I suppose we have the Romantics to blame for making us believe that we can find ourselves in the contemplation of nature and the pleasures of solitude. A lot of us long to “get away” to somewhere quiet, for a weekend, or a week, or longer, to press the reset button, to make the hubbub go away and make ourselves clear to ourselves again. Telling stories about such journeys, like Wordsworth did about Tintern Abbey, or Thoreau did about his iconic pond, seems to have carved a groove into the North American psyche. I’m not a novelist or fiction writer, but sometimes, when in a day dream, I thought I might write that kind of plot. The formless ideas for this fiction were just another way for me to indulge in the desire to get away, to find the quiet inside.
Which is why I was looking forward to reading Breaking into the Backcountry (University of Nebraska Press, 2010) by Steve Edwards, a memoir about a young writer who spends seven months living in Southwestern Oregon. The idea that the author was not an outdoorsman appealed to me; I could read the book and treat him like a proxy for myself, and vicariously experience his journey into a more contemplative life. I did, and heartily recommend the book.
Edwards writes in a warm, open voice that is crisp and controlled. We might expect a grandilocuent voice, the voice of the man who becomes a giant thanks to his interactions with bears, deer, the river and the moon, but Edwards gives us a voice in a smaller, more ordinary key, and as such, he is a lot more affecting. The point is not that nature with a capital ‘N’ changes who you are –although Edwards certainly is changed by the experience– but that knowing nature, and knowing yourself, is a difficult process, a constant negotiation with fear and memory. What I appreciated most about the book was not the trappings of the fantasy of living off the grid, but how Edwards evoked his insecurities and the effort needed to be aware and present of his surroundings. You can move to a cabin in southwestern Oregon but that doesn’t mean you get to unplug who you are, where you come from and what you fear. It is in those aspects of who we are that we find the barriers to finding the quiet inside of ourselves.
Breaking into the Backcountry is a rewarding book for these reasons. Edwards takes us on a journey into both wonder and doubt. The writing flows beautifully, and the lack of pretension that Edwards brings to one of the most pretentious subjects ever is lovely. The big quiet, which is the title of one of the chapters in the book, emerges not as a material destination in the natural world but as an elusive state of being that has been occluded by the hubbub of our busy lives, by our sadness and the ghosts of our past. I am grateful for this book because now I don’t have to fantasize about writing something like it, which I probably would not have gotten around to doing. More importantly: I would certainly not have done as good a job as Edwards has done.
More about Steve Edwards here.