I enjoy books about the country, though I live in a city.
In W. D. Wetherell’s meditative 2002 collection of essays, North of Now: A Celebration of Country and the Soon to Be Gone, he describes life in rural New Hampshire. His way of life, he says, is headed for extinction. He fishes for trout, looks at the stars in an unpolluted sky, writes and receives letters in the age of e-mail, and knows where to find the best raspberries in August. He writes that Baby Boomers are a transitional generation between their grandparents and grandchildren “who will have no inkling of that world save from what portion of the collective memory and wisdom we are able to pass on…”
In the introduction, he explains,
In trying to record the pleasures of a life that is increasingly made up of the threatened, the soon to be gone, it seems best to celebrate what made these precious in the first place, not to try to convince people to go back to them, restore them to providence. I write with absolutely no hope of that.
Part of the reason I like this book so much is that I feel a pang of recognition. Life in towns and cities has also changed. Downtown died with the exodus to the suburbs and the construction of giant malls. People drive enormous decorative trucks and SUVs, despite global warming. They stay indoors (I often stay indoors, too), connected to computers and tablets. And the cell phone industry has persuaded everyone to buy unnecessary portable phones. (No, these are not for emergencies.)
Wetherell recommends Louise Dickinson Rich’s 1942 classic, We Took to the Woods.
I recently tracked it down at a sale. It is a delightful record of the Rich family’s life in the backwoods of Maine in the 1930s and ’40s. After years of living in cities, Louise and her husband, Ralph, both writers, moved to the woods. They bought a property with several buildings, originally built as a fishing camp.
Amazon Prime didn’t deliver to their house. In the winter, the roads were so snowy that they were cut off from town for months. They had to stock up on canned goods. They chop wood, garden, fish, occasionally hunt game and butcher it, attempt to train their affectionate huskies to pull a dog sled, and get acquainted with the cooks and lumberjacks at the lumber camps. Their son Rufus throve.
Rich is a very likable, straightforward writer. We Took to the Woods reads like a cross between Walden and the entertaining country chronicles of Gladys Taber. Louise loves the woods and does not miss civilization: she has time to read all the books she never read (she reads all of Proust and doesn’t think much of him); her librarian sister’s friend, a bookstore owner, sends her the galleys of the latest books; she listens to music on the radio, and they get Time once a week.
Like Gladys Taber, she is also a good cook. She includes recipes for baked beans, pies, and other goodies. I adored reading them and hope to make the baked beans someday. (It is an all-day operation.)
One winter, a friend, Alice Miller, calls her. “Louise, how much food have you got? I got a crew of five walked in here along the shore from the Arm to stay over the break-up and do some work on the dam. I ain’t got a thing to feed them.”
Louise doesn’t have much food, but she manages for three days.
We had pea soup, which is very filling. I sent Gerrish (the hired man) fishing…. We had cornmeal mush and molasses. The butter ran out, but we had johnny-cake and the last of the jam I had made the fall before. We had dandelion greens and fiddle-heads …”
I couldn’t live like this! I couldn’t stand to be cold in the winter and to be cut off from civilization. But this is an important book. People used to live like this. Do they still?