I like lemons, strawberries, avocados and tomatoes. And while I understand the whole “eat local” enthusiasm, were I to adopt it, I would have strawberries only in June and tomatoes in August and lemons and avocados never. That seems a bit rough.
I also love having someone else butcher my meat, restaurants when I’m too tired to cook, flush toilets, and hot showers in the morning; continuing the list of my favorite things, I can’t forget antibiotics when my winter cough lingers into pneumonia. There’s more, but you get the idea.
Whether it’s because of these things, or in spite of them, I also have a fascination with memoirs of women who have left all this behind and de-camped to the wilderness. Their lives seem so uncluttered, and while rarely easy, they manage to exude a certain peace. It’s rather attractive in an I-wonder-if-I-could-do-that kind of way.
The best I’ve read in this genre is Louise Dickinson Rich’s We Took to the Woods. Her writing is straightforward; she takes things in stride – always with a sense of humor. Here is her priceless description of the family pets:
….And there are Kyak and Tom, the dog and the cat.
We ourselves wouldn’t have named Tom that, but got him from a lumber camp that was moving out and didn’t know what to do with him, so we had to take him as equipped. We compromise by saying that his full name is Thomas Bailey Aldrich, which isn’t very suitable. He is the sort of cat that should be called Tom, regardless of banality. He is big and tough and mean, and he’d as soon as not fight the whole family at once. His idea of an average day is to get up at noon, trounce the dog for looking at him, go out and chase a deer away from the clearing, and set out the two miles for Middle Dam, there to visit with his girl, the Millers’ cat, after half murdering her other three suitors. Then he comes home, looking so smug you could shoot him on sight, and sleeps until noon the next day.
Kyak, though we love him dearly, we have to admit is strictly an Art Dog. His grandmother was with Admiral Byrd at the South Pole, and his great-grandfather helped carry the serum to Nome. If they could see him, they’d turn in their graves. He is a very good example of the Siberian husky, with a white wolf mask, a rangy big body, and a curling plume of a tail; but he is completely non-functional. Try to put a harness on him, and he will lie down with all four feet in the air. Try to teach him to retrieve game, and he will look sorrowful and broken. The only thing he is good for, besides looking beautiful, is a watchdog, and he doesn’t even do that well. He barks horribly at nothing, or at members of the family, and then amiably lets strange woodsmen walk right into the house. Then after they are in, and for all he knows, we are lying in a welter of blood, sometimes he remembers his responsibilities and stands outside barking hysterically. There’s no use trying to do anything with him, except love him.
Two other very good books on this living in the woods theme are Annette Jackson’s My Life in the Maine Woods: A Game Warden’s Wife in the Allagash Country and Helen Hamlin’s Nine Mile Bridge: Three Years in the Maine Woods. Both authors tell their stories simply and naturally, and you’re sorry when the books end.
And then there’s this, the reason for today’s post: At Home in the Woods: Living the Life of Thoreau Today by Bradford Angier and Vena Angier. Originally published in 1951, it has been re-issued by DownEast Books. They should have known better. Unfortunately they didn’t and I bought the book last week.
It is ghastly. And because it was so ghastly, I started to do some research about just who were these two people who can’t write and don’t make sense and yet not only get a book published, but even get it re-issued, by a reputable publisher, no less.
Here is the short version of what I found out: Bradford Angier was a kind of wilderness guru and back-to-the-lander even before Scott and Helen Nearing. His former occupation, before he took up the guru business, was as an ad man in Boston. Based on some camping in northern New England and Canada, and a few years in the wilderness of the Peace River Valley in British Columbia, he wrote a ton of articles and books on backcountry survival and living off the land. He made it sound so easy and delightful that he apparently inspired many people to chuck everything and hack out a homestead. (One wonders at their success rate.) He, in the meantime, spent a great deal of his life in the “backcountry” just outside San Francisco and Tucson.
Bradford wrote two “memoirs” aimed at getting women excited about wilderness survival (so that they would in turn get their husbands excited and get them to buy his how-to books. Once an ad man, always an ad man.) At Home in the Wilderness was the first. The trouble with both the memoirs is that they are mostly fiction. The books are listed as having two authors, Bradford and his wife Vena, but they in fact were written by Brad pretending to be Vena. The simpery, sloppy voice is what first made me say wait a minute and do some research because, frankly, no woman who would go off into the wilderness to live, would talk like that. She is all breathless adoring of her big strong husband who is amazing in his ability to answer all her questions and do everything just right.
The prose, while if not exactly on the violet end of purple, is definitely within the lilac spectrum. It’s as full of adverbs and over-the-top description as an eighth grader’s essay.
…Ceaselessly expanding and shifting ice cannonaded. What I took to be a coyote began yapping. Then I realized I had been intent for moments on a lone deep howl. It became joined in an echoing, wildly thrilling chorus that brought Brad sitting up beside me.
“Wolves,” he breathed. “Big Siberians.” We’re lucky, hearing them so close the first night.”
…. “Why,” I asked wonderingly, “why do people call this the Silent North?”
“Well,” he mused sleepily, although in his voice here was an answering undertone of fulfillment, “maybe it’s because they stay too far south to know any better. Isn’t this real country, Vena? You are beginning to like it, aren’t you?”
His hand found mine.
“Sorry about coming?” he ventured.
I caught my breath. The suddenly revealed answer surprised even me.
“I’m only sorry that we put it off so long,” I told him sincerely and almost immediately fell asleep.
See what I mean? I could cite pages of this drivel, but I won’t. I would feel guilty inducing nausea in anyone. Even more sickening: it turns out this book, told by Vena, wasn’t really about Vena. She wasn’t there. In as much as anything really happened outside of Brad’s mind, it was all with Irene, his first wife. After I learned that, I stopped reading. Now my problem is what to do with the book? It doesn’t deserve a place on the shelf. I would feel guilty passing it on. I’m thinking the next bonfire is the place to file it.
And the lesson? I would sum it up thus: much as we deplore the lack of writing ability in the younger generation and much as we have our knickers in a twist about “Fake News,” these – as evidenced by this book – aren’t recent problems.
Additionally, I am never going to eat so local that I will able to wax eloquent, like Vena, about the delights of bear liver.