One recent evening my husband dropped a book next to me on the couch and said, “here’s something for you to read.” One way he shows his love is by bringing me things to read. He, himself, tends to read big, weighty biographies of outsize men—Churchill, Lyndon Johnson, Teddy Roosevelt—as well as other history and analysis that seeks to explain our politics and wars and how we got in the mess we’re in.
The book was A Place in the Woods, which he’d seen posted about at UpNorthica, a site devoted to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. He and I share a love of northern Minnesota’s rocks and trees and water. We also share that common urban fantasy of somehow going to live in a place where you don’t have to drive to get to the woods, where the living earth is not constrained by the urban grid, and taking a walk doesn’t involve crossing streets.
A Place in the Woods
A Place in the Woods tells this story for real. In 1954, Helen and Ade Hoover left Chicago for Minnesota’s North Woods where they bought a primitive lakeside cabin for vacation use, but where, seduced by beauty, they decided to live full time, almost on impulse. In 1968, Helen published this memoir, with Ade’s illustrations, that recounts their first year there, organized, like so many nature books, around the seasons and the changes in landscape and the wildlife they loved. Hoover’s account (reissued in 1999 by University of Minnesota Press) speaks of beauty and hardship, displaying something of the immigrants’ courage in going to a foreign country, living a new life, starting out poor, learning new skills, figuring out how to support themselves.
And they need all the courage and persistence they possess to cope, not only with the expected hardships of weather and isolation, but also with near disasters, some partly incurred by their own lack of knowledge, some not. Storms, floods, a car wreck, injuries, malfunctioning stoves, hunger—these are dealt with matter-of-factly. Sometimes they avoid potential catastrophe due to luck, sometimes due to the helpfulness of more experienced members of the small human community. The narrative is restrained, with no extra elaboration on enormities and a lack of histrionics that reminds one a little of explorers’ logs, such as those by Louis and Clark.
Living in the north requires a degree of self-reliance that both frightens and exhilarates. While working to gain a foothold in such a challenging landscape, the Hoovers find time to appreciate the landscape and wildlife that surround them. They put out food for the animals, learn more about their wild neighbors and develop relationships with some of them. Mrs. Mouse the deer mouse, Walter the ermine, the two fishers (those mysterious predators of the deep woods), and others are described with sympathy, but not anthropomorphized or sentimentalized. Hoover’s interaction with the animals gives the narrative the feeling of a folktale, in which the animal characters are as clearly realized as the humans.
The writing is outward looking, not self-consciously literary, yet movingly describes the beauties and dangers of living in a place where winter is the dominant fact of life, and summer a brief interlude. One winter night, feeling cold, Hoover goes toward the kitchen and stops short in the doorway. She continues,
The outside door was wide open. In the kitchen a fisher, nearly four feet long, rose on his haunches, then stood straight up on his hind legs. He was almost pure black, with the smallest of white throat patches and very little frosting. As he arched his sinuous body to one side, his eyes, catching the beam of light from the reflector behind my lamp, exploded into green stars. He thrust his head forward and hissed—and, involuntarily, I hissed back.
The Inland Island
While rummaging around the web looking for information about Hoover, I came across another nature writer and book I’d never heard of. Josephine W. Johnson and her husband Grant Cannon moved to 37 acres outside of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1956 and, as she puts it, “let the ecology take over.” What had been a farm became a natural area, and in 1969 she published The Inland Island, not a memoir of years past, but a current account divided by the months of the year, with essays that read a little like journal entries full of observations of weather, plants and wildlife, and musings on age, war and the environment.
Johnson was well known. She had won a Pulitzer for her first novel and several O. Henry awards for her short stories, and had taught at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. This book was reviewed admiringly by Edward Abbey in The New York Times and was reissued in 1996 by Story Press with illustrations by her daughter Annie Cannon.
The Inland Island also tells the story of living with nature, but demonstrates a different kind of courage. Johnson’s life on her farm-turned-nature reserve includes central heat and enough money. Yet her courage shows: she and her husband let the property go wild (“run-down” or “neglected”) in a heavily farmed region, and she needs persistence for the kind of writing she does and to hold to her convictions, those of a Quaker pacifist during the Viet Nam war, with a conscientious objector son.
Each section’s organization mirrors the way one might think as one take a walk, and so, like our thoughts, has a non-linear progression, veering from observation, to poetic description, to science, to rumination. Johnson doesn’t make friends with the animals. They are observed and described, along with plants, rocks, insects, and the two creeks that flow through the property, as parts of a living whole, an ecosystem—sometimes seen artistically, sometimes scientifically, but always as “other.”
Johnson’s writing is dense, chancy, and deals with nature in complex emotional and descriptive terms. She doesn’t prettify, accepting the pain and death she sees as well as the beauty; not afraid to express revulsion (for the tent caterpillars, those “loathsome, hairy, spined, nasty brown things” defoliating the trees) as well as love for what she encounters. In late summer she writes,
The high mark of this month came late in August. At two in the afternoon of a hot, green day. Where the two creeks join, pure and polluted becoming one, I saw a black shape run across the stones. A shape like a drowned black cat. A mink. I sat down on a stone and waited. My eyes like big, burning headlights fixed on the spot where it had been. Two minutes passed, and then another little dark shape came from the wet weeds. Dove into the water, rose and climbed onto a rock. A small brown mink, shaking off the water. Every hair with silver water seemed visible to me. And then it was gone. Under the yellow jewelweed the grass was flattened.
In Accordance with Wendell Berry
Neither writer is very charitable towards modern civilization, or its effects. You don’t go live among the animals if you approve of human development’s impact on the land. Both, children of the early twentieth century, had semi-rural childhoods during what I think of as the “time before”— before development and industrial farming overwhelmed so much of the countryside. Both were in their forties, old enough to know what they were doing, when they moved back to the land; both lived somewhat aslant to the surrounding cultural byways.
Those of us who garden could learn from the ones, like Hoover and Johnson, who consciously choose not to garden, but to accept nature’s patterns as a given. If you lived like that for a while, and then were to design a garden, it might be very different from the one you would have designed before, with a different fulcrum of balance and sense of proportion, a different feeling for our place in the world and what it is permissible or desirable to do.
We still, in this still-new century, haven’t figured out how to live with the restraint, as Wendell Berry has put it, that living in harmony with the patterns of our ecosystem requires. Every generation seems to have to discover this elusive lesson all over again, as though there’s no chthonic American memory or deep cultural tradition of valuing wild nature and living mindfully within the ecosystem. One keeps hoping the necessary realizations, insights, and habits of thought and action will stick, will form enough critical mass to help us avoid catastrophe.
Some days, thinking about this, I feel as though I'm carrying heavy stones in my pockets. Other days I remember with gratitude that so many of us seem to be getting the idea. In many ways, since the sixties, we’ve done better for wildlife than Hoover or Johnson could expect. Hoover is thrilled to observe the deer up north—they sure didn’t live around Chicago; Johnson longs to see a deer, just one, lurking around her property. I, myself, can see them any day I choose to take a walk in the local forest preserve—and in fact there might be a few too many there for that biotic community’s complete health.
Hoover’s book describes a landscape I love to visit, steep, rocky, full of pine trees, lakes, animals, and the force of nature as expressed in extreme weather. Johnson describes a Midwestern landscape I know and understand. Birds, insects, trees, grasses and forbs—all remind me of my own home in Illinois. Either book is inspiring to read on a long winter night while waiting for earth’s orbit to come round again, while waiting for the season to turn.
Note: Written during the great blizzard of February 1-2, 2011: third worst in Chicago records.
Hummingbird Facts and Nature Rants
An Excellent, Timeless Book