John's Reviews > The Rural Life

The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg
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Dec 25, 12

bookshelves: science-nature, essay, philosophy
Read from January 12 to December 25, 2012

Verlyn Klinkenberg and I couldn’t be more different. Just the title of this book implies the primary difference: I’m City, he’s Country. But the differences go deeper, and more regional. We reside on opposite sides of the great New York State divide — I’m New York City, and he’s an upstater.

But for a city boy, I have some definite country leanings. My family has a roughly 30x20-foot enclosed plot of land with our rented apartment, and last year I cultivated the flowers that bloomed there naturally while growing a nice yield of tomatoes. Our CSA and coop glean the bounty of farmers like Klinkenborg. I’ve been an avid fisherman since I was able to walk back in my home state of Kansas, and I now also fish and crab off the coast of Long Island and Jersey.

I discovered Klinkenborg via his essay “Our Vanishing Night” in The Best American Essays 2009, a sublime 4-page piece on “light pollution” and how a surplus of light has changed our world over the last 100 or so years. This book is divided into chapter/essays devoted to each month of the year; I plan on reading one a month this year, and adding to my review as I go.

He begins the January essay with a meditation on the lost art of journal-keeping, as if to justify to himself the words he was putting to paper, then spends a good portion of the essay doing what I do a lot of in January: making lists. Things he wants to do when the ground thaws, represented by the multiple mail-order plants catalogs he keeps inside and the “ruins of the garden…still just visible above the snow” that he observes from his window. He also writes a beautiful section in which binding twine becomes both metaphor and daily reminder of the things he could be doing outside. I also found interesting the sounds he equates most with winter—snowplows, ice skate blades, banging radiators—all of which are mechanical intruders on the peace of the snow, ice, and cold of his rural world.

Much of his February essay meditates on the art of waiting: “It’s a dull soul who hasn’t checked sunrise or sunset against his watch several times by now, struck by how early the light comes and how late it begins to go…One day soon the rain will let up, and the frost will leave the ground as stealthily as it came…But all of this hides somewhere on the next page of the calendar. The The good news now lies deep within the beehive, where the workers, their dead cast aside into the melting snow, have set the queen laying eggs once again.” Klinkenborg’s eye searches the landscape through the multiple winters of the essay for signs of life and renewal, from the trees he taxonomizes to the woodpeckers who plink them. I will say here that the two sections on his sojourns through the Sonoran Desert seemed a bit ponderous and superfluous, removing us from the landscape of his own to one he’s visiting to escape the month about which he’s writing.

For me the March essay, at pages the shortest of the book, was also one of the most intensely affecting personally. Perhaps this is because much of it is about the ice melting, the earth getting into motion, daylight returning — all things about which I’ve written myself, though not as well. The other reason, which is the first major payoff of reading it with each month of the year, is that most of the rest of the short essay is about the early expectation that comes to the gardener in March, which I read while looking over my tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings in the window and seeds germinating in wet paper towels on the radiator. As he says, “The early bulbs seem desperate just now. Nothing else catches the hint of spring from them,” I look out my window into our bathtub flowerbed, where the first tulip bulb is poking its horny shoot out of the soil. This essay, like the rest of them but perhaps more so is filled with aphorism, none more affecting to me than, “A garden is just a way of mapping the strengths and limitations of your personality onto the soil.”

April continues the theme of movement, with motion starting to win the war over immotion, revealed through the slow plunging forth of two-leafed seedlings or the violent early-spring Nor’Easter winds: “That’s half the pleasure of a spring Nor’Easter: knowing that all that snow has fallen on an irresistible season.” A funny thing, though: Klinkenborg himself, watching the world spring forth into motion, seems stirred into complacency: “I’ve been trying hard, like everyone near here, to bring out my dead during the last few weeks, to rake out the flower beds and borders, to collect the litter of winter. But some days it’s been too nice to do anything but sit on an old locust log, still unshaded by the tree above me, wondering about the season ahead, how it will flourish and what it will bear.” He also writes in this essay about cutting firewood, which makes me think of my childhood going into the woods with my grandpa with a chainsaw and two axes to cut and harvest cords and cords of locust, hackaberry (so he called it), and elm that he’d sell to stretch his VFW check, and about wanting to raise pigs, which makes me think of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Death of a Pig.

About midway through the May essay, Klinkenborg takes a strange, beautiful detour out of May and into his family’s past, describing some of the colloquialisms of his mother and grandmother that have been lost; I was wondering when reading this what it had to do with rural life or the month of May, when he capped the section with this nugget: “But the power of common speech doesn’t grow from the soil or from a simple life or from any other virtue rooted in the past. It stems only from the irrepressible human urge to talk. To find the casual poetry of the past, all you need to do is listen closely to the present. Any day, anywhere, people will say anything.” Elsewhere, he reflects on the descent of late-spring night, the rising of the trout for the spring mayfly hatch, the exit and reentrance of his bees from their hives, even a meditation on the slow evolution of our conception of time and space — but nothing struck me so completely and suddenly as his digression away from the month of May and into his timeless past.

By the June essay, one of the longest of the book, Klinkenborg has dispelled any adherence to uniform time and place, going in small sections from meditation on the character of New England at the turn from spring to summer, to a memory of his late stepmother prompted by a dead elderberry tree, to the difference between driving on a highway past a farming area and driving slowly through it in a tractor, to a short study of Thoreau and Walden as seen through the eyes of Bill Clinton and Don Henley at dedication of the Thoreau Institute, to a leisurely acknowledgement of the hope inherent in a summer sunrise, to a brief sojourn with the bison at Yellowstone National Park, to an inquisition into the musicality of storms after drought, to a juxtaposition of nature’s tendency toward variety and his own (and most farmers’) desire for uniformity. These brief mini-essays make up fourteen of June’s twenty-five pages; the last eleven pages do what he did midway through May, taking the reader away from his adult home, and the month of June really, and sallying back through his family timeline, this time excavating his father’s and grandfather’s rural lives and their connection to (and disconnect from) his own. And again, this is probably the most masterful part of the essay.

The month of July is perhaps Klinkenborg’s meditation in full stride. This is the longest essay so far, and all the pieces I’ve pointed out so far — meditation on time and space (literally, in one section he writes on the moon landing of 1969), American history and custom, family, and of course the natural world — all in abundance, which makes sense for a month that features all of this in abundance. As in other essays, he flits from time to time (past, present, speculation on the future) and place to place (his upstate New York farm, his Iowa childhood home, his Badlands summer getaway spots), only standing in one place long enough to get a kernel of wisdom and aphorism from it before moving on. The enigmatic constancy he finds in rarely keeping the reader in the same place for too long has by now in the book become, er, Klinkenborgian.

The August essay is a collection of short, image-driven meditations; of its fourteen pages, no section is more than two pages long. It’s as if, in this time of ripe abundance, Klinkenborg simply doesn’t have much time to write. The images, though—his garden’s version of ripeness compared to his own, grasshoppers on the Western landscape, the idea of the American West and the question of where it begins, exceptionally rainy late summers, sweet corn glut, weeds and vines irreconcilably tangled (“This part of the garden isn’t the least bit pastoral”), the eternal battle between bears and bees—are uniformly apt for the season and rendered with a touch I’ve come to look forward to each month.

In his longish essay on September, Klinkenborg covers most of this month’s bases as a time of change, transition, and looming death, writing brief sections on 9/11, Labor Day, high school football, shedding cottonwoods, tomatoes waiting for the first frost, and other signs of the end of summer. And as usual he flits from place to place—Wyoming, Colorado, his farm in New York—but also as usual it’s when he allows himself the space to explore the boundaries of history, his own and the larger world’s, that the shining guideposts of his own personal mythology reveal themselves. Toward the middle of the essay, he meditates extensively on the dichotomy of the gardener vs. the conqueror, starting by watching his own pumpkins and autumn squash race headlong into their harvest and destruction, then going back to Ruskin’s conceptions of the garden, to Louis XVI’s commissioned paintings of his garden restoration sixteen years before he was beheaded, to his own painting, Grant Wood’s Spring in Town, a figure of a young man harvesting his crop who will be sent to war the next year, 1942.

In keeping with his time-play, Klinkenborg list-meditates in Daylight Savings Time in a section of the October essay, concluding a long list of historical calendar systems with the observation, “Daylight Saving Time is the ultimate flat tax. Everybody pays up when it begins on the first Sunday in April, and on the last Sunday in October everybody reaps a one hundred percent refund of their hour, not a second of it lost to overhead.” In this relatively short essay, Klinkenborg clambers wildly through time and space, with almost every short segment taking place in a different geographical region, and many time shifts, into the autumn in 1819 when Keats composed “To Autumn” and the Fourteenth Century when Joseph Justus Scalinger invented the Julian Calendar and other points between.

If there is a thematic link to the sections of the November essay, perhaps it’s Going Inside. For the first few pages he meditates on the work that must be done before winter: “Going into winter takes confidence, even in a normal year, even if it’s nothing more than confidence in one’s own preparations.” Those preparations consist of things like getting the stove ready and getting the ground ready for its frozen hibernation, all while “racing daylight,” as he calls it, which brings to mind another major trope of this month’s essay: the interplay between light and darkness. This of course is related to the theme of going inside. The light — symbol of warmth, day, life — is still putting up a struggle against the impending darkness of the approaching winter: “This time of year the light is always coming and going. Dawn swells until noon, and then, after a brief hesitation, twilight takes over…Summer, in memory, seems almost like a plain of sunshine, without undulation. There’s an astronomical explanation for it all — the sun cuts a much lower angle across the sky in late autumn and sets farther south. But it’s simpler to say that at this time of year, in the country at least, emotion and light are one and the same.”

Much of the December essay concerns a subject Klinkenborg describes with the prescient zest most people can only allow in the month of December: snow. “Some people love waking to the sight of new snow. Fallen snow is fine, but I like the sight of it falling, fine as dust or so fat you can hear it land against the kitchen window. I like the tunnel of dry snow you drive through at night, the headlights blanking out a few yards ahead, and the feeling that you’re driving into some abysmal vacuum. I like the ground-blizzards and the snow that slithers down the road ahead of you. What I like is the visual impairment snow brings with it, the way it obscures some things and defines others, like the wind.” This, I think, is one key to Klinkenborg’s voice as in The Rural Life — the continual shifting of voice to suit the seasonal point of view. “The urge to quarter the year into seasons is nearly irresistible, whether the impulse is astronomical, agricultural, liturgical, or fiscal. Instead of inhabiting the divided plain of time, humans prefer to live in the rooms the seasons make, and nearly everyone loves to be reminded of that fact.”
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Lené (new)

Lené Gary Have you read his book TImothy; or Notes of an Abject Reptile? It's amazing.


John I haven't. I'm actually new to Klinkenborg - just discovered him through his essay in BAE2009. I just finished his January essay, which was thoroughly pleasant. I'll have to pick up some more of him on your recommendation!


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