By Mike Medberry
Caxton Press, 2012
Reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb
Mike Medberry has written a slim volume of a memoir that’s a victory in many ways. This environmentalist and writer—in his first book—offers to the reader a story of debility and recovery, a journey he experienced following a stroke in April of 2000 that left him helplessly lying on the rocks of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. But On the Dark Side of the Moon: A Journey Toward Recovery is more than just a book about a man struggling to regain health.
This is a memoir with a number subplots. Medberry is first of all an environmentalist with a long history of activism and land conservation. That Craters of the Moon was a piece of land he’d started exploring in order to examine further preservation possibilities makes this story part land-conservation history. That Medberry’s father died from the aftermath of a stroke when Medberry was a young teen deepens the felt sadness around a familial illness. That Medberry got married and divorced to a good friend in the rehabilitation period adds a love story to the drama. Then enter Camas, a pound-recovery and untrained Brittany who wreaks canine havoc in Mike’s life, a life already filled with relearning the simplest tasks: we’ve got a dog-helps-man-helps-dog story. Lastly, perhaps the most fascinating underlying thread is Medberry as writer: an MFA-trained writer relearning the basic fundamentals of his most prized tool: language.
Medberry’s published this first book, and that gives away part of the story before we open the book: he’s recovered to a great extent, likely more than any stroke patient might hope. This story isn’t ghost-written, and that alone speaks to a recovery filled with hard work, persistence, and—given the unknowns Medberry teaches us around brain damage and stroke recovery—likely a lot of luck. We’re taken in this tale through the ambiguities and mysteries of the brain, and Medberry pares open the unknowns. Even a conversation in 2001—in the recovery stage—with neurologist and author Antonio Damasio reveals the questions through the doctor’s metaphor of the brain as a plumbing system. Small-pipe damage far from the central system hampers the entirety of the system less than damage to a larger pump or pipe. Compensation is possible. Firm answers are only guessable, observable as symptom or lack of.
Medberry tells us of his language struggles both through his own expression and but also through the reflection of other’s impressions, and even as we realize a recovery’s occurred, it’s at times painful to read about the process. An early draft of this book went a professor-friend of the author’s who responded in part about the difficulties of commenting due to: “…The stroke itself, in particular its resulting and continuing verbal disabilities, which, I’m sorry to have to say, do show up here in the handling of language and sentence structure.” Other language issues are memory-oriented. At a follow up meeting weeks after the stroke, Medberry tells his doctor about his three children. “Mike, you don’t have three children,” reminds his mother. Finally there’s the production of language to communicate. Medberry quotes early letters:
Oh, well hay about?
What about this? I wonder wou woulder whae would.
I really wonderd wihous Good
Gold I just forbord adoud this.
One comes to realize that the book itself is object and process, the history and the exercise of recovery and in a way this makes it intriguing. It’s impossible not to consider the production of the writing as we also process the content.
Healing is the overarching metaphor of the book: for the body, the soul, the land within and around Craters. First: it’s hard to imagine Medberry lying on the hot black lava rock of Craters for 7 hours before a helicopter is able to airlift him to medical care, but that’s where the book starts us. It’s enough to make a person cringe, let alone any EMT or medical student who knows that for brain injury or trauma, a few minutes can be critical to a positive recovery.
It’s fascinating too that the stroke occurs in the very park Medberry will cheer for as President Bill Clinton in November of 2000 signs the proclamation that makes final the expansion increasing the protected land to 737,000 acres, “nearly 14 times its previous size.” The history of the monument and preserve is fascinating, and it essentially entails Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt sidestepping a Republican Congress by using the Antiquities Act of 1906 to allow a sitting President to declare a national monument via a proclamation. Medberry offers this concession to the process about the role of environmentalists: “…we’re better at forcing issues than resolving them. We argue and spit and never seem pleased.” He goes on to explain that the magic that happened at Craters occurred because of successful compromise by ranchers and environmentalists. One might say everyone got a piece of what they wanted. There are land management lessons to be learned here.
The last sections of the memoir take us through additional pieces of Medberry’s healing. His marriage, his struggles to continue to speak more and more normally, and his ventures back into the land with his new companion, Camas. There’s a stubbornness here that’s interesting, intriguing, and perhaps unexpected. Medberry can’t seem to live in the same town as the woman he married, and he also seems to act willfully, not in a malicious way, but in a vital way. Long hikes back in the wilderness from which he was rescued, even one where he almost loses Camas. A honeymoon in Hawaii where he runs out of money and has to rely on his new bride. One senses a stubbornness in Medberry that perhaps was a significant and needed part in his recovery, too.
Could anything in the memoir be done differently? Maybe. There’s a feeling that it could be longer, that so much information could be mined more deeply. We don’t get to meet Merritt as much as we’d like to. Medberry’s mother as well, a woman with a fascinating and challenging background. One senses, too, the chapter on the land management of Crater’s is strangely distinct, not woven through the story as well as it could be. However, these are small points, and perhaps not fair to demand of an author who’s so amazingly recovered from this stroke, this massive life event that had the potential to take his life.
This is a memoir about remembering, healing, and moving forward in a number of ways both for Medberry and the land, Craters, and, to have brought us to this stage of healing on so many levels, Medberry, as he quotes from the famous Merwin poem, has had “to speak / in a forgotten language.”
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the Reviews Editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook Halflives (New Michigan Press.) Find him at www.andrewcgottlieb.com
Header photo by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders (December 24, 1968), courtesy NASA.