Wild at Heart
Susan Hand Shetterly’s ode to Maine’s beautiful and endangered landscape.
- By: Richard Grant
This is not just another book about life in the Maine woods. Part memoir, part meditation, part field notes of modern village life, Settled in the Wild: Notes From the Edge of Town (Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, North Carolina; paperback; 256 pages; $21.95) is also a kind of soft-spoken, eloquent manifesto: a plea to find some way to make peace with what remains of the natural world, with a “land that has not surrendered the last of its wildness.”
The place — Surry, not far from Blue Hill — is often identified as E.B. White country. And indeed, author Shetterly’s writing is evocative of White’s, not just in the unaffected elegance of her prose but also in the perceptive and sympathetic eye she casts on the world around her, encompassing not just the rugged beauty of the landscape but also the grit and charm and quirkiness of its occupants, human and animal alike.
Shetterly knows this world intimately. She moved here in 1971 with her then-husband and infant son, charter members of the back-to-the-land movement of that era. They lived for a time in an unfinished cabin without electricity, telephone, or running water — a story she recounts without sentimentality: “Our back-to-the-land lives started out rarified, idealistic, dangerously unprepared, and, frankly, arrogant.” In the decades since, besides raising two children, she has become a highly regarded naturalist and writer, with the occasional foray into wild-bird rescuing, kindergarten teaching, and community rabble-rousing.
Shetterly’s language does not run toward flights of Thoreau-esque rhapsody, but it masterfully evokes the ebb and flow of life outside her door, leading us through the seasons and the ever-shifting rhythms of the world around her. She has the love of precise terminology that seems to be a concomitant of the naturalist’s trained eye: “Surry looks southeast into two bays, but even without its salt water, it is soggy with soaks, spring pools, ponds, lakes, streams and brooks, wet meadows, a heath, a lagg, and swamps.” We learn that “frass” is powdery insect dung and “kerf” is a fine, dry sawdust. “When a forester cut these woods ten years ago, he felled the grand softwoods, limbed, twitched, yarded them, and hauled them away.”
Among the treasures here are stories of relationships between the author and wild creatures she has nurtured and befriended, the most affecting of which concerns a baby raven named Chac. She recalls a walk through the autumn woods: “The dog rushed ahead. The raven followed just above, flapping and shouting at the top of his voice. The woman, walking behind them, felt a sudden ache. She wanted more. More days like this. More time together.”
Settled in the Wild is a masterpiece of nature writing, but also something more: a record of a way of life that may be fading into the past. Shetterly’s view extends beyond the vanishing wild places to what might be called the human ecology of small-town Maine. Some of her most fascinating chapters describe neighbors, mentors, allies, antagonists. On one occasion, some good old boys at a town meeting ridicule Shetterly and other eco-freaks who, they think, are trying to tell them what they can do with their property.
“I want to stand up and tell them,” she writes, “that we work to save what they have tossed away: pieces of marsh and their uplands, thin blades of shore, a few woodlots, fields growing back in alders, a stream or two." This is pretty raw stuff and will strike a sadly familiar chord for many who live in small towns, in Maine and elsewhere. What can we do? Shetterly does not pretend to know: “What will happen to us,” she wonders, “when our children have no connection to what is wild in the land, its depth, danger, generosity? . . . And what will happen to those children who ache for it, as I did, but cannot find it anywhere?”
Maine is a better place for the hard work of people like Shetterly, who came up here with illusions of a new Eden, only to encounter a stubborn, seemingly unstoppable march of suburbia, second homes, “progress” in all its seductive guises. She writes movingly of a world that is not yet lost but is shrinking daily. And she does so without rancor, without oversimplification, even with marked sympathy for those guys at the meeting hall. This book is a plaintive and lovely cri de coeur.
- By: Richard Grant