Beacon Press, 2011
Reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb
I grew up a few miles from Walden Pond, the site of Thoreau’s famous cabin, his experiment in deliberate living. It’s a favorite location. I swam in the pond growing up, I got poison ivy from its woods, I skipped school with friends to lounge on its beaches, and later, older, I hiked around it often, alone, visiting the cabin site, pondering Thoreau’s time there, wishing myself to a solitary place with my own cabin in the woods.
Tom Montgomery Fate has written a memoir about his own life and his attempts to populate just that sort of cabin, and this memoir is a direct descendent of Thoreau’s own Walden, a book that Thoreau himself would appreciate, I’m sure. I grew fond fast of this book, and it’s hard not to. Fate is a man who brings coyotes and cougars to the page in a thoughtful, beautiful prose that’s readable, lyrical, and begs the reader to slow down and take their time. The book is a wide, deep river, best observed with a cup of coffee as the sun’s coming up over the ridge and the night’s crickets have given way to the scratching and calls of the morning’s towhees.
“I have a large bowl of lake glass on my desk. When my writing goes poorly, I pick up a piece—touch a story of loss, of transformation—and imagine the cold, deep re-remembering of the lake, the constant journey of glass back to sand.” This, from an essay about time’s passage, the transformation from child to parent, and the randomness of lake glass.
Sawyer, Michigan is home to 50 acres of land that Fate shares with friends, a community of owners. It’s on this land that he spent two years building a small cabin. But Fate lives two hours away in Chicago with his wife and three children, and his life is busy with all the usual demands. Teaching, grading, family-living, bill-paying, writing: how does one balance this with a deliberate life in the woods, let alone any sense of solitude?
However, this memoir is more than a man alone in a cabin dreaming of blackberries. This is a series of essays that explore life and death, family and solitude, growing, learning, and living. And doing so while recognizing our need to survive at the collisions of environments as Fate calls them. For we misconstrue the world when we try to imagine ourselves pursuing Thoreau’s experiment: going to one place and existing in solitude. Fate’s premise: “…we always live in between—forever teetering on the rusted fulcrum of our wondrous but uncertain lives.”
We see Fate walking the woods around the cabin, ducking brush, hiking to the river, watching herons nest, ants carrying a fly back to their underground home. We see him write by candlelight, lose cell phone reception, drift off to sleep in a sleeping bag, watch the rain fall outside the cabin.
But we also see Fate stuck at home. Chapter three begins in Chicago after a weekend trip to the cabin has been canceled. Fate’s wife is working and his son Bennett has a fever. There’s a broken faucet, and Fate turns this all into an essay about his revelation of himself as a father now appreciating his time with his son. “Maybe it’s because I’m now almost exactly between my son and my father—forty years older than Bennett and forty years younger than my dad—that these small moments seem sacred.”
Fate is an activist, a man who looks at the land around him and is dismayed by what he sees. And he’s aware of the facts behind the problems. “The reason for corn feeding is economic: corn-fed cattle reach slaughter weight in a little over a year, while grass-fed cattle require four to five years.” But these essays don’t focus on the factual minutiae. Fate wants us to know the rivers are polluted, and that antibiotic use in corn-fed cattle is a problem, but his way of relating his concerns turns always inward, and facts becomes links in meditations and revelations for the author, for the specifics of his world. These are not pedantic, but expansive, pieces, essays that bloom. How do his children read the world? How does his wife survive her illness? How does the author cope with a friend’s death? How do we exist and find contentment in moments of adult life that span joy and sorrow?
There’s humor here, too. “Trimming Trees,” an essay about an almost-disastrous do-it-yourself episode that involves an underpowered chainsaw, large trees, a power-line, and an eager amateur handyman, is funny—laugh-out-loud funny in places—and anyone who’s taken on an outdoor project too great for their skill-set will appreciate the honesty and humor of the author, even as he comes close to electrocuting himself. Fate is a handyman. He’s built a cabin for goodness sake, but he’s a handyman who reveals to us his own learning in the lumberyard. It’s not Fate telling us that he’s a beginner or an expert, but both at once, in different ways. One can build a cabin and misjudge a job. The appeal of these essays: Fate is honest about his humanity, his successes, his failures.
Thoreau’s writing arcs these essays, both in epigraphs and as quoted insertions, and it feels an appropriate anchor. Fate as a modernized Thoreau. The same issues, but different times, different technologies, different facts. The scenery has changed, but the concerns of a human in the world have stayed very much the same. Discovering the deliberate, careful and hopefully contented life amid chaos, confusion, hypocrisy, and sadness.
Fate teaches us this, that “…sauntering is all there really is, and the best sentences we will ever read or write or live only lead us deeper into the woods, into a place where keys and credit cards don’t matter, a place where we once belonged, and still long to be.”
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