The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology by Mark Boyle

This memoir about living off the grid and tech-free in County Galway will inspire, connect and slow down the most impatient of readers, and that is a very good thing.

Mark Boyle was The Moneyless Man in his memoir of that title, about the first of three years he spent living without money. The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology covers another first year: Boyle has now made the shift to a life without modern technology in County Galway, Ireland. What is modern technology? Obviously, definitions are complicated, but for Boyle his new way of living means hauling his own water; fishing, foraging and gardening for his food; making his own beer and wine; and traveling by bicycle, by hitchhiking and on foot. (He beats himself up about monofilament fishing line but, within the book’s timeline, has not yet found an alternative.)

Organized as the diary of a year in its four seasons, The Way Home is a thoughtful study, often wise but always questioning and seeking. With frequent references to Edward Abbey, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Robert Macfarlane, Wendell Berry, Henry David Thoreau and others, Boyle places himself in a grand tradition of intellectual naturalists and thinkers. He also makes repeated forays (both literally and in imagination and research) to Great Blasket Island, an unusually literary place where a technology-free lifestyle only recently ended. He aims to query every decision, investigate its outcomes: while writing this book using a pencil, he stops to consider the making of that tool–its wood and graphite and paint, the extraction of these materials and the transportation of the workers who made it. Boyle, stymied by the ecological impact of such a simple technology as a pencil, is a former vegan who now eats fish and venison. He is a man willing to rethink his outlook.

Boyle has a sense of humor as well as a deep sensitivity to the needs of people as well as the planet and its ecosystems. “Rome,” he reflects, “wasn’t demolished in a day,” as he gardens with the (plastic) tools available and plans for the future. His writing style is pensive and unhurried. His lifestyle is in many ways “slow,” as in slow food and slow transportation, and he observes that writing by hand after a longtime addiction to computers has slowed his thought processes, for the better. “Just as carpenters always recommend measuring twice and cutting once, I’ve begun thinking twice and writing once.”

The result is a deeply appealing examination of nearly all aspects of modern human life, by a thorough, careful, concerned narrator. Readers already considering various forms of disconnection from modern technologies–in favor of a reconnection with local plants, animals, soil and people–will be goaded and inspired. Those less attracted to composting their own feces will nonetheless be entranced by Boyle’s unusual lifestyle, and perhaps moved a little closer to the earth.


This review originally ran in the March 5, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scythe blades.

Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird by Katie Fallon

Disclosure: Katie Fallon was my first semester advisor at WVWC, and is a friend.


I have been looking forward to reading Vulture for years! I read Katie’s Cerulean Blues first, because Vulture was still awaiting publication; but if I’m honest, the bigger bird is the one I’m more naturally drawn to, and I know the turkey vulture was Ed Abbey’s favorite bird and all. I was really looking forward to this one.

And it had all the pleasant notes offered by familiarity, because by now I’ve heard Katie read from it a few times, so certain passages felt like old friends; and the personal content was familiar as well, because I know Katie personally (the names of her three daughters, for example, although only the first two come along within the timeline of this book). Reading this therefore felt a little like coming home, and you know how I like to feel at home in a book.

This is a book about vultures: the world over, but in particular the turkey vulture, which is Katie’s own favorite. It is also a personal memoir, about the author’s own life and coming-to-terms. As she considers the vulture’s place in mythology and historical relationships – often including associations with women and with motherhood – and observes vulture mothers caring for their young, she experiences her own much-desired first pregnancy. The places she goes in her own life, both geographically and emotionally, mirror the places she takes her reader in relationship to her subject. Along with her husband Jesse (a veterinarian specializing in birds), she travels to real-world locations in search of vultures: Hinckley, Ohio, for their “Return of the Buzzards” celebration; Pennsylvania’s Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary; the Grand Canyon; India’s Hill of the Sacred Eagles; Gettysburg; and more. She also visits with an impressive array of vulture experts worldwide. This may be a beginner’s or introductory version of the vulture’s story, but it is also an authoritative and detailed one.

The book hits what I feel is a perfect balance between personal content (Katie’s life, family, and personal reasons for vulture adoration) and scientific. I remember Katie telling the story of (gulp) reading online reviews, the user-generated kind on Amazon and Goodreads and whatnot, and being bemused to see that everyone with negative feedback either found it had too much science or too much personal: in other words, they wanted an absolute, a commitment to one side or the other of that spectrum. This was funny to me because I thought her balancing of these two elements was perhaps the book’s most graceful accomplishment. Can’t please them all, can we.

For a final element, she adds a touch of speculation about the vulture’s inner life. Each chapter opens with a brief, italicized (and illustrated) paragraph featuring an imagined vulture at the center of the book. I found these so lovely, and a beautiful contribution. (Somewhere out there another reviewer is complaining that they ruined everything, I’m sure.) Katie occasionally anthropomorphizes within her chapters, too, but always with self-awareness and some hesitation: here is what she might be feeling, Katie might muse, even while acknowledging that birds are not people and this speculation is perhaps silly – but also natural, I think. Don’t we all anthropomorphize the animals we love best?

I’d like to close this review with a snippet of the final italicized from-a-vulture’s-eyes section.

She knew the seasons in her bones. She felt the length of days, the sun’s movements, the changes in the winds. Knew the smells of mud, gasoline, fish, rot. Knew palms, aspens, oceans, deserts. All were reborn in her, all connected. She held the whole world in her eyes.

Recommended.


Rating: 7 backpacks.

Little personal crossover: I’ve been keeping notes on a few birds over at my van-travel blog.

guest review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders, from Pops

I originally reviewed Scott Russell Sanders’s Earth Works in two parts. I also sent a copy to my Pops, because I felt he needed it. I’m glad to have heard back from him now.

Thanks for the book! A few weeks ago I finally dabbled my way through the whole thing. At first I expected to read only those essays that were new to me; but I found the continuous approach irresistible.

As did I, on both counts, actually. A well-organized collection, then!

I blame summer rather than Sanders for taking this long, but Sanders deserves some credit for all the time I took in contemplation and consideration. This collection is indeed challenging in its range and subject matter, but mostly for Sanders’ unguarded candor and intimacy. He is quite simply baring his soul; whether we choose to appreciate what he has to say is up to us. In other words, I had to remember ‘how’ to read him, accepting the variety of both subject matter, and the responses he may arouse for the reader. The wide range of those things is central to the attraction, I think. He is boldly and humbly naked in his writing.

Which is why I wanted to respond to your ‘part one’ blog comments here, because I got as far as “The Men we Carry…” and wish to rise, not to defend him, but explain my reading of it.

Actually, there is no defending, and you did an excellent job of explicating that. And we still don’t know if he has reconsidered his words here. But as I read the essay, his Preface words were fresh in my mind; you quoted those briefly, but here a bit more complete, with my emphasis: “I have refrained from making significant revisions, allowing the essays to remain, for better or worse, essentially as they were when they appeared in print.”

As I suggested earlier, this candor, with all its risk and embarrassment so well exposed, is part of the masala, the potpourri – and the challenge – of reading Sanders essays. In some others earlier, he has already disappointed, frustrated and angered me; I am now unsurprised. I have resolved to consider time and place and context, accept it as material helping me understand this complicated and flawed person (as are we all), whose thoughts I am now invested in.

It’s the difference, if you will, between reading to examine what’s inside an author’s head, versus critique or enjoyment of content only. Increasingly, as my reading has become more intentional, it seems to lean towards the former, while I still enjoy the latter.

Mostly, I appreciate how such dissonance inspires me to better understand my own thoughts and values – for better or worse. Your own thoughtful response to his mansplaining is perhaps an example, with your values now in print with such clarity.

Pleasantly, with Sanders his best are still very rewarding.

FYI: By the numbers:
There are 30 essays here, covering 3 decades;
21 were published in other collections, the others only in periodicals;
I marked 12 favorites out of the lot, including 7 that I had already read elsewhere (including 3 of the 4 from Staying Put.)
But I read every single one, for a complete journey. Favorites tended to be most personal about family and father; nature and its human impacts; existential questioning. Interestingly, the ‘others’ tended to be similar ground but pursued in excess, taking me a bit over the edge, and often simply too personal and intimate – or dissonant.

I love a good numbers round-up, so thanks for that last section!

Glad that my comments made sense to you (I’m not the least bit surprised). From a distance now of nine or ten months, I remember this collection as a whole and as a reading experience, rather than in its particulars, and that overall impression is positive: I would say I like Sanders very much. But I do remember the essay that upset me, too.

The point you make in quoting the Preface is well taken, and I’m glad he made that statement. But I guess the distress and anger I felt in reading that essay was strong enough that I think it should have warranted a response from him – maybe let the essay stand as originally published but write an addendum, letting us know how wrong he got it and how much he’s grown and learned. If Sanders were reading this, that would be my request of him: republish; but now respond to your own writing, too. Well, I won’t hold my breath, but as you said, I’m glad I have gotten my own response out there, however small my platform.

I think there is an ongoing question of how to handle writings that seem wise in many ways but require of us that we make allowances for attitudes like racism, sexism, colonialism, classism, etc. and on and on. To what extent do we accept that something is “dated” and still find a way to enjoy it or to find value? I keep reminding myself that in every era somebody has been enlightened enough to see past the values of the time. It’s something I’m still doing battle with, myself. (Stay tuned, one of these days, for my troubles with Wendell Berry.)

Thanks for yet another thoughtful guest review, Pops.

A Song for the River by Philip Connors

Today a simple repost of my review from back in June. Philip Connors’s A Song for the River was released yesterday, and you should get yourself a copy.

Connors writes,

On one quiet stretch of water I looked up at the tiered mesas above us and felt it might be true that my life was both a fire and a river, depending on the moment and the vantage from which it was viewed–and never more like a river than in moments like this.

My review, again, is here. Thank you.

A Song for the River by Philip Connors

Philip Connors’s first book, Fire Season, changed my life and the way I thought a book could work. I’m still reeling. I need to find time to reread it someday.

His second, All the Wrong Places, worked on me differently but still impressed.

Along the way I got to meet the author and consider him a friend, although not one I’ve kept in touch with closely in the last few years. His new publisher’s email about a third book actually caught me by surprise–very, very happy surprise. I was of course thrilled to get an advanced reader’s copy, in exchange for my honest review (although I can’t at this point claim I’m unbiased about Phil’s work).

A Song for the River is a sort of sequel to Fire Season. In one sense, it’s a third memoir, and therefore refers to the events of the first two books, because all three track the life of an individual. But they do more work than that, too.

Fire Season was about the narrator’s work as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest. It’s a personal story, a memoir, yes; but it’s also about the history of fire management in the United States, the flora and fauna of one mountain in one forest, about solitude and philosophy and the ways we deal with grief, and so much more. It’s nature writing, political writing, personal writing. All the Wrong Places concentrates more, on a particular loss: a brother’s suicide, and the narrator’s search for answers, and his self-destructive behaviors along the way. A Song for the River returns to Connors’s mountain and forest, and to some of the larger themes and breadth of Fire Season.

Since the timeline of that first book, the narrator has been through a divorce; suffered severe medical issues; lost several people he loved deeply; and seen epic wildfires tear through the wilderness he’s come to feel a part of. Amid loss and pain, he writes, “I found I wanted nothing so much as to be near moving water.” In ways that feel familiar to fans of Fire Season, Connors tracks a number of themes and challenges–pain, grief, personal inquiries–through the physical space of the Gila, with detailed attention to its trees, mosses, grasses, flowers, insects, birds, fish, and mammals. Where in his first book he devoted space to fire management policies and their effect on the natural world, here he adds a new concern: attempts to dam the Gila River, the last wild river in New Mexico and one of a small and shrinking number nationally. Among the people he mourns in this book are a dear friend and fellow fire lookout, “a forest guardian while he lived,” and a young woman he calls an inspiration, “a river guardian while she lived.” He undertakes to help protect the wild river in their honor, and to be closer to them, “gone before me in ash down the river.”

As he visits and revisits a river and travels through this wide range of topics, Connors profiles a number of people: the two in particular that he mourns, as well as other fire lookouts and sundry characters. He studies griefs, and physical pains and ailments, and questions what does and does not belong in nature writing (not, he feels sure, a discussion of his prostate troubles, and yet here they are). He explores themes of empathy and humility, ponders Catholicism, and investigates the nature of friendship and the unavoidable blank and blurred spaces in any attempt to write about a life.

There are refrains.

I reviewed my life and it was also a river, Herman Hesse wrote, in the voice of Siddhartha, a line that stayed with me through the years. Whenever I recalled it, I felt an impulse to revise it for my own purposes and replace the word river with the word fire: I reviewed my life and it was also a fire.

More than a hundred pages later,

On one quiet stretch of water I looked up at the tiered mesas above us and felt it might be true that my life was both a fire and a river, depending on the moment and the vantage from which it was viewed–and never more like a river than in moments like this.

To me, this pair of lines brings together so much of all three of Connors’s books: fire, river, duality and commonality, the connectedness of all things, human and nonhuman, from the obvious and literal fire in book one to river in book three and through the figurative fires of book two, ending in a synthesis: fire and river being one in the way that watershed and ash are part of a unified cycle. Late in the book, Connors references Puebloan beliefs: water moving from sky to earth to soil to plant to animal to death to sky again as a cycle. “The ebb and flow of drought and flood are like the pulse in a human body,” water as blood and nutrients moving through arterial systems in body and on earth. As a writer and a student of writing, the way this book closes these circles is deeply admirable to me. This kind of work can be done too neatly, but Phil allows the world to stay complicated.

I remember feeling this way when I tried to review Fire Season: I am not up to this task, putting into words why these words are so powerful. A Song for the River is deeply sad but deeply beautiful, full of love and truth. I expect it’s something like what Phil felt, trying to properly eulogize, honor, and remember his friends, and feeling less than able to do the job they deserved. This book is essential. I hope you love it, too.


Rating: 10 firm and well-placed fingers.

guest review: The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, from Pops

Pops has been making his way through my backlist. See, while we’re at it, his comments on Dream Team. Here, he’s sent a full discussion of The Solace of Open Spaces, which I reviewed here (see his comments there, too). Thanks as always for weighing in, Pops!

Thanks for yet another good recommendation, although belatedly honored.

Ehrlich’s work is as special as you describe, although you commended it with one more cowboy than I might have, likely accounted for by personal taste and happenstance, that nebulous coincidence of reading the right book at the right time (or not).

Two other, little things I noticed. One is her occasional unabashed use of urban references in metaphors or similes describing wild and natural (albeit inhabited) places. This is not so typical in literary works about the wild, but it works well here supporting her personal story as a ‘straddler,’ as she once refers to herself, shifting between places.

The other is a brief mention in her chapter “To Live in Two Worlds,” a title with meaning for her book’s personal backstory, but also for the chapter’s subject describing the parallel Wyoming culture of native Indian tribes. She attends two tribal events; one is the annual Crow Fair, where an Indian friend remarks on tribal mythology about a ‘berdache’ (p.123), a French word which she parenthetically defines as transvestite.

I have read that the American Indian or First Nation usage of a French word derives from French voyageurs, the French trappers in early North American history who were the first European contacts with many native tribes, who then adopted many French terms in their learning of English. The voyageurs encountered the cultural fact of native gender ambiguity, and recognizing a common social reference, contributed their word to an emerging hybrid language of native, English and French words.

From multiple references I have read, Wiktionary seems to get it right: berdache is “a person who identifies with any of a variety of gender identities which are not exclusively those of their biological sex.” An added comment there goes beyond what I have seen elsewhere: “Considered offensive by many Native American communities because of its pejorative and non-American etymology, berdache began to fall out of use in the 1990s; two-spirit and various tribe-specific terms are now used instead.” The latter is wonderfully explicated here by a gay blogger in Montana.

Nevertheless, I find the history fascinating, including that last reference with very helpful context: the contemporaneous accounts, from both Indians and early explorers, suggest both surprising awareness and a more tolerant acceptance of a cultural and social issue that US culture still wrestles with today.

In reading northwest history I have seen berdache, as a word and cultural phenomenon, repeated in things I’ve read lately. Notable are two excellent works of creative non-fiction history, Jack Nisbet’s Sources of the River and Peter Stark’s Astoria. The narrative lines of the two books briefly but importantly overlap, and a berdache is, remarkably, at the center of that historical confluence.

Nisbet’s work references contemporaneous journals of Scot-Canadian David Thompson, who led (and amazingly, accurately mapped) the first European expedition from Columbia River headwaters in Canada to its mouth near Portland, Oregon, in 1811 immediately after Lewis & Clark journeyed overland to the mouth. In his journeys through true wilderness, meeting some tribal parties who have never seen a white person, Thomson first hears tales of a berdache, then meets the person named Qánqon – twice! First is early in the trip, near the headwaters; second is later, at the mouth.

Astoria describes a complicated American expedition of the same period (they and Thompson were vaguely mutually aware), which involved two groups, overland and by sea, converging on the mouth of the river. All three parties converge in the summer of 1811 at the Astorian camp near present-day Portland – and, defying odds, the mysterious Qánqon also arrives, with a companion, to make it four. This motley combination clashes to provide a bit of historical human drama and political intrigue. And it all makes for wonderful reading.

So that’s what I know about berdache. And thanks to Ehrlich for providing yet another reference to an interesting historical thread.

What a turn this review took! I did not remember the term berdache at all, so there you have it. (Also, that was five years and how many hundreds of books ago? Probably nearing a thousand?) Also, although we all know I do not have time for more titles added to my list, I love a review that comes with additional reading recommendations. Thanks as always for weighing in, Pops!

part two of two-part review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders

Following up on part one.


Thanks for bearing with my lengthy review. I’m picking back up with a brief (!) list of a few of my favorite essays, in order of appearance in this collection.

  • “Doing Time in the Thirteenth Chair,” about being an alternate juror in a small-time drug-dealing case starring a confidential informer
  • “The Inheritance of Tools,” previously mentioned, about his late father’s legacy in the form of tools, literal and figurative
  • “Staying Put,” about attaching oneself to place, weathering the storm
  • “Letter to a Reader,” a life history, as man and as writer
  • “Buckeye,” my longtime favorite of his, more father’s legacy in objects
  • “The Common Life,” about what is basic and good in life, like making bread with loved ones
  • “Mountain Music,” about a fight with his teenage son that opens his eyes to a mistake he’s made (and inspires an essay collection)
  • “Silence,” an interesting one to appeal to me because it references faith and religion, topics that usually make me twitchy; about the Quakers’ silent worship
  • “A Private History of Awe,” about the things he finds moving in the world
  • “Buffalo Eddy,” a visit to a sacred place that inspires related musings, in a structure I appreciate: linking of concepts reminiscent of Eula Biss
  • “Mind in the Forest,” similar contemplation based in place.

There were other essays that gave me trouble, too. “The Uses of Muscle” makes some efforts (“I have a much greater appreciation now for the bodily strength of women”) but ultimately returns repeatedly to ideas of men using their muscles, or not, and the societal concerns with each possibility: “Fortunately for the peace of society, many boys play sports…” “How might boys and young men–or, for that matter, men of any age–use their muscles for something besides recreation or mischief?” You know this made me grumble. “Honoring the Ordinary” responded to certain critiques of the memoir genre in a manner I found a little broad and simplistic, but I should forgive this because Sanders’s audience for such writing was presumably a mainstream less tuned in than I am to this topic. But then the notes say that it was composed for a conference on the art of the memoir, so, hm. (On the other hand, both the early “The Singular First Person” and the later “Letter to a Reader” do a better job with this subject, in my opinion.)

If I nitpick, it is only because this essay collection engaged me so. The overall impression is excellent; if there are essays here I need to interrogate, it’s only because the whole is so impressive that I hold Sanders to a high standard. From another writer, “The Men We Carry In Our Minds” would have turned me away entirely, and I wouldn’t have finished the book.

Do I still have your attention? May I share a few favorite lines, for final good measure?

From “The Inheritance of Tools”:

I look at my claw hammer, the distillation of a hundred generations of carpenters, and consider that it holds up well beside those other classics–Greek vases, Gregorian chants, Don Quixote, barbed fish hooks, candles, spoons.

I ardently love a list, and Sanders is good at them. He chooses his items for alliteration, juxtaposition, sounds, and themes, with both poetry and meaning-making in few syllables. This concept of classics is one of the finest lists in this collection.

From “Staying Put”:

How can you value other places if you do not have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge.

From “Wayland”:

There is more to be seen at any crossroads than one can see in a lifetime of looking.

This for me recalls Annie Dillard, or Terry Tempest Williams, down on hands and knees, really looking into the grass where a casual looker would say there was nothing.

My encounters in Wayland shaped me first as I lived through them, then again as I recalled them during my visit, and now as I write them down.

In “Honoring the Ordinary,” I was struck by a concept which matches one from Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. Referencing his own earlier book, A Private History of Awe, Sanders writes,

I wished to honor ordinary experience, not by making it seem exotic, but by peeling away the rind of familiarity that keeps us from seeing the true power and beauty and wonder and terror of it.

Doty writes:

These [still life] paintings reside in domestic, physical, fleshly space… it is so startling… that everything in this up-close, bodily space is delineated with such clarity. We’re accustomed to not seeing what is so near to us; we do not need to look at things that are at hand, because they are at hand every day. That is what makes home so safe and so appealing, that we do not need to look at it. Novelty recedes, in the face of the daily, and we’re free to relax, to drift, to focus inward. But in still life the familiar is limned with an almost hallucinatory clarity, nothing glanced over or elided, nothing subordinate to the impression of the whole.

(Bold emphasis is mine, italics are his.) When I come across the corresponding line in Sanders, then, I’m struck not only by the sentiment, such a neat parallel to Doty’s, but also by the turn of phrase, the rind of familiarity, so evocative of Doty’s beloved lemons and their luxuriant, sensual peels.

From “Buffalo Eddy”:

We cannot know what moved those vanished artists to carve their language into stone, but I imagine it is akin to the impulse that will move Bill to write a poem about our visit to Buffalo Eddy and will prompt me to write this essay. Such writing is like breathing, an exhaling that follows inhaling, as natural as that.

That is as lovely and natural an ending as any for my thoughts here. Forgive my quibbles. Sanders is on the whole an essayist to admire and emulate. I appreciate his subject matter and the frank, humble, wondering nature of his prose: a man after E.B. White, even, with perhaps more gravity and less humorous witticism. I’m a fan.


Rating: 7 crows.
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