Thursday, July 29, 2010

New Book Out

My new book, Vacation Days, will be hitting the bookstores any day now. It sort of just came together from odd bits of writing I’d done in journals and in my quarterly pamphlet, a very-hard-to-get publication which has the same name as this easy-to-get blog, though somewhat longer essays. My original intention had been to collect a bunch of my “Up North” pieces and add some new material in the same vein. I thought I might do an essay describing the years I worked at a summer canoe camp, and another one about a 600-mile canoe trip I took with a friend to Lake Winnipeg one hot summer decades ago. But in the end, I didn’t really feel much like revisiting (and revising) my adolescent self, dredging up those memories and trying to hammer them into a coherent form (while eliminating all the stupidity and pretension) so I scrounged up some essays from more recent trips to the American West, and that was probably a good idea.

The book now has two sections, “Always in the Woods” and “Father Afield.” The former deals with woodsy stuff in Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin, though there are also essays about the state fair and a weekend trip to Willmar. The later covers quite a bit of territory, including the Apostle Islands sea caves, the Sparta-Elroy bike trails, Rocky Mountain National Park in October, Arches National Park, Big Sur, Yosemite, Devil’s Tower, Cloud Peak Wilderness, Medicine Wheel, Cody, Yellowstone, the hot springs in Thermopolis, the lost civilization at Range Creek, Utah, various canyons and pueblos in Northern New Mexico, and the North California coast.

I was originally going to call the book "Always in the Woods," but no one liked that title except me, and I will admit that any title you have to explain the meaning of probably isn’t the right one.
"Vacation Days" came to me one day out of thin air. It seemed totally right—especially once I’d expanded the focus of the essays.

I still like the phrase "Always in the Woods," however, and kept it as a section title, where it won’t do much harm. I’ve pasted in the intro to that section here:

“Many years ago I worked at a canoe camp for a few summers. We took kids, sometimes only a few years younger than ourselves, “on the trail” for a week or two in the BWCA and sometimes further north into the wilds of North Ontario. We’d arrive back at camp worn out but exhilarated by our adventures, take a blistering sauna, enjoy a hearty meal with real meat and real potatoes, and then engage in a ceremonial evening around a fire in the camp’s oldest log structure. On one occasion my fellow counselor (we usually went out in pairs) gave the introductory speech as we sat in the dark in rickety canvas chairs with the light of the fire flickering in our faces. He concluded his little peroration to the campers with the remark, “…so wherever you go in life from this point on, you’ll always be in the woods.”

I can’t say whether it was exhaustion, the utter relaxation brought about by the food and the sauna, or the smoke from the fire, but when I heard those words, “you’ll always be in the woods,” I had to muster every bit of self-control at my disposal not to burst out laughing. The expression “in the woods” (as you probably know) has the same idiomatic sense as “out in left field.” Today we would say that someone who’s “in the woods” is essentially clueless.

That’s not what my friend meant, of course. He was trying to suggest that the experience of being in the woods affects us at an elemental level, giving us a radically different perspective on life, not through brilliant intellectual constructs but viscerally, in ways we can’t describe, and seldom feel the need to. Perhaps it’s odd that I should remember that trivial event, but it’s stayed with me like a Zen koan, and I’ve even come to believe that the deepening in perspective we derive from wilderness travel is related to the condition of being clueless—in a good way. I guess the joke was on me.

During those years when I spent my summers in the North Woods, I also worked at the Bell Museum of National History on the campus of the University of Minnesota. I’d sit on the tile floor in front of those beautiful dioramas of timber wolves, elk, and moose, surrounded by obstreperous grade school kids, one of whom would invariably raise his or her hand as if to ask a question and then say, pointing proudly, “My daddy shot one of those.”

I sometimes spent a few minutes in the break room with the other guides, too, and in the course of time I developed a scheme to describe the varieties of nature-enthusiasm I met up with there. Some people cultivate a relationship with nature through hunting, fishing, and woodcraft. Some satisfy the need to work out-of-doors through scientific research, examining the pollen in pond muck or charting the growing season of the dwarf trout lily. Some see nature largely as a playing field within which to pursue extreme sports. And some take an entirely poetic stance, exploiting nature as an environment within which to probe life’s mysteries in solitude and silence, while drawing upon it as a font of metaphor or moral instruction.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive, of course. It seems to me that nowadays we sometimes place too much emphasis on ecological analysis at the expense of poetic insight, leaving ourselves with the unpleasant impression that nature will do just fine—so long as we’re not there. Only rarely do we catch wind, at parks and government-funded nature centers, of the long tradition of reverence toward nature, both poetic and metaphysical, that extends back through time from Gary Snyder, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau to the Romantic poets of the late eighteenth century, the Neo-Platonists of the Renaissance, the Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty, and the Pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient times.

Perhaps it’s significant that the word Plato uses to describe the primordial stuff of matter actually means “wood.”

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