Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Four Stories of the Outdoors and One Cautionary Tale About Staying Inside

I don't read books about the outdoors very often. There are trees outside my house right now; I could go look at them if I wanted to. Going outside is a thing to do, not read about. One can even read outside, and if one is reading about the outdoors outside, isn't that redundant? With all the trees and lakes and urban deer around here, why would I spend time reading about somebody else's trees? That said, I've just read read four outdoors books roughly back to back and they've all been good ones, which is amazing, as it's hard to make, "I spent several days walking around" sound interesting.  It's beastly hard to find an author who's up to describing time in the woods without being boring, and it's hard to say anything about even a good author's time in the woods other than, "I laughed a lot while I was reading this." Take Kevin Callan's reasonably new book, Dazed but Not Confused. I liked it a lot, but I've got nothing in particular to say about it. Kevin tells stories about the outdoors and canoeing. Some of them are reprinted from his last book, Wilderness Pleasures, and all were first published in Canadian canoeing magazines. Dazed but Not Confused is divided into three sections: Playing in the Woods, Wilderness Philosophy, and Life as a Wilderness Pornographer. Some Canadians have been calling Kevin a "wilderness pornographer" because he keeps writing books about backwoods canoe routes they considered their exclusive domain.

There are good stories in here, although the tone is more pensive than in Wilderness Pleasures. Kevin tells the full story of breaking a foot on his trip with his friend Ashley, who considers wearing a Speedo while camping acceptable. (Note: Wearing a Speedo is never acceptable). He goes on a Scottish canoeing trip with his wife and daughter. He goes winter camping.  He meets the camp girls from hell; vis: Pro-tip: If you are in the backwoods and you see a rescue helicopter flying by, don't everybody in your group start waving "hi" to it, because the helicopter pilot will think you are waving at him, and he will land, and he will not have enough fuel to effect the rescue of the injured person who is somewhere else in the forest, and he will need to go back to town to refuel, and you will be charged for the helicopter fuel. The only problem with Dazed but Not Confused is the price. It's $24.99 for a paperback, and we all know those are Canadian dollars, but is a Canadian publisher going to lower the price of a book for an American because American publishers always raise the price for Canadians?  No.

I had a veggie burger at the Gunflint Lodge last summer and it was delightful, so it's nice to know how that came about. Justine Kerfoot's mother bought the lodge and store in 1928 and Woman of the Boundary Waters is about the early days before the now-BWCAW was a designated Wilderness Area, back when there were a few Indian and trapper families living on Gunflint Lake. Some later chapters are organized into vignettes: disasters, the war, animals. Mrs. Kerfoot remembers when everyone in the area got their first snowmobile, and the dog team that the snowmobile replaced. She raised three children at Gunflint Lodge, and recalls when they got electricity and phones and indoor plumbing. She snowshoed around for miles, and hunted, and nursed fawns back to health in the kitchen, and watched the seasons change for fifty years. Essential reading for Minnesotans.

Terry Pratchett's Wee Free Men takes place outdoors. It does. I didn't say this blog post was all about the North Woods. It's a bloody brilliant book and I'd been needing to read a Pratchett for a while. Basically, Tiffany Aching is a young girl who's just decided to become a witch when the fairy world pops through the doors of the Discworld and kidnaps her brother. There's a lot of action, brawls and battles and monsters and nightmares. She rescues her brother with the help of the Wee Free Men who are, in Pratchett's wonderful way of appropriating lore and mythology to his purposes while leaving the archetypes unchallenged, Scots. I'm glad that there are four Tiffany Aching books, so I've three yet to read.

The Secret Garden also takes place outdoors. In a garden. This is the first time I've reread it since I became an FHB afficianado. The Secret Garden kills me. Last time I read it, it was all about redemption. The garden saves Mary, who saves Colin, who saves his father. This time I read it more for FHB herself, her robin, the IRL garden she loved, her only seeing the kindness in people. That got her in trouble towards the end of her life; she expected the best of people (good people, not archetypal baddies like Miss Minchin), and people aren't always at their best when someone with stacks of money is being kind to them. I felt like Mary was a richer character this time around reading, and FHB goes wild describing children's play. Mary and Colin keep each other amused so well, even though Mary does plateau in her personal development towards the middle, which is fine. If a person is not outwardly churlish but still contrary by nature, do they need to stop all their grumps forever to be whole?

In the thoroughly mediocre movie Return to the Secret Garden, it's implied that Dickon dies in the Great War. Fiddlesticks to that. I'd also say that Hilary McKay cribbed some of Martha to make Alice, although Alice is much more shocking.

Nature can bring us boatloads of stories, skills, and redemption. But what if you don't get out enough? You will die wondering if it is better not to have lived at all, that's what. Nobody could live a duller life than Harriet Frean of The Life and Death of Harriet Frean by May Sinclair. Sinclair was a suffragist and Harriet Frean is the opposite, a woman who is raised to be "nothing but beautifully behaved." Harriet never tries to be anything but beautifully behaved and chugs along dutifully and self-sacrificingly until, at the end of her life, she's gained an inkling that maybe her parents didn't want her to be beautifully behaved so that they could admire her across the breakfast table when she was forty. She does fall in love with her best friend's fiancee, but nobly refuses him as an act of self-abnegation, which makes all three of them utterly miserable for decades, but when her niece says, "Would you do it again?" Harriet insists she would. How could she act selfishly, even if the consequences would save her best friend's life? The Life and Death of Harriet Frean is an apropos manifesto for the elevation of women to the rank of humans. I was reading Kate Chopin's The Awakening before I started Harriet Frean and HF is way better. The Awakening reads like a smoking gun forgery by English teachers, or a long form Jeopardy question: "What is dissatisfaction?" Harriet Frean nails the limited lack of expectations predicated by Victorian mores; the only trouble is that May Sinclair did it a bit too well. Every generation has its slow-witted children who live at home for decades. Nowadays Harriet would have the opportunity to drop out of community college before she moved back to her parents' couch, but she never would be Interim Department Manager Harriet Frean.

In conclusion, stop sitting around on your internets and go outside.

Next up, more FHB.

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