The packing continues. We have three days to go and in that time we need to be very brutal in choosing what we take with us to Montana. I keep culling from my suitcase and either leaving things on our windowsill to be taken away by the rag and bone men, or bringing them to the Oxfam drop-off box. The terrible thing is that somehow in all this culling, I have managed to put my copy of John Muir’s collected writings into storage. It was a copy ordered specially from the US by my local bookshop. It was well-worn and full of notes I had made next to passages I wanted to remember and use in my writing. I am annoyed that I will have to buy another copy in the US and reread it. Maybe that’s no bad thing.
The books I am taking have been whittled down to nine:
‘The Oxford Manual of Style’, which is my copy-editing Bible. It is the size of a small microwave oven but I can’t work without it.
Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’, which I use when I am teaching. It is blessedly tiny.
John Gardner’s ‘The Art of Fiction’, which has a section on plotting I must reread as I am really struggling with the structure of a piece of fiction at the moment.
Annie Dillard’s ‘The Writing Life’, which was given to me by my sister K in Toronto. It is a wonderful book and a reminder of so many essentials to do with writing and life.
Isabella Bird’s ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’. Self-explanatory.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘Nature’, to feed my current hunger for wilderness writing.
Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’, which seems apt as we are indeed moving West.
The Moon Guide to Montana given to us by a friend.
And lastly, on a whim, a book by John Tallmadge called ‘The Cincinnati Arch: Learning from Nature in the City’.
This last one seemed like a good idea for someone like me. Someone who is at home in London’s grimy city streets littered with syringes and rubbish. I love the idea of nature. I am devoted to preserving the Earth and I do my bit to be green, and yet deep-down I am a Big City person. A skyscraper moves me more than a mountain. But in Montana, I want to properly confront nature. I want to inhabit it on a fundamental level and in doing so, perhaps inhabit my self in a way I have never done. In Henry Thoreau’s words, this move has urged me to ‘Simplify, simplify’, which is perhaps the first step towards an existence poised towards an understanding of nature.
Growing up in the Canadian suburbs, I felt removed from nature. I did go to summer camp. I skiied. I went to people’s cottages and I took huge pleasure in it all. But I felt small and insignificant and unable to properly connect to it. Art and literature have always been my natural habitat. When I am confronted with a beautiful vista, my impulse is to ‘do something’ with it. Write about it, draw it, make a note of it. ‘Being’ in it isn’t enough, and yet I know on some profound level that ‘being’ in it is all there is and can be more than enough.
Living in the UK, I feel at home in this tamed version of nature. The public footpaths, the National Trust walks along the coast and through pastures green and so on. It is a benign, man-made wilderness. One that has been moulded into a large, pleasant garden. There are no rattlesnakes or bears or dangerous animals of any kind – apart from one type of poisonous spider and the asp. Both of which are incredibly rare.
In Montana the wilderness is not tame. It is properly wild. It terrifies me. This terror is perhaps a form of ‘awe’ that the Romantics felt when confronted by such things as the famous waterfall of Terni. Kaspar David Friedrich’s young men standing on cliffs are what I think of when I think of wilderness. I don’t think about being that man facing the precipice; I think about being Friedrich painting that man. What moves me most about nature and wilderness has more to do with how humans see and experience it rather than the thing itself. I find it hard to plumb the mystical depths that writers like John Muir experienced when faced with a sunflower opening towards the sun. I see its beauty, but I can’t see my way underneath it to that spiritual place that that Emerson and Thoreau travelled to.
I am moved by the intelligence of nature. By the sheer doggedness with which it tries to carry on despite the onslaught we humans continually level at it. I am moved by plants growing in the cracks of pavements. I find beauty in Ballardian landscapes of broken down buildings colonised by wood pigeons. But an appreciation of the rawness of nature for its own sake is alien to my way of thinking.
In Missoula, J and I will not exactly be building a cabin on Walden Pond, but we will be attempting our own very small version of a Thoreauvian ‘cleansing’. The petty distractions Thoreau so abhorred in city life are exactly what we are hoping to escape. But is it possible in 2014 to do so? We have phones and laptops. These in themselves keep us fed and weighted down with information and ‘connections’.
We will not be going totally off the grid. We won’t be growing our own food and bartering it with our neighbours in the next valley for the skills needed to survive. But we will be living ‘deliberately’. In Thoreau’s words, we will be aiming to ‘front only the essential facts of life’ in order to see if we can learn what this simplicity has to teach us. Like Thoreau, when I come to die, I don’t want to ‘discover that I had not lived’.