SETTLED INTO THE WILD by Susan Hand Shetterly

Book Quote:

“The idea that we were going back to the land made me laugh. It was the word back. With our son, who was less than a year old my husband and I moved into an unfinished cabin on a sixty-acre woodlot in downeast Maine with no electricity, no plumbing, no phone. It was June 1971.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns  (NOV 14, 2010)

As the title suggests, this is a book about living close to nature, or rather, being a part of nature while cognizant of that important and salient fact. For, what more can we be reminded of, if not reminded that we are biology first? It is easy to forget that we are made of the salt of the sea and the grist the land, that atoms and molecules somehow cohere and survive and become…us. That is the delicate core of the quiet little book. We are of nature, let us not forget. The writing in this tradition is long and rich and deep. Henry David Thoreau to Audubon to Anne Dillard and E.O. Wilson–all master practitioners of the genre. And now Susan Hand Shetterly. She is in heady company and she belongs there. This book is spellbinding.

As the quote above relates–it’s the opening sentence to the book–Shetterly and her young family moved to rural Mane in 1971. They split wood. They read by kerosene lamp. They grow food. And most importantly, amidst it all, the author pays attention. If nothing else, this exquisite little book is a meditation on paying attention. Thoreau said he went to the woods to learn how to live. Although Shetterly never explicitly tells us what set her upon this course, the motive–how to live–hangs suspended and crystalline quite close to the surface. For her, the answer seems not simple, yet is stark, complex but not complicated: Live close, close to nature, close to that which is wild, close to what makes you alive. “We give wild a chance,” she writes, “and sometimes it comes back, and we are better for it.”

Settled into the Wild is a collection of twenty-six overlapping and related essays. Many are about the animals who, literally, cross her path. Several are about the people, the farmers and the fishermen, who inhabit the land. Several essays overlap, people and animals, the town and the wild. All the pieces are gem-like, written with great care and loving attention. When civilization and the wild overlap, we get perhaps the most powerful images of the book. For instance:

“A neighbor of mine walked onto the deck of his house one early morning just before hunting season with a mug of coffee in his hand, took a sip, and glanced down the cobbles of Patten Bay to the gunmetal water. He looked again. There, up to its belly in the tide, stood a doe. Two coyotes patrolled the beach in front of her. Back and forth they paced over the stones, stopping every now and then to fix her with their eyes. She stood with her head up, frozen in one posture, the water sloshing at her sides. Alert to every move they made, she did not look directly at them. They looked at her straight on.”

Perhaps the most poignant observations in the book are made when the author invites and infuses into her life the wildness found outside her door. There is, for example, a raven named Chac. “Once upon a time,” she begins, “in the high branches of a spruce, there sat a rough nest with four young ravens in it.” She continues: “Three flourished. One did not. Three grew up and flew, but one did not. The parents fed the bird in the nest now and then, but they spent more time with the healthy birds, and then, one day, they did not return.” Shetterly, a licensed expert at wild bird rehabilitation, takes in the raven, heals it–it was bound with fishermen’s monofilament in the nest–raises it, and eventually returns it to the wild. “Letting him go meant that he would never abide a sheltered life. I offered this tamed and crippled wild prince his own ancestral home–bounteous and dangerous.” It is a potential of this type of writing to turn mandolin, to a anthropomorphize wild beasts and then sting the reader for doing so with tales of death or loss or abandon. Shetterly aptly avoids this trap and instead, like a good artful teacher, teaches us of her world without pathos.

Wild birds aside, there are snakes in the bedroom, country roads paved, trees hugged; there are ocean-going farmers studied and crickets caught. Salmons escape their pens and are slaughtered, alewives migrate and rural communities are threatened. Of a neighbor, Shetterly writes, “Jack was one of the first people I knew who lived a sense of place.” This observation stands out and proves to be a watermark for the book. Shetterly too lives a sense of place, to use her phrase. She has arrived there through observation, patience and hard work, and not without a good deal of poetry and art. It is the reader’s privilege to be welcomed into her world. One can learn better how to live studying such a life.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 7 readers
PUBLISHER: Algonquin Books; 1 edition (January 26, 2010)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Susan Hand Shetterly
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Fictional back to the land stories:

Drop City by T.C. Boyle

Country Called Home by Kim Barnes


Children’s Books:

November 14, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: NE & New York, Non-fiction

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