Beacon Press 2011
By Todd Davis
As I write this review I’m wearing a T-shirt I bought when I visited Walden Pond. It sports a woodcut image of Henry David Thoreau with one word beneath: Simplify.
The irony of an entire tourist trade built up around an iconoclast who did indeed wish to simplify wasn’t lost on me when I handed my debit card to the cashier at the gift shop. Nor is it lost these days when I slip it on to go for a hike in what passes for wilderness in central Pennsylvania.
Sadly, in our present moment, after hours negotiating the array of screens that the professional world demands, it seems all we’re left with is irony. Okay, perhaps irony and a simulacrum of some disappearing idea of the pastoral we halfheartedly wished we lived in.
But, thankfully, there are those other days, not unlike today—this very day while I’m writing this review longhand by a pond in the 30,000 acres of gamelands above my house—when the dogwood is in full blossom and along the creekbed fringed polygala and rue anemone have sprung up, purple and white and shining over the mossy beds they call home. It’s on days like this that I have to admit I still believe in a connection that usurps our age’s devotion to cynicism and reminds me that our lived experience might hold something unique and originary, that the earth still has first dibs on what we call existence.
And it’s this kind of negotiated leap of faith that Tom Montgomery Fate explores and celebrates as he meditates upon Thoreau’s writing in the midst of his middle-class, middle-aged, suburban life, making the trek between Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and the small village of Sawyer near the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan where he and his family built a rudimentary cabin to escape to on weekends and vacations.
Cabin Fever is a quietly stunning book, organized around the four seasons, much as Walden is structured. And like Walden, years are collapsed, converging into an epistle of place and spirit more than of time, taking on subjects as diverse as the relationship between nature and technology, homosexuality, parenting, religion, and mortality.
What the book returns to over and over is a chronicle of what Fate sees on the fifty acres where his family’s cabin is located—what he hears; what he smells; what he touches; what he tastes. His elegant and rhythmic prose is about embodiment and the fight we must make to swim against the current that seeks to sweep us away from such bold and incarnational living.
As I look at this description it sounds a bit too much like hagiography, and blessedly this is not a book written by an eco-saint. As Fate confesses in the opening pages, “I recited Thoreau’s mantra—‘Simplify, simplify’—as a kind of prayer, thinking it might offer me some guidance. But it never really did.”
Not exactly, at least.
What Thoreau’s example does tender for Fate is what he names “way-finding.” By chronicling his stories of the collision of urban life and nature and relating them to the webbing of Thoreau’s testimony, Fate hopes others might find their own path through the act of way-finding—an honorable goal for any writer.
And so like Walden whose stories I haven’t been able to shake since I first read them in high school, Fate’s own singular images, created in concert with Thoreau, seem to rise at my brain’s every turn.
For instance, today as I walked into the woods along the Little Juniata River and startled a great blue heron into the sky just above the sycamores and black willows that line the water’s corridor, I thought of the rookeries Fate describes along the Galien River in Michigan and his recognition of “the burden of [our] role in its slow destruction and the hope of the returning herons.”
And last night as I tried to fall asleep, my chest aching with the loss of my father to pancreatic cancer a few months ago, I was thrown into Fate’s story of his wife’s friend Ellen and her struggle against—and eventual death to—cancer.
And just now as I read aloud Fate’s own words to the woods that surround me, I realize I’ve been given permission to do so by his account of reciting a Mary Oliver poem to “a red oak sapling, a budding sumac, and a patch of bluestem grass.”
Not all books invite us to enter their lives in so intimate a fashion, to join our own patterns of living with theirs. But Fate’s admission that he is a “slow and bungling pilgrim” serves as an admonition and a blessing to his readers to go and live, even if imperfectly, this one blessed life we’ve been given.
Todd Davis is the author of four books of poems, most recently The Least of These (Michigan State University Press, 2010) and Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems (Seven Kitchen’s Press, 2010). He also edited the nonfiction collection, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball (Michigan State University Press, 2012) and co-edited Making Poems: 40 Poems with Commentary by the Poets (State University of New York Press, 2010). His poetry has been featured on the radio by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac and by Ted Kooser in his syndicated newspaper column American Life in Poetry.