Tales from the Edge: A review of Extremophilia


Extremophilia, River Rats,
Timber Tramps,
Biker Trash, and Realtors:
New and Selected Writings

Fred Haefele
145 pages,
softcover: $16.95.
Bangtail Press, 2011.

If you're not familiar with the term extremophilia, don't worry. As Missoula, Mont., author Fred Haefele explains: "It's a genuine neologism. A freshly minted word. It refers to someone with an intemperate love of extremophiles, those intrepid little organisms that manage to thrive in the most hostile environments on earth."

Haefele is a self-described "writer and author for hire" best known for his memoir, Rebuilding the Indian, in which he paralleled his approach to middle age with his restoration of a "basket case" classic motorcycle. His essays have been published in a wide variety of magazines; this new book contains 20 years' worth of them, on topics ranging from an Ice-Age-to-present-day view of Missoula to Stanford University during Haefele's Wallace Stegner fellowship to Evel Knievel's funeral in Butte. The title and inset cover photo of the author, shaggy hair hanging in tangles, tongue out and arms raised, may deter less extreme readers from picking up this book, but don't be misled -- this slim volume is easy to relate to and read.

What the essays have in common is a deep, but never sentimental, affection for the West. Haefele left New England as a young man, a tree surgeon deeply influenced by Ken Kesey's work and drawn by the mythology of the West. Extremophilia's stories are grounded in Haefele's experiences as a logger, firefighter, teacher, father and motorcycle aficionado. His writing is strongest when it details familiar Western experiences and landscapes. Describing an intense fire season, for example, he writes, "A column of white smoke massed, rose like a cumulus shot with lighting."

Haefele's tales of Western culture, characters and places are both casual and transcendent, although most tend to have a requisite lesson. After much reflecting on a reunion river trip with his adult children, Haefele concludes, "To simply live to tell the story -- maybe that's all the trip was about after all." Extremophilia can be read as a writer's résumé, but Haefele brings his self-effacing humor to places consistently worth visiting, and his genuine and gleaming vision may deepen the reader's appreciation of things too easily taken for granted.

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