Thursday, June 13, 2013

Book Note: A North Country Life

A new memoir by poet and essayist Sydney Lea describes life in rural New England. A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters, and Wildlife is published by Skyhorse Publishing. This volume consists of a series of short essays, many of which were previously published in literary journals or collections. The chapters are loosely organized by season, though in many of them a seasonal reference is simply a starting point for remembering a person or series of events. A North Country Life records a way of life that is disappearing and preserves the memory of people who have passed away. Some chapters are short and convey the feeling of a particular moment in time. Others expound at greater length on people or ideas. Many are even poignant, describing childhood memories or remembrances of people long gone. While the book is tied to seasons and places, people are always at the center of the narratives.

I must confess that I had some trouble getting into this book, and I picked it up and put it back down a few times. My problem was not with Lea's prose (which is quite readable) but with finding a connection. Some of it may be generational, but I feel it has more to do with the cultural separation between my background (from densely-populated areas) and old-time, rural New England. Not having the background information to put things into context acts as a barrier, at least for me.

A North Country Life is at its best when Lea is describing his own adventures in the woods. My favorite chapter was one in which he describes getting lost ("Turned Around") while tracking deer. Several other chapters provide food for thought, especially when Lea describes changes that have taken place over the past several decades. Birders know well that Ruffed Grouse are becoming harder to find. (I have never seen or heard one myself.) Lea provides evidence from his own experience with the birds — declining numbers of grouse encountered and shot during hunting season. The "daybooks" are also very good, almost poetic at times. The book ends on a strong note with essays on land conservation and memories of parenting. The book is less compelling when Lea is retelling stories told to him by some old-timer, who may have been telling the story second- or third-hand himself. I tended to get bogged down in those essays, especially early on when the people and places named were all unfamiliar.

Sydney Lea's A North Country Life should appeal to anyone with an interest in the culture and history of New England, particularly life in rural New England. How much it will appeal to birders will depend on individual tastes. Most of the writing on birds comes in the context of hunting — for Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Ring-necked Pheasant, Sharp-tailed Grouse (on a trip to Montana), and Black Duck — though birds do appear in some of the other essays. Lea's observations on these birds are interesting, but as with the other themes in the book, they serve as a starting point for stories about his companions (both human and canine). It may also appeal to those with a general interest in the outdoors.