Keetje Kuipers’s essay “Rescue” recently published in Terrain.org. Here, she suggests a few works that have helped shape her writing.
Before I left for seven months of rugged solo living in an off-the-grid cabin nestled in the Wild Rogue Wilderness Area in southern Oregon, I did some reading and rereading in preparation for my adventure. I wanted to feel ready not only to delve into the work of writing poems inspired by the wilderness—my primary reason for applying for the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Residency—but I also hoped that the experience would inspire me to do some nonfiction writing. I was looking for prose set in the wild or the West, and I was particularly interested in the voices of women in those landscapes.
First, I returned to a favorite novel, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. Told partly from the perspective of Susan Burling Ward—a genteel and artistic woman who leaves her life among the 19th century society of the East Coast behind to begin a new one out West with her adventurous husband, a mining engineer who takes her to Colorado, California, Mexico, and Idaho in the course of his work—the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, and numerous critics have agreed that it is one of the most important American novels of the 20th century. I love the book for its compassionate perspective on marriage and its deep empathy for human flaw and failure. But mostly I love the book because it lives in a West that still has a frontier, and because Susan Burling Ward is a brave and competent woman completely out of her element when she is in it. Her transformation—not complete, and yet realized enough for her to come to love that landscape on its own terms—was reassuring to me as I prepared to take on an adventure I felt secretly unprepared for.
The fall before I was to set off on my own adventure, I spent a month at the Vermont Studio Center, an entirely different landscape. Rather than inspiring me with any kind of wildness, I found myself using that cold month of November to huddle in my attic bedroom, working over old poems that needed polishing. I’d take breaks to walk into the quiet little town of Johnson and visit Ebenezer Books, and I’m forever indebted to one of its proprietors for so astutely responding to my query, “So, I’m looking for some wilderness nonfiction to read….” She recommended Elizabeth Gilbert (who had not yet published Eat, Pray, Love, which I came to loath) and her book The Last American Man. This journalistic little gem was a finalist for the National Book Award, and it is a gripping examination of one American man in particular, but more importantly the idea of American masculinity and frontiersmanship as a whole. I’ve since taught this book several times, and still find it to be one of the best examinations of contemporary American ideas about what it means to leave civilization behind and choose the wild.
While I read these books before I headed off to the cabin in the woods, it was after I arrived there that I discovered three other books that would come to be touchstones in my own wilderness writing. The little cabin contained a “library” supplied by the previous series of residents, containing all manner of wilderness books. There were bird reference books, books on pruning fruit trees, novels written by writers who had spent time at the cabin, and a wide assortment of nonfiction and poetry that spoke to the wilderness experience. This is where I first found and read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a sort of memoir that has always served to remind me that personal narrative does not need to be full of tragedy or great drama in order to move its reader. Her simple examinations of a frog or a water bug are compelling in their detail and in their ability to make one feel at home on the bank of a muddy creek or in the shadow of a mountain. Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, a memoir of her mother’s battle with breast cancer, demonstrated for me the great skill of weaving personal narrative together with scientific observation. Her unflinching love for the birds that populate this book, and her ability to identify with the damaged landscape around her, served to remind me to continue to look outside of myself for inspiration and solace while living alone in the woods. And finally, Robert Wrigley’s collection of poems, Lives of the Animals, kept me grounded in the mountain West and among its cast of characters: deer, mountain lion, trout. These poems became old friends, as they seemed to demystify my new animal “neighbors” for me.
While these books helped me to understand and fully take advantage of the wilderness landscape in which I found myself living and writing alone for seven months, they’ve all remained important and comforting for me in the years that followed. I can retreat to them again and again, and be reminded of the smell of sage, the rustle of grouse, and the great anonymity of being alone in the woods. Heraclitus said, “You can never step twice in the same river,” and this is certainly true of books that take their inspiration from the wild. No author will have the same interpretation of that strange magic that solitude and starlight provide, but each reflection on these wild places offers us a different brilliant facet of what peaceful coexistence with wilderness can provide.
Keetje Kuipers has been the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident, a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College. Her first book, Beautiful in the Mouth, won the A. Poulin, Jr. Prize from BOA Editions and was published in 2010. Her second book, The Keys to the Jail, was published in 2014. Keetje is an Assistant Professor at Auburn University.