His ways are unusual, weird even. He frightens her and she rejects him, his second tragedy.

The Hour of Lead is Matt’s story, the life of a man who lives in a remote part in the east of Washington state. We come across other people from the area, as they come in and out of Matt’s life: Wendy and her family, Linda Jefferson and her son Lucky, the Jarms family.

It is a story of the West with people branded by the climate and the wilderness around them. They don’t say much, they act. Matt is weaned of human love when Luke and his father die. He never recovers emotionally and doesn’t know how to express his feelings. Things are not better in the Jarms household.

We are among people who yearn for love and don’t know how to share it, to show it or keep it. In this novel, women are hard, cold and don’t spread a lot of love. Matt’s mother has no interest in her son. Linda’s ways with Lucky are possessive and unhealthy. Wendy has a hard time connecting with her children.

We also witness the taming of the wilderness around them. A barrage domesticates the river. Roads are built and distances are covered more easily. The third generation, Wendy’s children seem more adjusted as if the taming of the nature also put a lid on their wildest instincts.

The Hour of Lead is a compelling story. Matt is a tough man who lost his twin at fourteen, lost himself in the process, became a hard worker to keep his sanity. He loves deeply and is devoted to the people he loves. Holbert could have changed Matt into a drunk but he drew a character who doesn’t drink much since his drug of choice for escapism is sheer physical exhaustion through brutal manual labor.

Matt’s journey in life is one of redemption, a slow walk towards inner peace with a constant care to protect others from his demons. It’s a very atmospheric novel that shows in the background how tough the life was in this part of the country at the beginning of the 20th century.

Highly recommended. Another great find by Gallmeister.

20 Books of Summer #5: The Overstory by Richard Powers – a book tree

July 14, 2020 10 comments

The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) French title: L’Arbre-monde. Translated by Serge Chauvin.

I decided to read The Overstory by Richard Powers after reading his interview in the review America where he talked about the fascinating world of trees and made me look at them in a different angle. I thought I’d give his sequoia novel a try.

The Overstory is a Sagrada Família book. Built like a cathedral with precise blueprints and with trees as pillars. Like a tree, it has four parts, Roots, Trunc, Crown and Seeds.

In the Roots part, we meet nine characters, Nicholas, Mimi, Adam, Ray, Dorothy, Douglas, Neelay, Patricia and Olivia. Each has a tree totem. They come from California, the Midwest or the West. All have a relationship with trees and forests. It comes from their childhood or they have a revelation later. They come from different backgrounds, two of them have immigrant parents. It’s hard to say how old they are but they’re born between the 1940s and the 1960s. Some will keep a remote relationship with trees. Some will turn into green activists or even eco-warriors. One is a scientist devoted to the cause of biodiversity. All are convinced that old forests are precious and need to be protected.

The Trunc part is where some of the roots meet and live together for a while. Crown sees them live apart, make their own way in life. And Seeds is their legacy. The structure of the book is rather clear-cut and it is intentional, Powers is too gifted for it to be random clumsiness.

I enjoyed Roots, learning about the characters, knowing they’d interact somewhere in the future. I liked the Trunc part but was a bit disappointed with the rest. I learnt things about the destruction of trees, either because of bugs or through the cutting for woods. I heard the argument about giving trees the status of a legal body. Lawyers can represent their interests in court, then. I was fascinated by the description of the workings of the ecosystem around the roots of the trees. They live in harmony with other living creatures, animals or plants. Scientist are only unearthing the complexity of the communication system between trees. Since trees don’t move and don’t interact with us, we forget they’re living creatures. And Powers points out, Noah only took animals and humans on his ark. I got it and it’s a valid argument.

We think with our times. When people fought against slavery, for women’s rights, for the independence of colonies, a lot of their contemporaries thought they were extremist and nuts. They were ahead of their time and now their vision is the norm. Did we make the same mistake with environmental activists since the 1960s?

Powers says you don’t change people’s minds with rational thinking, that humans aren’t wired that way. You might change their minds with a good story. I think he’s right. The Overstory is not like The Monkey-Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey even if some parts reminded me of the Gang. It’s less abrasive in it’s form, more consensual and more likely to reach readers with moderate thinking.

Back to the Sagrada Família book. I have mixed feelings about The Overstory. Powers’s writing is incredibly poetic and his sentences rustle like leaves in a quiet forest. The tree metaphor is everywhere. I suppose that it needed to be that long (730 pages) to mirror the longevity of the old trees it sings about. I had the feeling that things were coming along smoothly, that important facts were sown in a poetic vision of forests and trees.

I was captivated and bored. I wasn’t really receptive to some farfetched communication channel between trees and one of the characters, Olivia. I am wary of people with callings. I’m with James Lee Burke when he writes “I’ve had some experience with people who are always trying to right the world by wiping out large portions of it. They all have the same idea about sacrifices, but it’s always somebody else’s ass that gets burned.”

Everything is well orchestrated, like a symphony. Each character plays its own instrument, has its part and they are in perfect sync. It doesn’t mean that the characters are saints. They are adrift, mean sometimes and not always good spouses or parents. They try to raise awareness but symphonies are barely heard in the world of pop-music.

The Overstory is a majestic symphony. I acknowledge it’s beautiful just like I do when I hear classical music. But symphonies never manage to move me the way blues does. The Overstory didn’t tug at my emotions as much as The Book of Yack by Rick Bass did.

I’m curious about other readers’ responses to this book. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass – Poetic, peaceful and militant

May 8, 2020 8 comments

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass (1996 & epilogue: 2007) French title: Le livre de Yaak. Translated by Camille Fort-Cantoni.

It is a kind of church, back in these last cores. It may not be your church — this last one percent of the West – but it is mine, and I am asking unashamedly to be allowed to continue worshipping the miracle of the planet, and the worship of a natural system not yet touched, never touched by the machines of man. A place with the residue of God – the scent, feel, sight, taste, and sound of God – forever fresh upon it.

I continue my literary journey in Montana and through nature writing as the hope of visiting Montana and Wyoming this summer vanishes like snow in the sun. My next stop is The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass, brought to French readers by Gallmeister.

Rick Bass has lived in the Yaak valley in Montana for twenty years before moving to Missoula. He wrote The Book of Yaak in 1996 and added its epilogue in 2007. It is an ode and a plea for the protection of these 471 000 acres of wilderness threatened by the timber industry. In this valley, less than two hundred humans cohabit with black bears, grizzlies, deers, wolves and coyotes.

Rick Bass tells us how he and his wife fell in love with the place. He takes us hiking in these old woods, describing the trees, the flowers, the river and the animals. He has a different approach to nature than Thomas McGuane in An Outside Chance.

With McGuane, hiking and hunting were sports. With Rick Bass, it’s a spiritual experience, a way to find peace, to experience the invisible link between humans and nature. It feels closer to Amerindian customs, more instinctive. His writing conveys his genuine love for this valley. It has become his happy place. He writes beautiful passages about art and nature and their connection. Living in this valley grounds him and fuels his artistic endeavors. He’s in communion with the nature around him. I’ve never read his fiction but I will.

I loved The Book of Yaak and I’m puzzled. I’m still trying to pinpoint why I love nature writing so much and what I find in these books.

I’m a very urban non-outdoorsy person. I don’t long to hike in the rain to reach the right fishing spot. I hated it when my parents took us blackberry gathering when I was a kid, mostly because I was bored to death and would have rather been at home with my books. I love the theatre, museums and sitting in coffee shops with a novel or my billets notebook. I love walking in historical districts of cities and admire old buildings, traditional shops and watch passersby. I can’t seem to do anything with my hands except hold a book and cook a little. For the rest, I’m pretty useless. My lack of sense of direction is legendary among my family, friends and colleagues. How would I survive in these nature writers’ tough environment?

However, the older I get, I more I want to spend my holidays in large spaces. I need to refuel. The more work experience I get in the corporate world, the more I envy the Rick Basses of this world who were brave enough to retrieve themselves from the grind. I’m not saying their life is easier or lazy, because it certainly isn’t. I’m saying they managed to cut the ball-and-chain of middle-class expectations and what-ifs that I have at my ankles. Mostly they were not afraid. Of missing out on the little comforts of everyday life, like central-heating, electricity and hot water. Of raising kids in a remote place. Of getting sick and being far from hospitals. Of not having enough money when they are old. Of living without a security net.

The Book of Yaak is also a plea, a way to raise awareness and seek for the reader’s help. Rick Bass is an ecology activist and he’s been relentless to have the Congress pass a bill to protect his beloved valley from the timber industry. He’s a moderate and doesn’t want to stop any woodcutting in the area, he just wants it to be local based and respectful of the fragile ecosystem of the valley. Saving the Yaak valley is a way to save humanity, a way to show ourselves that we can still turn our backs to our profit-oriented ways.

We need the wilderness to protect us from ourselves.

We need wilderness to buffer this dark lost-gyroscopic tumble that democracy, top-heavy with big business and leaning precariously over rot, has entered.

We’re an adolescent country, a tough, macho, posturing Madison Avenue sleek-jawed Marlboro Man’s caricature of strength.

We need the strength of lilies, ferns, mosses and mayflies. We need the masculinity of ponds and rivers, the femininity of stone, the wisdom of quietness, if not silence.

I guess I love nature writing for that and maybe it’s always been in me. After all, I loved Jim Harrison instantly when I was a young adult and Gary advocates the same ideas in The Roots of Heaven. In the end, the way we treat nature is an indication of how we treat humans.

Highly recommended.

An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane

March 22, 2020 12 comments

An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane (1991) French title: Outsider. Translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Thomas McGuane was born in 1939 in Michigan. He’s a scriptwriter, a novelist and a non-fiction writer. He lives on a ranch in Montana. An Outside Chance is a collection of “sport essays”. The themes of the essays are all about outdoors activities.

Frequent Book Around the Corner (BAtC) Reader, rolling their eyes – Oh dear, another book about fly-fishing

Emma – Well, yes there were fishing stories. Fishing in the ocean in the Keys, fishing in ponds in Michigan, fishing in Montana, British Columbia, boho fishing in San Francisco, fishing with wife and son, with wife’s grandfather and with Jim Harrison.

Frequent BAtC Reader – Is it a Gallmeister book?

Emma – No. It’s published by Christian Bourgois Editeur. However, it’s totally Gallmeister’s kind of books.

Now that we’ve had this little discussion, let’s go back to An Outside Chance. Thomas McGuane writes beautifully and I’m sorry that I have no quote to share because I read it in French translation and it’s not available on kindle. Usually, I download a sample from the kindle store and find quotes that fit my billet in the first pages. It seems like An Outside Chance is OOP in English but I’ll put quotes in French at the end of my billet for readers who can read French.

Besides the fishing, McGuane tells us about the time he bought a motorbike, his special boat, a Meadow Lark. He writes about his childhood and his youth and how he made pocket money by fetching, refurbishing and reselling golf balls near his hometown golf course. McGuane was also a rodeo champion, so a few stories are about rodeo, horses and people living off the rodeo business. He’s also a hunter and the story about antelope hunting was a bit hard to swallow.

Thomas McGuane describes nature with the words of a true nature lover. (1)  He makes you want to rush to Montana and see the Absaroka mountains, the Big Hole River and the landscapes. He drops hits of his personal life here and there. He got divorced, he son grows up, his parents die. He seems to find solace in physical activities and the slower pace of nature. Wilderness refuels him and he gives back a bit of this energy in his essays. He’s reflective and calm but never romanticizes nature. It is not always a place fit for humans. It’s often hard, unrelenting and dangerous, a place where a small mistake can be fatal.

I find his kind of writers fascinating. Have a look at his bio on Wikipedia. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Cutting Horse Association Members Hall of Fame and the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. Only an American writer can these three things at the same time. It seems to me that French writers are always teachers, journalists or scriptwriters. They have little experience besides their Parisian world. I know no French writer who has been a policeman, a university teacher, a carpenter, a cowboy and a professional fisherman like Craig Johnson. Or they don’t say it because it’s not consistent with the image of what a writer should be. France is also not a country where your career path can easily take U-turns and still be on a good path, it’s getting better, though.

Writers like Thomas McGuane have studied literature in excellent universities and worked blue-collar jobs. They bring their academic knowledge into their outdoors activities. McGuane can see a parallel between fly-fishing and Camus. (2) He has a way to make more of his hikes in the Montana wilderness. He has words to describe them, to share his experience with us and take us there for a while. He’s far from the intellectual writer and his essays brings to us a world we’d never hear of.

Sometimes I thought he must be hard man to live with, since he has a propensity to take risks. Fishing when the sea is rough. Looking for a boat he can’t really afford. Buying a ranch in the middle of nowhere. Hiking in the heart of the Montana winter. Purchasing a motorbike he doesn’t know how to ride. Competing in rodeos, in contests involving bulls. What a rollercoaster it must be to have such a spouse! As far as I’m concerned, rollercoasters make me queasy.

While I skipped some pages because I couldn’t take anymore fly-fishing stories, I enjoyed McGuane soothing prose. I now want to read his fiction and have Keep the Change on the shelf.


 

(1) « Je laisse la Land Rover près d’un bosquet d’épineux. La campagne ouverte s’étend selon un entrelacs de pentes qui descendent des collines basses précédent les Crazy Mountains. Du plateau où je me trouve, j’aperçois au sud la chaîne des monts Absaroka déjà enneigés. Le temps est un peu à l’orage, des panaches de neige tourbillonnent dans les cols les plus élevés. Mais ici, en bas, le soleil joue autour de nous. »

(2) « Face à un cours d’eau inédit, je me demande toujours si je vais pêcher avec une nymphe ou pas. En tout cas, on n’attaque pas la truite de front sans réfléchir. Camus a dit que la seule question digne de réflexion est celle du suicide. Ce qui me fait penser au problème de la nymphe. »

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