2014 MARKS THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY of the Wilderness Act, the most important piece of environmental legislation in America’s history. Over the last year, the news media have run dozens of articles about the meaning of wilderness. Festivities honoring the concept have been held at obscure ranger stations in Idaho, grand ballrooms on Capitol Hill, and everywhere in between. I attended several of these, including the National Wilderness Conference in Albuquerque last month, where a thousand people from around the globe met to discuss the future of wild spaces in the Anthropocene, the African-American presence in wilderness, the value of wolf research, the role of art in wild landscapes, and much more. Perhaps its understandable that in a year of celebrations, the topic of grief rarely came up. And yet the link is there to be made: people routinely scatter the ashes of loved ones in our nation’s wildernesses.
Gary Ferguson’s The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness appears at just the right moment to teach us, among other lessons, that wilderness is one of the best places to grieve. Nearly a decade ago, Ferguson and his wife, Jane, went canoeing on the Kopka River in northwest Ontario. As two loons swam alongside, Jane put her paddle across her lap, looked up at the sky, and said, “Thank you, Universe!” A moment later, a nasty rapid sucked the canoe into its teeth. Gary and Jane paddled toward the shore, but it was unreachable because of a tangle of fallen trees jutting from the banks. The canoe filled with water and then crashed into rocks.
Ferguson was plunged underwater. An experienced boatman, he tucked into rescue position as he hurtled over a four-foot waterfall, surviving with a broken leg. But Jane disappeared in the rushing water. The next day, her best friend Martha flew from Montana to be with Ferguson while rescuers searched for Jane for three days. The morning they found her, Martha chopped off her ponytail. At the shore of Lake Superior, she laid it on the water. “Fanned by gentle waves,” Ferguson writes, it spread, “curling and twisting and then drifting out of sight.”
In this way, Ferguson’s prose is consistently vivid. He brings the wilderness alive on the page, drawing from knowledge gained over the decades he and Jane spent in western wildlands. In Yellowstone, he notices how woodpeckers “hang from the charred trees.” Recalling a trip to Colorado he and Jane took years earlier, he describes the “toss of slickrock” where they took off their clothes. In Idaho, the lodgepole pines curl “the toes of their roots” through the soil. Such descriptions are not only beautiful but purposeful, setting scene or imparting meaning. The loons that swam by the canoe the morning of the accident, for example, are thought by the Ojibwa people to be messengers between living and the dead. Yet of all the precise images in the book, the one of Martha’s drifting hair perhaps matters most. Her gesture expands to stand for all that is mysterious about the forces of nature.
As if somehow prescient, a few days before the accident, Jane had told Ferguson, her husband of 25 years, that if anything ever happened to her, she wanted her ashes scattered in five wild places: in Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah, and in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and the Lamar Valley (both in Yellowstone National Park). After her body is cremated, Gary and Martha drive the ashes, contained in a wooden box, home to Red Lodge, Montana: the box will sit beside him in the passenger seat for several years and thousands of miles as he honors his wife’s request in a series of “scattering journeys.” The word “scattering” is important: it implies randomness, the tossing off of something in a scattershot way; and Ferguson’s journeys do carry an element of unpredictability as they take him deep into memory as well as the wild. What’s more, however random, they have a sacred purpose. They are, in the end, his “redemption.”
Structurally, The Carry Home reminds me of two wild rivers flowing in opposite directions. The first follows the scattering journeys, which go south and east, and forward in time. The second zigzags across the United States and back into the author’s recollections of his life with Jane in dozens of landscapes; from “the redwoods and Point Reyes in California, from Padre Island in southern Texas, the dark hills of North Carolina, the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona. From the Dakota Badlands and Florida’s Juniper River,” as Jane once wrote in her journal. Amidst these two structural currents, Ferguson uses the accident as a deep, recurring eddy. He doles out the disaster scene by scene all the way through. Written in present tense, it is the whirling stillness at the center of the book.
Once his broken leg has healed, four months after the crash, Ferguson begins the scatterings. He drives to Alpine Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, where the couple fell in love and married. “I’d never scattered a loved one’s ashes before,” he confesses, and it is almost more than he can bear. Even so, on the six-month anniversary of Jane’s death, he makes his second trip. He skis, with the ashes in a jar in his pack, to a cabin on the Wood River in Wyoming where he and Jane had spent seven Thanksgivings. In his loneliness, Ferguson turns to one of the most potent symbols of American wilderness — Canis lupus — a lone wolf who keeps him company mile after mile. “When his tracks finally left the trail and drifted east across the frozen river,” Ferguson is almost at the cabin door, near an east-facing slope, covered in snow, where he disperses another portion of Jane’s ashes.
As he takes us on each journey, Ferguson shares his gift for finding companionship with wild things: in “lilac and bear blossoms”; in the “fluty snippets of meadowlark”; in “the whir and twitter of red-winged blackbirds.” He makes good use of anaphora — repetition of the first part of a sentence for artistic effect — not only to create narrative momentum but to help readers feel the rhythms of the natural world: “That time of year when the coats of the whitetail deer are thickening […]. The time of sandhill cranes gathering into small groups […]. That time when the color of the sky deepens from powder to cobalt blue,” he writes. The seemingly smallest details have a cumulative healing power in the book: when he reaches Yellowstone for the final scattering, Ferguson finds a place “blushing with fireweed and bedstraw, fringed by thick patches of sticky geranium and lupine and paintbrush,” and the reader, too, feels their calming presence.
It’s only after the third trip, to Utah, that Ferguson begins returning to the wild to “get back for real, not just for scattering journeys.” He even goes on a canoe trip with friends. He’s understandably nervous about stirring up memories of the accident, but knowing that Jane would want him there, he’s able to find solace in nature, with “no wish to be anywhere else.” He had, during the first of his pilgrimages, felt betrayed by the wilderness for having taken his wife. Now, almost five years after her death, he decides to complete the mission by walking 100 miles into Yellowstone, to meet friends for quiet ceremonies. At Becker Lake in southwestern Montana, they sprinkle Jane’s ashes in a field of wildflowers and on a granite ledge above the water. In the Lamar Valley, he removes the last of the ashes from his pack and dusts them into the river, as he recalls the aboriginal idea that the dead can “experience the world through the senses of the living.”
The 2014 celebrations of the Wilderness Act and the articles in popular media have asked one question more than any other: will those who are now in their teens, 20s, and 30s care for the wild as much as the young people of the 1960s who agitated to protect it? The Carry Home suggests several answers. The passion to preserve these lands stems from a deeply personal connection, one as intimate as love or grief. But that passion also proceeds from a sense of public responsibility. Throughout The Carry Home, Ferguson reflects on the milieu in which his and Jane’s politics formed, their generation’s “quick, big embrace of the last untrammeled places.” In the end, he rightly suggests that protecting wilderness lands requires a definition that embraces the inexplicable. “Our lives,” he writes, “are unfolding as wilderness. On any given day, there’s both beauty and chaos standing together.” Like Martha’s hair ribboning into the cold waters of Lake Superior — like Jane’s untimely death — American wilderness should remain mysterious, beyond our ability to comprehend or control.
D.J. Lee, an award-winning scholar of literature and history, has written and edited numerous books. She is currently editing a collection of essays called The Land Speaks and completing a memoir about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho and Montana.