Cheryl Slean reviews Seven Summers: A Naturalist Homesteads in the Modern West, by Julia Corbett
Writer Julia Corbett addresses themes of independence, feminism, wildness, and balance in her multileveled memoir Seven Summers: A Naturalist Homesteads in the Modern West. This fascinating and deeply felt book can be read—on one level—as an exploration of a woman coming into self-realization, finding meaning, purpose, and joy in her life not via the traditional route with a primary relationship and children, but through an activity usually reserved for the man in a family: building a house. In the 20th century iteration of Manifest Destiny that still holds sway in our mainstream entertainments, it’s the male who’s the primary actor, following his dream of finding a piece of land to homestead, “getting” a wife to put inside the structure he builds, and then “making” a family under its roof. Here, Ms. Corbett drives the story without male supervision. To the contrary, it’s she who supervises the men.
After the more traditional family arrangement she thought she’d wanted ends in divorce, she discovers, in middle life, the Wyoming property literally of her dreams, and surprises herself by deciding to build a house there. She’s dreamt of a home and family, a place to live and love and be happy, but what she ends up creating for herself is the unspoken, secret version of that dream: a cabin to write in, among the wilderness she loves, living in solitude with her beloved pets. Though she’s not really alone because her attitude toward the land and its complex ecosystem is one of caretaking, partnership, and learning, rather than a more standard Occidental view of use-based ownership. Her loving observations of the flora and fauna in her neighborhood both respect their wildness and give the strong impression that these beings are part of her extended family, almost as much as the blood relations and close friends who periodically come to visit.
The first half of the book primarily weaves the narrative of building the cabin, with its steep learning curves, power tool mastery, and employment of workers. Materials selection, water witching, erratic weather, setbacks: the challenges and successes all inexorably lead, in their raggedy real-life way, toward the goal of a place of her own, built in part by her own hands. We watch with satisfaction as, task by dumbfounding task, Ms. Corbett overcomes her doubts about having the fortitude and skill set to realize her vision. “How hard can it be?” is her mantra until the reality of the work demands a revision: “It takes as long as it takes.” Time and again she displays that special American verve so formative in the making of the West—the willingness to figure it out as we go, to forge into the unknown with only our hands and our wits.
And it’s not just self-sufficiency Ms. Corbett cultivates in her journey. Through the mini-tales of construction unfolding over the titular and spiritually significant seven summers, she discovers not only unknown depths of personal strength and skill, but the accompanying truths of interdependence and community. She relies on the kindness, companionship, and expertise of her neighbors, and the many (and mostly male) craftspeople she hires to build. She often tells her story through the lens of relationships—with close friends, family members, and her dearest companions, her pets; and like all good memoirists, through her self-reflexive relationship with herself. Who am I through these events? How am I changing, what am I learning? What is this life all about?
Ms. Corbett’s awareness of the interdependence of human beings with animals and nature, and of an individual inseparable from the larger world of relationships, suffuses the book. It can be read as a naturalist’s exploration of what she calls “wildness” (from Thoreau, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”) Whole chapters are devoted to her love affairs with favorite species (owls, Sandhill cranes,) and the watchful gaze of a nature-lover enlivens her detailed depictions of a range of ecosystems: the mountain woods of her cabin, her Salt Lake City life, the Pacific Northwestern rainforest.
The contingent, cyclic, and ever-changing characteristics of nature are echoed in the book’s structure. It refuses the linear narrative that a “creation” story might traditionally demand and instead collects anecdotes and reflections into chapters through a common metaphor or theme, resulting in a loosely organized collage that meanders like a deer path through time, event, relationship, detail. We dip into an emotional rendering of the loss of her brother to cancer, then to childhood photos and the stubbornness of the negative body image so common to women of all ages. Next we’re reflecting on the challenges of women homesteading alone in the Old West. These structural choices evoke the book’s themes in a celebration of form and function rather like the author’s liberal praise of tools, materials, and people good at their jobs. A voluptuous appreciation of the wood she chooses for the cabin interior pointedly includes the note that the lovely whorls in its grain are in fact the chemical signature of the worms that destroyed the tree. Her use of deadfall as lumber invites the reader to consider the many possibilities for working within the cycles of nature instead of attempting to manipulate and control them. As if we could control things, Ms. Corbett seems to say with her ending’s emphasis on the death of loved ones. Better to “go with the grain,” she says, with finish carpentry as with life: What’s the use of resistance?
A good literary memoir should raise evocative questions, and so this book did for me: What are our organizing principles? What gives each of us a sense of meaning and purpose? Is it possible to allow life to lead us to revelation rather than grinding our futures out effortfully, demanding the image we see in our minds come to life exactly as planned, and suffering when it doesn’t? Or can we cultivate a skillful mix of willed effort and relaxed allowance, a balance between action and receptivity that the author herself demonstrates, as she learns her way through her project, her house, her life, and her memoir.