If your pulse jolts hearing the rusty cackle of a turkey; if a fly made of “mallard quill thorax ribbed in gold wire ahead of a roughened white hare drubbing, no wing” is your holy grail; if you’ve felt caught on the barbed wire fence between your heritage and your destiny, Syd Lea’s newest book, North Country Life: Tales of Woodsman, Waters, and Wildlife, should keep you good company.
This collection is filled with stories of Lea’s backcountry excursions to the rivers and woods, as well as to the wildlands of his memory. The twenty essays, interspersed with twelve brief seasonally progressing vignettes, unfurl slowly as Lea addresses both the quiet desperations and sounding joys of confronting mortality and change in the wild places of self and landscape. Though each essay stands alone, cumulatively they are a call and response to his own query: “What can I show for this time that has flown?”
Some passages of this book are direct addresses to the long gone. For example, in a chapter disguised as a letter to his deceased father, we eavesdrop on the author’s endeavor to account for the joys and errors of his life’s wayfaring.
In another letter, this time to a late mentor, he assesses his professional credentials, among them a PhD, eleven books of poetry, one novel, one nonfiction book, and one book of criticism, and finds the weight of it all less worthy than his time spent in conversation and tutelage, the privilege of knowing this north country woman. “I plain can’t imagine how my existence would have looked without you and your many neighbors over generations, while I can easily imagine it minus my PhD and books.”
Even as Lea writes from the deer-stand vantage point of his mid-sixties, gazing out over the territory he’s already crossed, asking, “Well, what of it?” he discovers and enacts a redeeming chain of relations. He writes, “Once again I marveled at the privilege of being with an older person as she remembered older persons remembering older persons as they remembered. If I’ve ever felt a sense of human continuity and perpetuity, it’s been in circumstances like those.” These liaisons continue to reverberate with Lea’s own remembrances, encounters with fathers, sons, other friends, as he puts it, with “men we’ve known,” his recollections occasioned by days spent in doghair woods, in kayaks and canoes, in childhood fields, and on “hill-hidden trails” while pursuing game.
As one who seldom, if ever, has held rod, gun, or son – the staple subjects of this collection – what I cherish most about this book is Lea’s wild-earned knowledge expressed in such elegant specificities as, “Two yearling deer stand, pastern deep, on flooded ground that will soon be broken and planted.” Some of the strongest passages are direct transcriptions, such as when he brings back ceased North County voices such as Mattie, a river guide’s wife, and Earl Bonness, a river driver. Finally, it’s Lea’s irrepressible poetry that enriches this reader’s experience, his lines of tripping iambic meter, “he was skinny then and she had gone a bit to girth, though she didn’t care about that a particle,” and his guilelessly musical phrasing, as in, “silvered like the galvanized domes of silos on the Gale’s failed farm.”
All told, perhaps the best assessment of A North Country Life is his own. “There are dogs I’ve treasured, quick and lost; there are horses and songs; there are people, living and gone, who have figured in my life, which has been, in so many ways, for all my physical and mental exertions among woods and waters, a life of words, an extended story.” All of which, housed between the covers of A North Country Life, fill a book that will affirm those who treasure the wild tracts of woods and yearn for its stories and quarry.