A memoir of sorrow and grace

Pam Houston conveys the pleasures and challenges of rural life.

 

When your homestead in the Colorado Rockies is threatened by wildfire, it's easy to believe you have a front-row seat at the Apocalypse. In her recent memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, novelist and essayist Pam Houston sees the disaster of climate change already unfolding at her ranch, but finds strength and solace in the practical work involved in protecting her land, her animals and the wild landscape they share.

Houston — author of several books, including the short story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness and the novels Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound — is an acerbic and self-deprecating writer. She often focuses on women who are competent in navigating the natural world but can't handle romance with the hard-earned skill they bring to, say, white-water rafting.

The essays in Deep Creek examine the life Houston has created at her 120-acre southern Colorado homestead at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, “the only real home” she ever had. It’s a place she shares with various horses, donkeys, Irish wolfhounds and Icelandic sheep. As a professor of English at UC Davis, Houston has had to spend much time away from it, leading writing workshops. Deep Creek recounts her struggles to remain emotionally connected to the ranch and its inhabitants, even as her career compels her to grapple with the challenges of the outside world.

Much of Pam Houston’s inspiration for her books has come from nature around her ranch in Colorado. As she says,“… my method, the way I have written every single thing I have written, it is also the primary way I worship, the way I kneel down and kiss the earth.”
Courtesy of Pam Houston

Houston writes candidly of her childhood in “The Tinnitus of Truth Telling” and “Retethering,” recalling how she was raised by two dangerous and abusive alcoholics, who between them managed to wreck 16 cars before Houston had her own learner’s permit.

Houston was desperate to find the kind of sanctuary offered by her ranch, a place of breathtaking beauty, seeking a sense of rootedness and protection lacking in her chaotic upbringing. She doesn’t dismiss the challenges and heartbreaks of rural life, but in “The Season of Hunkering Down,” “Mother’s Day Storm” and other essays she conveys the merits of choosing an existence closer to nature.

The physical world gives her everything she needs for storytelling, Houston writes. She feels a “glimmer” as she goes through her day, “a little charge of resonance that says, 'Hey, writer, look over here.' ” As she notes, it is “… my method, the way I have written every single thing I have written, it is also the primary way I worship, the way I kneel down and kiss the earth.”

Each chapter is followed by a “Ranch Almanac” entry, usually focused on her animals, from the poop-strewing habits of the mini-donkeys to the obstreperous antics of the chickens. These snapshots convey the everyday pleasures and challenges of living in a remote location.

The collection’s dramatic centerpiece is “Diary of a Fire,” an account of the conflagration that nearly consumed her home in 2013. Houston was teaching in Oregon throughout much of it, and her anxiety at not being there to protect her animals and buildings is palpable.

Now she can see the humor in her attempts to reach Portland's airport with a volunteer driver who admits, “I'm way too scared to drive on the highway!” Vivid scene-setting is part of the book's charm, along with Houston's ability to juggle humor and pathos.

The piece is sprinkled with U.S. Forest Service fire terminology, which becomes a kind of poetry of competence, words employed in the face of monumental technical challenge. After record Western wildfires and more to come, the terminology feels more relevant than ever. Climate change will make us all revise our language of the cataclysmic.

Houston’s ranch survived, and Houston glimpses a silver lining in her experience, writing, “Scary as it was, there wasn’t a single day in the West Fork Fire that wasn’t deeply interesting.”

Like a lot of nonfiction published in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Deep Creek contains its share of grief, anger and pain. Houston writes, “We are all dying, and because of us, so is the earth. … But it isn’t dead yet and neither are we.”

And, as the book progresses, its tone lightens. Houston writes of the kindnesses received, moments of danger averted by strangers “who have come through for me when I trusted them with my life.” She visits Alaska and witnesses a narwhal migration, “as magical a thing as will happen to me in my lifetime.” After the intensity of “Diary of a Fire,” the shift is welcome.

Deep Creek is genuinely uplifting and positive, its author aware of life’s darkness but determined not to let it immobilize her. With humor and insight, she shows a way past sorrow and into grace, for humans and animals alike.

Michael Berry is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California. He reviews books for a wide range of publications including Sierra Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle

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