All the Right Notes

Don’t you love it when a book just fits, when it drops into your hands at the right moment, when you open the pages and it’s like you’ve punched a ticket to some destination that’s always been on your mind but never (or rarely) visited? When it hits all the right notes, like a backwoods stream running jazz riffs over river rocks?

So it was, for me, with Breaking Into the Backcountry, a memoir by Steve Edwards. 

Like any reader, I’m fussy. I have biases, needs. A book that hits on my desires, my sore spots, my limitations is a rare thing. It won’t do the same for you, most likely. But the synchronicity of written work and reader readiness is what we all aim for. And it’s almost as mysterious as the process of literary composition itself.

Which is a warning: this isn’t a book review. It’s a self-study: why did this memoir work so well, for me, at this point in the spring of 2016? Among my needs, for various reasons: short; place-based; non-fiction; nature; personal growth (ugh, what a term – but it fits); getaways. 

I became curious about the book after exploring the history and writings of the Cascadia region, including those of Oregon writer John Daniel (no relation). Through Daniel’s Rogue River Journals, I found out about the Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, which I once considered applying for. Somewhere along the way, I found Steve Edwards on Twitter, thought his book looked like my thing, and eventually got around to ordering it.

I haven’t been to the Rogue River wilderness, but last winter drove through southern Oregon for the first time, surprised by the extent of its rugged high country. We don’t have a monopoly on remote lands up here in Canada.

Rogue River canyon

Rogue River canyon

When the book arrived, I was just recovering from a concussion. I needed lots of quiet time. Reading of any sort had to be limited but reading from hard copy books was much easier on the jiggly brain than online reading. Breaking Into the Backcountry is short (178 pages). It seemed manageable. And its subject – a retreat to the wild, to nature, seemed very appealing to a head in need of healing.

What intrigued me about the Boyden writing retreat scenario is that it’s long (7 months), whereas most writing retreats are at most a few weeks – hardly enough time to let the mind settle. It’s remote – something that’s inherently attractive to the introvert in me. And it includes a bit of real life responsibility: the writer is expected to do an hour or so a day of chores on the wilderness acreage. Real stuff, like keeping roadways clear, cleaning out culverts, repairing equipment that goes on the blink. That sounds like just enough to keep the retreat’s writer-caretakers attached to reality, in contrast to academic residencies that coddle and separate the writer from the world. 

Steve Edwards won the residency at the remote south-west Oregon homestead and a $5000 stipend in 2001. As a 20-something writer between relationships and uninspiring part-time teaching jobs, he seeks out the wilderness experience with all the expected references to Thoreau but more doubts than high-minded philosophies.

Edwards, from what he shares in this account, is no handyman. I knew he was my kind of guy when he described, early on, being locked out of the cabin property when he couldn’t remember (or think through) how to open the gate latch. Unlike the rugged backwoods survivalists we often encounter in journals about the wilderness, he struggles with machines, with tools, with learning to cast a fishing rod.

Bradley Boyden, owner of the retreat homestead, fishing on the Rogue River.

Owner of the retreat homestead, Bradley Boyden, fishing on the Rogue River

The gate latch gets solved but Edwards struggles, even on the good and busy days, with tinges of loneliness and melancholy. He worries that his life isn’t as it should be. “I think my life could be better, bigger, could mean more to more people. Tonight I am alone and vaguely afraid. Maybe for me courage means admitting that my life’s nothing more than what it is.”

The residency isn’t subsistence living by any means – Edwards makes weekly four-hour round-trip treks to town for supplies – but it does push everyday necessities up front. Edwards initially welcomes mice around the cabin, then resorts to poison to keep them at bay, then anguishes over their deaths. In the backcountry, life and death are not just coffee shop topics.

Meanwhile, of course, Edwards is writing (fiction, non-fiction, some poetry) and at one point in the narrative breaks away from the cabin’s quiet to attend a writers’ conference at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. His descriptions of middle-aged (and older) wannabe writers should make many cringe. I could be one of those guys, I think, when he talks about a 60-something banker and doctor in his small group. All the discussions about ‘the writing business’ and grand pretentious manuscripts are not at all what he needs. “As I’m sitting there bored out of my skull, listening to this nonsense, it becomes clear to me: this isn’t a writer’s conference, it’s a fantasy camp.” The conference is set to run another three days but he packs and leaves immediately, heading back to the solitude of the cabin in the wilderness. Bailing out. I can’t count how many times I have done the same.

At all junctures, Edwards moves back and forth with his own self-doubts. At times he settles into idyllic routines, only to be jarred by events, or discouraged by his own lack of adventure. At one point, after declining an opportunity to explore the river canyon more deeply, he says “A doorway had been opened to me, and for some reason I chose not to enter.” I read lines like that feeling empathy for the writer, but even stronger pangs of recognition: there I am.

The writing is clear, clean, like a stream. I savoured each of the short chapters, chapters that could easily stand on their own as well formed essays. Breaking Into the Backcountry builds a thoughtful perspective on solitude, our social connections, and the evolving role of wilderness in our society. 

Mostly, though, the book just hit points that resonated in my life. Getting away. Quiet. Self care. Uncertainty. Learning from place. Melancholy. Natural healing.

It’s a pleasure when the notes roll out in such melodic form.

Comments

  1. Hello, Lorne. I found you have been following you because you talk about “place”. I am doing my masters of art in art education on the topic of place and its impact on the artist, and place and its impact on healing. I am also a writer and photographer – and focus on place. When I have read your postings I kept thinking that I know you. Then . . . .
    You won’t remember me, nor my husband Barry Hegland, probably. But as it turns out we all went to U of Lethbridge, all knew Marty Oordt. And when I searched through our bookcases, there it was – the link. A copy of your book of poetry, Towards a New Compass, signed by you (Lethbridge, Jan 1983). How small a world, how serendipitous.

    • Lorne Daniel says:

      Hi Linda, that copy of the book was likely from my visit back to U of L as Writer in Residence, a few years after I graduated. Interesting, those connections that weave in and out of our lives. I have very fond memories of my two years in Lethbridge, connecting with writers / editors like Marty Oordt, Bill Latta and Peter Christensen. We launched the Canada Goose literary mag then. And speaking of place – I think it was when I went to the dramatic flatlands and Oldman River valley of Lethbridge that I first realized the powerful influence of place on our souls.
      Thanks for (re)connecting and for following the blog. It has been very sporadic over the years (one wonders about the value of posting when there’s so much stuff “out there”), but it’s good to know that pieces are read by thoughtful readers from time to time 🙂

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