Human ecotones: where the mind meets the land

by Christopher Moore | 5/22/01 5:00am

Isobars of cosmopolitania radiate, decreasing, from Hanover, the air in each subsequent ring more rarified, temperature and pressure relating inversely. With increasing distance from DHMC, the Hop and multilevel parking-lots at 7 Leb, "culture" slips, giving air to "people" and "land." Not to say there is less, or even not the same amount, of culture as one nears the borders of the Upper Valley, then breaches the peaks enclosing it, or that there are fewer people and less land at its epicenter. Rather, with a change of degree, external tension subsides, the mass of cars and four-way stop lights and spray-on lawn relents, and internal conflicts between self and real property, or self and another self, gain privilege, or at least light.

Towns at least one main bridge away -- Thetford-Lyme or Windsor-Cornish -- begin to exhibit this tendency, if even an extrinsic one, of focusing less on the traffic of things and ideas and more on the traffic of people and weather. Let us take Thetford, or up the hill to Thetford Center, for a minute. Terry Osborne lives around there.

Osborne and his wife moved to Thetford in the late eighties, from Chicago. He rented, first, then purchased a home north of the Hill. He saw the land, the environs, not as home, immediately, but as a place to stay. The right place to stay, even. The valley put him into awe, if not immediate comfort.

"[It] seems to have built its own character, and influenced ours, through commingled contraries: ground carved by a now unseen river into two straight ridges; two straight ridges bent towards each other to form an enclosure; the enclosure coaxed open by a restless sky; and that sky somehow calmed by the straight curvature of the rock."

Awed and wondering, Osborne set himself a many-year project (how many years it would take he couldn't have guessed at the beginning) to learn about the land he could see from his house. Like any good paper, he limited his focus, start with a concrete thesis -- this is how a several-square mile depression in the earth affects me, and effects in me the changes which will account for the progress of my life over the next dozen and more years. He also has a hypothesis, which Thoreau and Muir and Carson and all those folks spent their life to support, and to which much of the rest of "contemporary civilization" tries to give a counterexample -- as N. Scott Momaday writes, quoted in the epigraph, "You don't really know who you are until you know where you are in a physical sense."

The physicality of life, how organic it is, how grounded it is in the most literal sense possible -- Osborne knows this. His wife Robin and he must live together, as two people in one place. How does one do this? They have two sons, and they must raise them, not just think about raising them. Problems, not in the intellectual or spiritual sense, but in the physical, actual sense "materialize" daily. Then -- depression, not of the earth, but in one's progression through life. Organic, too. A mind -- a brain? -- which disagrees with the I -- which needs more energy than one can provide it -- which we hate for its pessimism but we need because we have become dependent on it for "realism" and "good sense." Will we deny the good sense of good sense?

Terry Osborne's book does several things rather well. It is a record of twelve years in the life of a man who is a writer, a naturalist-to-be, a husband, a father, a professor and who is depressed. There are plenty of "lives of a writer" and "lives of a person depressed" (Styron somewhat recently combined the two), but rarely does an author combine the two with a "life of a person who's just in one spot trying to deal with it." He makes the struggle with his alter-ego, that is, with himself, palpable, real. Not ignoring the mundane rituals of coming home in the evening, or dealing with unruly kids, or being late for work, he gains the advantage of accessibility, shedding presumptions of the tragic artist for the human -- who is always tragic and is always striving for art.

His chapters, divided generally into particular endeavors (his students and audience members will remember the fine sections on the Water Drill and the hot-air balloon), provide a good approach to natural history. I appreciated his systematic description of the northern Upper Valley -- some residents of Hanover travel further to the mall in their hometown than they do to the richly interesting towns in this area. His is a beginner's guide to spending time in the woods, looking. In the tradition of naturalists -- Dillard seems an obvious predecessor -- he includes a pleasant (if not always totally necessary) selection of excerpts from other great writers.

But his book has, unfortunately, many faults. It lacks a clarity and brilliance of prose. His description is good, but not memorable, and his turns of phrase sometimes turn clich. The trek through life he describes is full of what can only be described as nave profundity. The dialogue, while most likely "accurate," is weak and flat. The internal dialogues Osborne had with his alter-ego were written in a funny, rather irritating dialect, full of sarcastic "atta boys."

These concerns are less criticisms than complaints. The two meet, however, when paragraphs let me think that Osborne is defining depression as an annoying internal dialogue and tendency towards anger, and the emergence from depression is asking the "big questions" and seeing the forest for the trees. For he is not trying to define depression in this way. But sometimes it sounds like it, and with a book, "sounds" matter.

We learn in this book, as Osborne did, about maturity. The maturity, much to my dissatisfaction, did not come through in the writing or the lessons expressed therein, but only through the sympathetic understanding of what he was trying to say. Fortunately, this sympathetic understanding can make the book worthwhile, and many other things worthwhile as well.