Breaking into the Backcountry
Steve Edwards
192 pages, softcover: $16.95.
University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

"In the seven months I spent in the backcountry, in relative solitude, I rarely felt as alone as I do sitting at this table," writes Steve Edwards, describing his return to the family dining room after a lengthy sojourn by Oregon's Rogue River. An unpublished writer, the young Edwards had applied for and won the PEN/Northwest Wilderness Writing Residency in 2001, its prize seven months of isolation in which to write in an old homestead, living off the grid with two hours of dirt road between him and the nearest gas station.

Those months form the subject of the Indiana-born writer's memoir, which begins in the flat, distinctly non-wild Midwest but soon moves to a remote acreage replete with bears, coyotes and cougars -- and, most frightening, possible human predators. Edwards' honesty is refreshing, especially when, as a self-conscious male writing in Hemingway's Man-Against-Nature mode, he candidly catalogues his fears: bears, extended solitude, and the harrowing dread that he has nothing new to say in a world overflowing with books.

Breaking into the Backcountry may not offer a fresh plot: A "green" young man finds himself out of his depth in the dark woods, seeking his heart's desire amid an abundance of time and solitude. But it's worth looking over his shoulder to experience his encounters with the natural world:

"Enormous, luminous, the moonrise shoots wide white beams across the mountain. The barn roof comes into relief, each cedar shake. My friends the deer stand still a moment in the meadow behind the garden, as though spooked by the sudden appearance of their shadows. ... The moon pulses like a white-hot heart through the exposed rib cage of the tree with the hole in it."

Edwards confronts the challenge of doing the ecologically right thing: He's stricken by guilt when he poisons the mice that scrabble around the cabin, interrupting his sleep. "It's a poisoning of the mind and the imagination, and what hemorrhages is a sense of responsibility to anything beyond my own comfort."

Edwards can be naïve, even foolish, as he readily admits, but the reader envies him nonetheless. When he returns to Indiana, he seems transformed; "Some friends think I've gone a little kooky in the head, and maybe I have." Life with wild creatures has awakened him to the uncontrollable nature of reality, the richness of a world that thrives in spite of human beings. And, he concludes, "Maybe it's a good thing."