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Spring 2003
Volume 39, No. 3
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Alumni Records




Healing Landscapes

The Rural Life
By Verlyn Klinkenborg ’74
Little, Brown and Co., 2003
224 pp., $20.00 hardcover.

I remember feeling a faint surprise upon reading the note at the end of this collection of short essays, in which the author lets us know that these “notes and observations” were originally published mostly on the editorial page of The New York Times, also in some magazines, The New Yorker, GQ, This Old House, and DoubleTake. This made me regret (for a while, anyway) that I was no longer a NYT reader—the Los Angeles Times kicks up quite enough dust daily for me as it is—because I imagined how much more pleasure I would have received in reading these beautifully conceived and elegantly written meditations on rural living when they were cheek-by-jowl with the solemn pontifications, dire warnings of impending collapse of civilization as we know it, economic entrails-inspection, and general tut-tuttery that roars out at us from the editorial pages. Newspapers are extremely noisy, so it gives me pleasure to imagine meeting these little essays in that context—little oases of quiet wisdom in the middle of the fray.

The collection of these columns into a single volume presents some problems; the arrangement of around a hundred short pieces involves figuring how to make the whole thing unified while at the same time providing enough variety to hold monotony at bay. Klinkenborg achieves this feat sensibly and artfully by using the system long a favorite of writers in the tradition of Pastoral, the calendar. The book is organized into 12 chapters, one for each month of the year, the columns in each chapter having some connection to that month, so that there is a natural and deeply significant shape to the whole. And as for the variety, the arrangement of the sections within each chapter displays considerable range. Some themes appear and re-appear like strands in a tapestry—the yearning for mud-season to give way to spring, the weather in every season, the light changing as the sun climbs and sinks during the cycle of the year, the sense of being behindhand on the chores required by each season—getting in hay for the horses, firewood for the winter, keeping the garden weeded.

Rural living is a theme that comes to us with a lot of baggage hung on it—all of it redolent of the past and therefore necessarily in dialogue, if not in outright combat, with the present. To make a conscious choice to live in the country while earning a living in the heart of the heart of the city (Klinkenborg is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times) makes the confrontation between rural and urban, past and present, part of the fabric of one’s life. One of the things I admire most about this collection is the way the writer keeps a lid on what must be the natural impulse of all writers in the Pastoral mode, the urge to use the country as a stick with which to beat the city. The Pastoral tradition was constructed by sophisticated, courtly, urban poets, from Horace to Spenser to Wordsworth, which makes the urge to praise country living vulnerable to descents into nostalgia (back in the good old days in the country) or strident anti-urban tub-thumping. Klinkenborg is to be praised for avoiding both extremes, because of his ability to look very closely at what is before him in his daily life and to think deeply about what he sees.

This is not to say that the anti-urban strain is not present here—it is heard loud and clear from time to time, but it always springs from his experience, his place in the world at a particular moment. In one of the essays in the “February” chapter he describes driving through Lafayette, Colorado, near Denver, seeing on one side of the road old farms and the old pattern of land use still visible while on the other there stretches a vast expanse of bare earth covered with new houses, and then meditates on the scene:

In America we’ve learned to locate the meaning of rural life in the past, thereby dismissing it. That’s one of the premises behind the sprawl now girdling every city in this nation. Where asphalt-shingled houses spread across the horizon, it sometimes looks like the ash a prairie fire leaves behind. The houses spread almost as fast as a prairie fire, but their effect is longer lasting. They are monuments to incomplete arguments, to false assumptions about economic progress and demographic necessity. The strange part is that those endless new streets and new houses almost always enshrine an idea of land use, of community, of living itself, that is already old and failing, an experiment that is tried and found wanting day after day. (22-3)

This particular piece is one of a number sprinkled throughout the book that describe Klinkenborg’s visits to the Western U.S., primarily Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, to visit friends and relatives, but the majority of the essays are rooted in his life on a small farm in upstate New York. If he shows that he isn’t afraid of the great themes in the quote given above, the pieces about his place show his skill at making the small and the quotidian deeply significant. In a passage from “December” he describes the way snow throws the vegetation it hasn’t covered into sharp relief because of the “blankness of the background,” and gives stature to otherwise humble things:

Burdocks—most grasping, most contemptible of weeds—spread like ancient oaks. Galls appear like minarets high on a clump of weed stalks. Golden-rods bend as though they were seaweed swayed by a light current. The ingenuity, the evolutionary virtuosity, of botanical design becomes apparent among the motherwort, a plant with carillon after carillon of empty, spiny bells surrounding its four-sided stalk. (206)

The range of subject and the closeness of attention displayed in the writing here is impressive, not because of an urge to display writerly technique, but because of the acuteness of the writer’s attention and the careful thought about what he sees before him. There is the sense here that the rural life affords a variety of experience like no other, not only because of the environment itself, but because of the variety of engagement that the life requires or invites. Beyond the plants and the animals, wild and domestic, and the weather—everything in the external world in a state of continual flux—there is variety of the labor itself. Caring for livestock (Klinkenborg has a fine wry piece about his plans to keep pigs), gardening, carpentry, plumbing and electricity, using and repairing tools and machinery, from horse trailers to bale elevators. In a section of “April,” for example, he writes of making raised beds in his garden with cedar rails salvaged from a section of rotted-out fence line:

[The rails] had turned gray over the years, and a lichen like the discolorations on a whale’s back had taken root on some of them. This is the sort of gift that an old farmhouse will sometimes give you—57 nine-foot cedar rails that look like something out of a poem by Robert Frost or James Whitcomb Riley. I laid out raised beds 4 1/2 by 9 feet in the vegetable garden using some of them. At the moment, the ground is still bare and mounded. It looks as though I had slain and interred five giants all in a row and not yet erected the markers. So fearsome is the early gardener. (40)

This passage is but an example of many like it in the book, in which the writer becomes more than observer and thinker about the big idea of the rural; he becomes a participant, imbedded in, shaped by and shaping the life he opens up to us in the essays. This is why Klinkenborg is entirely justified in including some very personal, biographical writing here. In the longest piece of the collection, he offers a memoir of his father and his grandfather and their connections to the rural life, in the process coming to understand his own choices and commitments. There is a great honesty in this extended meditation, a sense that he is working it out as he writes:

This farm of mine—these few bony acres—is the estate I’ve inherited from my father, a landscape both tangible and intangible. That’s how I think of it. It’s a way of propagating what I’ve learned about him and myself. It carries me back to a time when I was very young, standing at the edge of the garden in a small Iowa town watching him work a hive of bees. He wore white overalls, a helmet and veil, and he stood on a step- ladder because the hive was so tall, the honey flow from the surrounding farm fields so heavy. When Dad was here last June, one of the first things we did was walk down to look at the bee-hives on the edge of the garden. Then we worked together for a couple of days building a run-in shed for the horses. But as we set posts and measured rafters, I realized I wanted to be building his run-in shed, not mine. I wanted to be adding another structure to property he no longer owned, assuring a continuity of man and landscape that would last another thirty or forty years. I knew then that I would have to go on with this work alone, that someday it would have to be both father and son to me. (93-4)

Taken as a whole, this is more than a collection of essays on the country life; it is a kind of autobiography in which observer and observed, the figure and ground, become one thing. But don’t take it as a whole; this is not a book to be read in one or two sittings. Take your time with it, and see if it doesn’t help you see yourself in and with your landscape in a new and healing way.

—Steven C. Young is the Dr. Mary Ann Vanderzyl Reynolds
Professor of English at Pomona College.