Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Person, Place

Dew has soaked everything. I could wash my hands in the ferns, and when I pick a leaf off a maple branch I get a shower on my head and shoulders. through the hardwoods along the foot of the hill, through the belt of cedars where the ground is swampy with springs, through the spruce and balsam of the steep pitch, I go alertly, feasting my eyes. I see coon tracks, an adult and two young, in the mud, and maturing grasses bent like croquet wickets with wet, and spotted orange Amanitas, at this season flattened or even concave and holding water, and miniature forests of club moss and ground pine and ground cedar. There are brown caves of shelter, mouse and hare country, under the wide skirts of spruce.

My feet are wet. Off in the woods I hear a Peabody bird tentatively try out a song he seems to have half forgotten. I look to the left, up the slope of the hill, to see if I can catch a glimpse of Ridge House, but see only trees.

Then I come out on the shoulder of the hill, and there is the whole sky, immense and full of light that has drowned the stars. Its edges are piled with hills. Over Stannard Mountain the air is hot gold, and as I watch, the sun surges up over the crest and stares me down.

Ladies and gentlemen, Wallace Stegner.

I like Stegner for a number of reasons. For one, his family was homesteading about the same time mine was; but while my folks were further north, his were down in the Porcupine Hills. When I read Stegner, I know what things were like for my grandfather, growing up on a quarter section near Cereal, Alberta in the early days of the twentieth century. My grandfather is long, long gone, as are his contemporaries, but the narratives of Wallace Stegner survive, untouched.

Another thing I like about him is how well he writes about place. There are some authors who are just gifted with the ability to make setting leap of the page. To make a spot, which exists only in their imagination, so real that you want to go there. You know how sometimes people will urge you to "find your happy place?" (Yes, actually, I did have rather a trying day.) I must admit that the happy place I choose to go in my mind is often from a book. It's a kitchen, maybe, or a walk like the one Stegner's hero is on in these opening pages of Crossing to Safety.

But honestly - doesn't that seem like your happy place, too?

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