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Know the West

Home is where the compost is


Robert Michael Pyle has synthesized three decades of life in a small community in southwest Washington into this exquisite portrait of place. Each chapter of Sky Time in Gray’s River represents a month of the year in Gray’s River Valley; each brims with vivid moments and vignettes.

Pyle, a renowned butterfly expert, has 14 books to his credit and a regular column in Orion magazine. This down-to-earth book hums with the details of country living, the intersection of the wild with the domestic: A coyote ventures near Pyle’s house, bees reside in his walls, he excavates a wood-rat nest in the attic.

Pyle delights in phenology, declaring that “the progression of seasons as told by its animal and plant appearances” is the ideal way to know a place’s heart. His pages are alive with the seasonal arrivals and departures of birds, insects and blooms, and shifts in what the animals, trees and neighbors are doing.

Although the details are striking, the book as a whole sometimes feels formless, as if the chapters are not quite knitted together. At its best, though, Sky Time follows in the tradition of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Pyle’s observations often harbor a lively humor, as in how he came to hold “a record king salmon in a slimy bearhug.”

Pyle’s engagement with phenomena such as compost piles and copulating slugs alerts us to wonder’s quiet residence in the ordinary. The book opens and ends in the compost heap, and compost is an appropriate metaphor for the mindful living committed to his home-place that shines throughout the book: “My daily walk to the compost heap is the closest thing I know to sacrament.”

Sky Time inspires us to look for possibilities of grace close to home. Pyle’s unusual backyard sighting of a rustic bunting (far from its Siberian breeding range) happens two years in a row. The bird’s return reminds us of the “sweetness of chance in any place, and the certainty of wonder in all places.”

Sky Time in Gray’s River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place

Robert Michael Pyle

256 pages, hardcover: $20.

Houghton Mifflin, 2007.