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.

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

For other Sanders work, see Pops’s review of Staying Put and my review of Writing From the Center.


At this point in my semester, I’m beginning to work on a first draft of the third semester project in my MFA program: a critical essay, or longform investigation of the strategies of writers I admire that might inform my own work. (For more about the critical essay, you can take a look at pages 42-44 of the student handbook here, and follow this tag.) My essay topic is the use of stuff, things, or material objects (new tag!) as a way in to a subject or a character. With this topic in mind, I approached this most recent (2012) collection of Scott Russell Sanders’s work especially interested in a few essays in particular. I’d intended to only sample from the rest; but I couldn’t put it down.


Earth Works is a must-have collection for the Sanders fan. He carefully selected the 30 essays here, including nine that have never before been collected. I’ve read some of these before, but remained mesmerized by both content and style regardless of my familiarity. Sort of like with that Beard essay I so revere, “Buckeye” remains a feat to appreciate on every reading, even six or eight readings in.

A brief preface places these essays in some context in Sanders’s life and aims, and then they unfurl, in mostly chronological order by date of composition (some exceptions for the sake of juxtaposing topics), and with few revisions to their original published form (“for better or worse”). I really appreciate that the first essay, composed in 1987, is “The Singular First Person”: it lays out Sanders’s perspective about the personal essay, its form and purposes. It’s a smart way to start, because it offers some idea of what he thinks he’s up to, and therefore some promise of what is to come. A humble man speculates on what he finds in the world, in the hopes of asking big questions: “Who am I? What sense can I make of this inner tumult? How should I live? Does the universe have a purpose? Do we? What finally and deeply matters? What is true, and how can we know?” (From a later essay, “Letter to a Reader.”) Sanders is concerned with nature and the natural world, but resists the term “nature writer” (as did Edward Abbey), because he is most concerned with interconnectedness: human beings with one another, with the natural world of which we are mere part. He wonders about spirituality, about our place in the cosmos, about the sadness of consumerism and war, the destruction of the Earth; but he has a great love for the world, too, and allows that to shine through.

This reading, my deepest exploration of his work, confirms for me that Sanders is one of my favorite essayists. He marries content that is meaningful and sympathetic to me with style that is both lovely to read, and nearly invisible. As I’ve said before, the best writing often doesn’t even feel crafted, but that’s when you know it was hardest to craft. These essays are good examples of that idea.

I came for three essays in particular, as I said. “The Inheritance of Tools” uses stuff or things to get at a character: Sanders recalls his father through the tools that father passed on to him, along with the knowledge of how to use them; this essay is a way of processing his grief on his father’s death. “Under the Influence” is about the same father, but in this essay, the father is an alcoholic, who causes his family great pain. The two fit interestingly together because they’re about the same man from two very different perspectives. Finally, “Buckeye” continues the grieving for the beloved father, through a series of objects, beginning with the title buckeyes but traveling through other material things. Because all three attempt to profile a parent, and deal with the relationship between writer and parent, and because two of them do so through objects, they offer a number of things to me. For the purpose of the critical essay, I’ve also got my hands on a talk Sanders gave in 1990 at the University of Iowa, about the crafting of “The Inheritance of Tools” and “Under the Influence.”

As I said, these were not the only standout essays for me, and I kept reading for the pleasure of it beyond the three essays I’d intended to study. It wasn’t all good times, either, though. An early (1984) essay, “The Men We Carry In Our Minds,” made me angry. Sanders means well, and he is good to the women in his life (wife and daughter) in many ways. He considers himself a feminist. This essay means well, too, but it makes some major blunders, when he concludes that his own upbringing in relatively impoverished, working-class conditions make the challenges he’s faced the same as those faced by women. I am taken back to an excellent article I read years ago, titled “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.” The idea here is that you can be really poor and still enjoy privilege as a white person, because at least your race isn’t contributing to the limitations or constraints you face. The same principle could be applied to Sanders’s arguments. You might have been poor, you might have been limited, but you didn’t face the glass ceiling, the sexual harassment, the wage gap, the rape culture, or the insidious, invisible assumptions of incompetence that women did and do face. Concluding that you thoroughly understand the predicament of women when you don’t is arguably more problematic than not attempting to understand in the first place; congratulating oneself and turning away is troubling, because it makes you something of a false ally. His blindness to this problem gave me a lot of trouble. The HuffPost article was published in 2014, and Sanders’s essay, again, in 1984. But since he’s reprinted it in 2012 without feeling a need for further comment, I think he still needs to go read the HuffPost piece.

I won’t forget the blind spots exposed in this essay. But it’s to the great credit of the rest of this book that I still love it. Because there is indeed much to love here, not least the previously uncollected work near the end–I really enjoyed seeing Sanders articulate his appreciation for Emerson, Thoreau, and Wendell Berry, among others. I had already sent a copy of this book to my father before I got to these essays, but they made me glad again that I’d sent it to him.

Come back to me next Wednesday and I’ll do more raving, and slightly more quibbling, with this long and rich book.

Pieces of White Shell by Terry Tempest Williams

This is one of a few rereads and re-reviews, as I work my way into this semester’s project: my critical essay about the use of material things in Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemons, Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell, and a handful of Scott Russell Sanders’s essays. Original review here.


The importance of this book to me can hardly be overstated, as I’ve read it many times since my childhood. It offers many possible annotation subjects: the dreamy quality of the stories Williams tells; the line between fact and fiction; the liberal use of other writers’ words to compile her own impressions; the interplay between Mormon and Navajo traditions; her study of storytelling as communication and education across generations. But here I am most interested in her use of objects as an organizing principle.

Williams’s chapters are organized by the items she keeps in a leather pouch on her desk at the Utah Museum of Natural History, where she works as museum curator. The prologue opens: “Out of my pouch falls a sprig of sage.” This prologue is different from the rest of the book in that it is set in Williams’s family home and tradition, while the rest of the book stays with the Navajo and her work life. Sage backgrounds her home. Chapter one, “Curator,” presents the pouch. Its first two paragraphs read,

I am a collector. On my desk sits a small leather pouch, weatherbeaten, full of mementos of the desert. I have carried it with me everywhere in Navajoland. It is my link with the Diné, as they call themselves. I am shy. The people are shy. The objects inside give us courage to speak.

I shake the objects out of their pouch and spread them across my desk. What stories they tell: a sprig of sage; rocks, sand, and seeds; turquoise, obsidian, coral; pieces of white shell; yucca; a bouquet of feathers bound by yarn; coyote fur; a bone from Black Mountain; deerskin; wool; a potshard and some corn pollen. Wait–something is missing. I shake the pouch four more times and from the bottom of the bag rolls out the Storyteller, a clay figurine from Jemez.

This list of objects forms the rest of the chapter titles. The prologue is subtitled “A Sprig of Sage,” and the rest following chapter 1, “Curator,” proceed: “Rocks, Sand, and Seeds,” “Turquoise, Obsidian, and Coral,” etc. down the list. “Storyteller” is followed by “Home,” and then an epilogue, acknowledgements, notes, and bibliography. With just a few exceptions, the pouch’s contents neatly form the table of contents. As a writer who has always struggled with titles, this neatness appeals to me.

Within each chapter, the object or objects offer entry into stories, folklore, natural history, and personal musings. The connections between object and story are often tenuous: they make sense to Williams, and she is content to leave them sketched. My first impression is that she follows her mind where it wanders without much explicit mapping of those wanderings for her reader. Let me look closer at how each chapter title describes its contents.

The sprig of sage is the Utah landscape that Williams and her family and her Mormon culture belong to; it leads her to family stories. The rocks, sand, and seeds are the geography of Navajoland (the Colorado Plateau), and this chapter lets her tell the story of that land both through the science of geography and through Navajo mythology. Turquoise, obsidian, and coral are colors: of the desert, and of Navajo mythology again. Pieces of white shell are vestiges of the ocean that once covered Navajoland, and this leads her to an old world and old traditions, again accessed in part through myth. Yucca is soap, tradition, and the traditional ceremony surrounding a Navajo woman’s first menses.

A bouquet of feathers bound by yarn is classic Terry Tempest Williams: her obsession with birds, and their place in the myth and culture and ecology of the region. Here she tells stories of communing with a great horned owl, and of attending a powwow. Coyote fur is also obvious, allowing a way in to Coyote/Trickster stories. A bone from Black Mountain is a storytelling opportunity: Williams picks up a bone and dreams, imagines herself shrinking to Flea and listening in on the storytelling of the animals on the mountain. The chapter ends with a lesson about the nature of storytelling.

Deerskin begins the reentry of Williams’s own family, as her father’s and brothers’ hunting traditions meet the Navajo Deerhunting Way. Wool is a connection to the Navajos’ sheepherding tradition. A potshard and some corn pollen lets Williams imagine her way into the ancient world of the Anasazi, the Navajos’ precursors in the region. The Storyteller reminds her of two women in particular that she’s known; the reader recognizes that Williams is herself a storyteller, as well, with all the ritual and roles associated. The outlier final chapter, “Home,” re-grounds Williams back in the present, in her office at the Utah Museum of Natural History.

I can see now that these objects each lead Williams into history, myth, place, and culture, associatively. In fact, it’s a more consistent, standard strategy than it immediately appeared to me–almost a formula, but with a feeling more intuitive and natural than that implies.

Within chapters there is an organization to admire, too. Many chapters both start and end with an image, or with the object itself, circular. This keeps the reader grounded in the objects and the images and associations they call up. It is part of what makes my overall impression of this book as both simple and profound: the pattern brings the reader back around, always, so that she remembers the objects that brought us here. Williams deals in concepts that ask her reader to stop and think, but she grounds them in easily grasped things. The chapter titled “A Bouquet of Feathers Bound by Yarn” begins with the word “birds” and ends with “birds burst into song”; the title phrase occurs in both the next-to-first and next-to-last sentences.

As a writer intimidated by both titles and the conclusion and tying-up of essays, this structure appeals to me very much as a strategy to make my own work easier to organize. I appreciate that the effect on me as reader was not of a formula but of an artful form. I think there may be a shortcut here for me. In my critical essay, there are several aspects of Pieces of White Shell that I hope to mine for my own work: overall organization of a collection, the theming of individual chapters or essays, and things standing in for stories or concepts, as ways in.


Rating: 9 coyotes return.

guest review: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, from Pops

More from Pops:

In The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane speaks to us as he walks countryside in a dozen British and international locales. That is simply said, but the depth and richness of this literary journey easily fills 360 pages. This is not a guidebook, although we get a close look at a variety of places. In parts, it is an adventure in words, history, literature, nature, personal inquiry, human behavior, and sense of place. Macfarlane describes his thoughts and observations as he walks, and that is a treasure. Also in parts: this is a collection of chapters, which could also each stand alone as an essay; even so, chapters proceed in a rough chronology over an indeterminate time period; more broadly, he shares segments of his life’s journey of the mind, enriching literary impressions as he wanders.

Macfarlane’s book shares its title with a Gary Snyder essay collection of the 1970s published by Ferlinghetti’s historic bookstore, City Lights; but the title senses are different, while still related. Snyder’s book could as easily been titled Staying Put (more recently adopted by Scott Russell Sanders) as his “Old Ways” took the typical American word-sense and put deeper meaning to it, as in: “the good old days”; a way of life, which encompasses cultural thoughts & values closely embedded in a place, spiritually and organically vital to the people living there.

Macfarlane’s sense of “Old Ways” considers the old and often veiled path-ways of England & Scotland, which in meaning embraces much: the physical path, historic connection, the chosen route and the legal rights thereof. Way is the root of so many common words (e.g. freeway, doorway, causeway, wayward, wayfinding, right of way) that Americans have lost track of that root in usage. Not so Macfarlane, who explores the etymology at length, both in literal & figurative senses. This includes Snyder’s “way of life”, as Macfarlane describes the essence of walking, for himself, his culture and people in general: in losing the stimulating practice of walking the old ways, we have lost important connections to places along that way. In his pedestrian passion Macfarlane welcomes numerous author allies, including Thoreau in his familiar “Walking.”

Above all else, the magic in these pages is Macfarlane’s way with words; I can hardly explain the eloquence. Description flows beautifully and wraps the reader in feeling, in myriad ways, a place described. His British English – and a commitment to precision, lost words, etymology and meaning – can mystify and charm. At one point he explores the word saunter in four languages, arriving at its best precise use. He refrains from analysis or proclaiming held-values or tragic history; his words translate observations so subtly and powerfully, we feel the implications ourselves.

Humility permeates his writing voice, and the characters he admires. He rarely includes himself in observation; as he is often walking and sleeping in harsh conditions, we do not learn how he does it, how he is equipped or how he feels about it. Rather he is ever looking outward to the pathway’s course, or to inward thoughts; his own circumstances are mere distraction.

Characters in his way-stories are sometimes friends walking alongside; sometimes other walkers, watchers or wanderers; but often they are writers, embodied in their words. He is absorbed by the words of others, and quotes freely from sources obscure to American or casual readers, yet revealing of his own thoughts. In one of many examples, by reference to several other authors, he is also describing what readers may perceive to be our humble narrator’s own path:

All of these people had been animated at first by the delusion of a comprehensive totality, the belief that they might come to know their chosen place utterly because of its boundedness. And all had, after long acquaintance, at last understood that familiarity with a place will lead not to absolute knowledge but only ever to further enquiry.

One of his favorite writers is Edward Thomas; though he died in 1917, Thomas’ physical & life’s journey is Macfarlane’s personal obsession, and a common thread throughout the book. Yet there are many others, and Macfarlane is widely read while not effete; variously, he also invokes Hansel & Gretel, Tolkien, Hiawatha and the Iliad. For this reader, for all that Macfarlane appreciates others, his own prose is unsurpassed and suffers companions only for amusement.

Macfarlane’s observations do not comprise a purist homage to nature or wilderness; these are walks through long-inhabited places, featured with relics and scars left by ancient ancestors of those who still walk today. Quoting the walking Thomas, while again seeming to reflect on himself: “He liked the evidence of human mark-making and tampering over the millennia… testifying to a landscape that was commemorative, tending to the consecrated.” Macfarlane places importance on staying connected to that past, with clear observation, nuance and consideration.

One is drawn to the impression, lulled by our guide’s example, that seeking too much grand meaning can obscure rather than reveal what these already faint tracks offer inquiring minds. Nonetheless, we may seek: for example, how different would perception of our past ways be, if the ancient marks and messages on American landscapes belonged to our own ancestors, rather than to native voices prematurely silenced?

Nearing the end of his walking tales, considering all he had seen, the literary characters he encountered and his obsession with one, Macfarlane reflects:

This, I thought, had been the real discovery: not a ghostly retrieval of Thomas, but an understanding of how for him, as for so many other people, the mind was a landscape of a kind and walking a means of crossing it.

I hope I get to read this someday…

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