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Know the West

Confronting life's essentials


Every so often, I long to relocate to a metropolis far from my sleepy Oregon hometown and my third of an acre of Douglas firs and screech owls. "Oh, Melissa," chides a friend used to these yearnings. "Just take a vacation and move your couch."

The desire for change entices us. Those who live in the country are intrigued by the city, while urban folks ponder a life closer to the land. This ongoing search for the right place to live is the subject of two recent memoirs.

Amy Minato, in Siesta Lane: A Year Unplugged, decides that even her mid-sized leafy town of Eugene presents too much distraction from nature. She heads out to a cabin in the woods, on acreage shared with the residents of several other cabins. "A demure window-speckled wooden house snuggled under the arm of an oak seems to wink at me," she writes of the 10-foot-square building that would become her new home. "I stop walking, stunned with love."

At Siesta Lane, Minato stalks mushrooms and writes poetry. Several of the poems make it into her book, providing a lyrical glimpse into her tranquil mindset. She includes black-and-white photos of her life in the country: the community dinner table, Siesta Lane's battered mailbox and her beloved cabin. Jan Muir's sketches aptly illustrate the great horned owls, marsh wrens and trillium blossoms that populate the land.

Minato meditates on the impossible cold of winter dawn without a furnace, and on the luxury of lowering herself into a wood-heated bathtub. She describes the growing bond she shares with her neighbors and tells charming anecdotes about community dinners. At one point, chocolate cravings inspire her and her friends -- far from a market -- to create eclairs from cocoa powder and stale graham crackers.

Minato would gladly stay at Siesta Lane forever. "I've never felt so at home anywhere," she writes, "so right about a place." But when the landlord sells the property, she finds herself forced to move on.

Still, a year spent moving to the rhythms of the natural world has given her new fortitude, and she leaves her cabin bolstered by the solid sense of being at home with herself, wherever she might go.

Memoirist Rebecca K. O'Connor, in Lift, cares less about her own living situation and more about providing her peregrine falcon, Anakin, with a place to hunt. After O'Connor, a falconer and professional bird trainer, purchased a juvenile peregrine, she began searching for a suitable duck pond away from gunshots and traffic. The bird, intoxicated with exploration, flies away more than once, leading O'Connor all over southeastern California. It is a compelling story.

"I can't help but think that while Hollywood lulled us into a sweet dream of gloriously lit foreign places, most of California's perfection slipped away beneath the concrete of the film industry," she writes of the land she calls home. "Where exactly out here would a falcon want to go?" She eventually discovers the bird perched on a 100-foot pole above buildings and cars.

O'Connor finds sanctuary for herself and her falcon at Whitewater Ranch, on BLM land cared for by an aging cowboy called Butch. "Are you hunting my ducks?" he demands. Then he offers his blessing and accompanies the author on excursions with her bird. "Enjoy it while it lasts," he says of Whitewater, and before the book is finished, Butch, too, must round up his cattle and move on. O'Connor stays, hunting with Anakin and hiding behind a berm when rangers appear.

What does home mean to someone like Minato, who bonds with every stone and bird at Siesta Lane, only to be forced to vacate? What can it mean to a peregrine -- a raptor that migrates thousands of miles to South America? Readers who waver, as I do, between establishing a permanent home and seeking new adventures are likely to find more questions than answers in these memoirs. But in contemplating each author's search for her place in the world, they may find -- or rediscover -- their own.

At the end of each book, I found myself filled with new gratitude for my hometown and small plot of land. In Siesta Lane, I recognized my own intimate connection with the spiders that stretch webs between the Japanese maples I planted, the Townsend's warbler that annually appears at my suet feeder.

And in Lift, I delighted in the thought of the falcon in love with the skies, but returning again and again to the familiarity of its handler's glove. Were I to give in to temptation and take flight, I know that I'd wake in the city homesick for my firs and screech owls. So instead, I book a ticket to see friends in New York, and then move my couch from one end of my living room to the other.