2003 Little, Brown and Company
Finished on December 6, 2020
Rating: 3/5 (Good)
A yearlong meditation on the deep joys of country life.
In the pages of The New Yorker, Harper's, the New York Times, and his acclaimed books Making Hay and The Last Fine Time, Verlyn Klinkenborg has mastered a voice of singular lyricism and precision. His subject is the American landscape; not the landscape admired from a scenic overlook, but one taken from a rusty chair propped against the worn siding of a screened-in porch, or from the window of a pickup driving down an empty highway into the teeth of an approaching storm. He has a keen appreciation of the peculiarly American tableau--a Memorial Day parade, or a boy riding a bike down the middle of a dusty street. Whether reporting from a small farm in upstate New York, a high pasture deep within the Rocky Mountains, or the bricked edge of a city shuddering in the wake of a "sudden Tuesday," Klinkenborg follows the momentum of the seasons in a language as simple, unsentimental, and exacting as life itself.
In the tradition of E. B. White and Henry David Thoreau, Verlyn Klinkenborg gives us in The Rural Life a fresh view of our greatest subject, the ordinary beauty of daily life.
My dear friend Nan (Letters From a Hill Farm) gifted me this book many years ago and back in January, I decided to read a chapter each month. I've tried to read other books like this over the course of an entire year and this is the first time I've succeeded! As with any collection of essays, I enjoyed some more than others, particularly those that remind me of our early years in Nebraska. We lived on three acres, just outside the city limits, and after living in San Diego for 20 years, it felt like we were living the rural life. We had a creek running through our backyard, turkeys visiting on a regular basis, and even a small herd of cattle showing up one day as I was mowing on our John Deere tractor. As I read Klinkenborg's ruminations, I found myself nodding in agreement, recognizing situations from my life as a "country mouse." Thank you, Nan, for sharing this lovely book with me.
Every year about now, I feel the need to keep a journal. I recognize in this urge all my worst instincts as a writer. I walk past the blank books--gifts of nothingness--that pile up in bookstores at this season, and I can almost hear their clean white pages begging to be defaced. They evoke in me the amateur, the high school student, the miserable writerly aspirant I once was--a young man who could almost see the ink flowing onto the woven fibers of the blank page like the watering of some eternal garden. It took a long time, a lot of pens, and many blank books before I realized that I write in the simultaneous expectation that every word I write will live forever and be blotted out instantly. (January)
All the days with eves before them are behind us now for another year. The grand themes--rebirth and genial carnality--have come and gone like a chinook wind, bringing a familiar end-of-the-year thaw to body and spirit. Now the everyday returns and with it the ordinary kind of week in which Friday doesn't turn into Sunday--and Saturday into Sunday--as it has for two weeks running. It's time for a week in which each morning throws off a magnetic field all its own, when it's no trick telling Tuesday from Wednesday just by the sound of the alarm clock or the mood of your spouse. (January)
If deep cold made a sound, it would be the scissoring and gnashing of a skater's blades against hard gray ice, or the screeching the snow sets up when you walk across it in the blue light of afternoon. The sound might be the stamping of feet at bus stops and train stations, or the way the almost perfect clarity of the audible world on an icy day is muted by scarves and mufflers pulled up over the face and around the ears. (January)
From solstice till equinox, summer lasts only ninety-one days and six hours, a little longer if you count from Memorial Day till Labor Day. It seems like so much time. but the closer you get, the smaller summer looks, unlike winter, which looks longer and longer the nearer it comes. From a distance--from April, say--summer looks as capacious as hope. This will be the season we lose weight, eat well, work out, raise a garden, learn to kayak, read Proust, paint the house, drive to Glacier, and so on and so on and so on. This will be the season in which time stretches before us like the recesses of space itself, the season in which leisure swells like a slow tomato, until it's round and red and ripe. (May)
Beside a country road near the town of Hygiene, Colorado, stands a cottonwood that turned completely yellow the second week of August. To southbound cyclists that tree lies hidden, lurking beneath a sharp dip in the road. They coast along in summer's full incumbency--the scent of hay practically creasing their foreheads--when all at once the asphalt slopes away, and that lone cottonwood presents itself, its leaves shimmering in a bright wind that suddenly seems autumnal, full of the brittleness, the clarity, of fall. (September)
For some reason, every stage in this advancing season has brought with it a feeling of incredulity. A few weeks ago it seemed unbelievable that the leaves should be turning so soon and then that they should have dropped so promptly. Now, just this week, it seems incredible that snow should have fallen out of a goose-gray sky, skidding eastward toward the missing sun. I wake up thinking, "November already," and realize that "already" is a word that's been with me all autumn long, always measuring how far behind the season I feel. (November)
It takes no imagination to stay synchronized with the shifting of the season, with the retracting daylight or the sudden gathering of a wet morning wind that gets behind your ears and under your hair when you feed the animals. You don't really even have to pay attention to keep up with the calendar. But you do have to be ready to part with the days that have already passed. September took far more than a month this year. It probably took two months, the one our bodies lived and the wholly different month we lived in our minds. Time fell out of gear for almost everyone.
Some of the reluctance that comes with this autumn is mere uncertainty, a sense that no one really knows the score. Going into winter takes confidence, even in a normal year, even if it's nothing more than confidence in one's own preparations. Somehow that's not good enough this year. Like everyone, I find myself wanting the world to be right with itself again, even if only in the wrong old ways. In the heart of the reluctance I feel and hear in the voices of my neighbors, there's a longing for the inconsequential summer we were having not so many weeks ago. Longing is probably too strong a word. Better to say that the memory of what was, for many Americans, an uneventful August exerts a certain attraction right now. But the present is irrefutable. The leaves won't rise again, except on a cold wind. Before long, I hope, that won't seem so regrettable. (November) [Klinkenborg was writing of 9/11, but he very well could have been writing about any month in 2020!]