MAY 23, 2011
A FEW YEARS AGO at a reading in Los Angeles, I asked Annie Proulx if she was ever bedeviled by a character leading her off on a wild goose chase in the middle of a book. In a tone that indicated she did not suffer fools, she replied, “Absolutely not. I write the ending first and that way I know where each character will wind up.” Bird Cloud, her new memoir about building a dream home in Wyoming, is the first work I’ve read of Proulx’s where the geese give her a run for her money.
Partly, that’s the nature of memoir — as long as we’re alive the story’s not over — but the many digressions in Bird Cloud suggest something more. It’s as though in this, her first commitment to full-scale self-disclosure, Proulx discovers as she writes how unwilling she is to pony up to the details — whether about love, children, rivalries, or any other interpersonal dealings. She’d rather share the life of her mind, taking us along as she investigates the extraordinary range of phenomena that intrigue her. Proulx is a writer who freely offers the fruits of her remarkable curiosity; vulcanology, anthropology, history, geology, and archaeology are all subjects she devours. When something seizes her interest, she undertakes expeditions and communes with experts. The result is material that sparkles with depth and specificity: when viewing a fault line in a cliff at Bird Cloud, she muses that the earth is “in slow, constant flux, inexorably shoving continental plates together, pulling them apart, making new oceans and enormous super continents, a vast new Pangaea Proxima predicted hundreds of millions of years from now, long after our species has exited the scene.”
Naturally such a precise, prescient thinker has given great consideration to what she requires in a house. Proulx believes she knows what she wants, and how to get it. She has the land, the architect and a long, lovely wish list: space for books, space to lay out research materials, space to write; correct and conscious sources of light; rooms that admit only the sounds of nature (not the clanking of rancorous pipes). The author envisions a shelter in harmony with this land, and a haven for its indigenous flora and fauna as well.
Though Proulx maintains stern control in her fiction and in her conception of the perfect house, it seems that in writing about her life she has found herself at the mercy of an endless and varied string of locales that seize her imagination and compel her to describe them. When she discovered Newfoundland, she wrote The Shipping News. Heart Songs and Other Stories was the result of a sojourn in New England. And Close Range: Wyoming Stories was the result of Proulx’s having immersed herself in the West.
These works have garnered Proulx nearly every writing award in the known universe: she is the first woman to receive the PEN/Faulkner Award (for her first novel, Postcards); she was awarded a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for The Shipping News; her short story, “The Half-Skinned Steer,” was selected by Garrison Keillor for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of 1998, and by John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of the Century; and her novella “Brokeback Mountain,” which first appeared in The New Yorker, nabbed both an O. Henry and a National Magazine Award. The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain” have also been made into films, the latter winning an Oscar.
Despite her connections to other places, the West seems to be Proulx’s truest muse. And, given that Wyoming is now popularly associated with the likes of Dick Cheney and those who murdered Matthew Shepard, it’s good to see a more complex portrait of the territory. Proulx fancies locales where daily survival is ever at stake, and nowhere is this more the case than in the rugged Rockies. Will you freeze to death, or will you starve? Will you save the place, or die trying?
In Bird Cloud, Proulx chronicles her own attempt to save one small corner of the West, sounding a clarion call on behalf of Western entities that have no voice. About “the great and terrible plague” of insects devouring the trees in the Rocky Mountains from British Columbia to New Mexico, she writes: “Today in the forests around Bird Cloud mile after mile of dead, red trees stand on their last roots and will eventually fall, making a terrifying pile of fire-ready timber. Once the fires begin perhaps even the East Coast will see the smoke.”
The author profiles her four-legged Westerners with a sturdy lack of sentimentality:
We headed to the elk-filled corral. … One female elk, too frantic with fear to bear the experience, had tried to leap over the fifteen-foot trap wall and broken her leg. Her life ended there, a victim of human science. Ron gave me two elk antlers and they, supplemented with others from a Texas elk preserve, became the handles on Bird Cloud’s cabinets.
Her critters are not anthropomorphized into childlike cartoons, but Proulx can be tender; the section in the book she devotes to the birds around her home is second to none:
Then came days of flailing west wind, strong enough to push its snout under the crust of the fallen snow wherever the hares or I had left footprints, strong enough to then flip up big pancakes of crust and send them cartwheeling east until they disintegrated in puffs of snow. Eagles love strong wind. It is impossible to miss the joy they take in exhibition flying. The bald pair were out playing the fierce gusts, mounting higher and higher until they were specks, then splitting apart and going upriver and downstream.
Yet when it comes to her human neighbors at Bird Cloud, Proulx all but ignores them. Though she’s forever stocking up on birdseed, she never talks about the folks she meets at the feed store — or wonders what bearing their perception of her might have on the course of her story.
In 2004, Proulx decides she wants to settle down. By 2005, she’s got her architect and is searching high and low for a construction crew. The movie Brokeback Mountain opens in December 2005, storms the Oscars, spawns a raft of YouTube parodies, and becomes a nationwide cause célèbre among devotees and detractors alike. In her memoir, Proulx doesn’t mention the phenomenon. Not one peep.
The locals may not have been thrilled about her depiction of a cowboy with a taste for “stemming the rose,” or at least the vicious, homophobic locals. But that was nothing new for Proulx — as she noted in a 2009 interview in The Paris Review, Wyoming natives “generally do not like” the way she writes.
The bigger problem, one it appears she has not yet come to terms with, is that the fame ofBrokeback Mountain ended her obscurity, driving a permanent wedge between the writer and her neighbors. “I wish I’d never written the story,” she tells The Paris Review. “It’s just been the cause of hassle and problems and irritation since the film came out.” No longer is she that gritty dame with dirt under her fingernails; she’s a celebrity with a $3.4 million dollar pad, subject to the same resentment as other wealthy outsiders scooping up properties the locals can no longer afford.
Maybe that has something to do with why the county won’t plow her road, even though her realtor assured her they would. It’s not hard to imagine a county board of commissioners deciding that the famous Annie Proulx could damn well keep her own road passable in winter. She isn’t afraid to admit she’s bossy, impatient, and so on. At the beginning of her narrative, Proulx tells us,
I have lived in many houses, most inadequate and chopped into awkward spaces, none with enough book space. When I was a child we moved often, sometimes every year.
Small wonder that she is determined to satisfy this longing for a home once she has the means to realize it. But then it’s almost as if she scoots into writing the house’s memoir rather than her own.
Any artistic project is fraught with surprises — some of them quite unpleasant. One might think that finding a contractor in a rural place where work is scarce would be no big deal, but nobody reckons on other industries monopolizing the labor pool, or the vagaries of love that send men and women traipsing off. Proulx finally assembles her team, dubbing them the James Gang, but when someone drops out of the architectural equation, she’s thrown again. And, as with all building projects, no matter how big or small, Bird Cloud consumes at least twice as much money and time as she has calculated. A full year passes before they even break ground. But once the building commences, Proulx takes us through every calamity and triumph of its two-year construction.
Mind you, Proulx is not the type to buckle. She’s a consummate athlete who skis cross-country, hikes, bikes, and generally takes the wind in her face. When the construction crew advises her to purchase a Bobcat skid-steer loader (an earth-excavating caterpillar with a bucket in front), she jumps right on it. When there’s trouble with agricultural zoning, she lights out for the Rawlins Country Seat to petition the Planning Commission for a rezoning of her property. Over and over, she proves herself adept, resourceful, and determined to close the deal. So when a later problem arises, after she’s built the house and hung her curtains, it’s puzzling that Proulx doesn’t attack it with that same moxie we’ve come to expect. The problem is the road – the winter wind, the drifting snow, the refusal of the county to do maintenance. Surprisingly, she acts as if there is no solution, drops the subject, and begins mulling over the locale’s history. By her eighth chapter, Proulx’s appetite for self-revelation has all but petered out entirely.
In the same Paris Review interview, Proulx confessed that she is uncomfortable writing from the first-person point of view: “I really like retreating into the third person.” Though her honesty is refreshing, it would have been instructive to hear how she managed that ambivalence when deciding to undertake this memoir. Instead, she offers us a history of the Bird Cloud locale — how the United States government, along with the railroad men, sheep men, cattlemen, trappers, and hunters exploited the land and engaged in the wholesale slaughter of the region’s wildlife. She also introduces, by way of contrast, the Native Americans’ approach to the land. Their presence was always felt at Bird Cloud, where artifacts were so plentiful she helped to set up three serious digs:
That world not only was arranged in multiple layers, each layer with its own set of meanings and uses, but flowed outward and inward in expansive, large regions, very differently ordered than the white man’s small-space cadastral categories of acre, plot and township.
These chapters are compelling; it’s just odd that Proulx places them at the climax of what one might expect to be her story. Instead, her final chapter is devoted to the birds residing at Bird Cloud. It’s easily the most haunting in the book. “What the birds did, ate, raised attracted me. I suppose I could say I was drawn to their stories,” she writes.
Late in the afternoon as dusk crept up the eastern rim of the world one of the bald eagles showed up with talons full of branches and dropped out of sight at the nest tree. Were they redecorating the nest on a bitterly cold, windy winter day?
After such lyricism it’s heartbreaking to discover that, after three years, she has decided to leave Bird Cloud: “At the end of March, after a period of clear skies, all the roads were again closed by blowing, hard-packed snow, reinforcing the winter limitations of the site.” After all the extraordinary lengths she has gone to constructing and feathering this nest, it’s impossible to comprehend that she is actually going to abandon it.
Having grown up about 150 miles from Bird Cloud in northwestern Colorado myself, I know about wading through four feet of drifted snow — 3-wire winters we called them, meaning snow so deep it had buried the fence. A road plowed in the morning drifted back by dusk. But it never occurred to us to leave. If we had owned Proulx’s place, we would have built tree-breaks to diminish the drifting, graveled that road, and invested in a heavy truck with four-wheel drive and a sturdy plow. At intervals, we’d have stashed salt and gravel so that the road could be maintained until the County Commissioners came to their senses, realizing how vital it was to keep anyone who’d enhance the tax base with this kind of development in the area.
Inexplicably, Annie Proulx gave up. All I can think is that she had used up her allotment of spunk.
Or maybe that nesting urge wasn’t so urgent after all.