Reviewed by Jane Tompkins
Do you believe in chance?
A few days ago, in a rush, I grabbed a book from the Take-One-Leave-One shelves in downtown Andes. I’d never heard of the author but the title appealed to me. Sitting on my deck now, writing about it, I’m warmed less by the September sun than by the feeling this book has given me—a feeling of love and longing, of being close to life.
The story: The author, Amy Blackmarr, in a leap of faith, sells her paralegal business in Kansas, drives to southeast Georgia where she grew up, and moves into an old cabin by a pond on some family-owned property. Her experience there brings her closer to life in every respect—I almost said, every respect but one: relationships with other people. However, at twenty-nine, she’d already been married and divorced three times, so solitude is what she needs. She thrives on the physical simplicity of life in the cabin, the coming and going of the seasons, the wind, the pines, the pond and its fish, and on the company of redwing blackbirds, foxes, beavers, otters, snakes, and her two pet dogs. Whether she’s really alone is a question.
As with most memoirs, this one depends for its success on the writer’s voice, on who she is as a person and her ability to express herself in words. Blackmarr scores high on both counts. Down to earth, spunky, she writes with skill and verve—imagine Sissy Spacek writing a memoir. The move to the pond is a way of becoming her true self and of giving herself time to do what she loves—to write. Besides offering nature and solitude, the cabin on the pond connects her to the past—times spent with her grandmother, playing and picnicking at the pond’s edge, learning to fish there with her grandfather. A sense of wholeness and continuity.
Set down miles from anywhere, with no hot water, no AC, no central heat, and plenty of mice, the author matter-of-factly adjusts. Having to heat a big pot of water on the stove in order to take a shower becomes the new normal—and source material for her work. Not longing for what she doesn’t have, not wanting to turn her life into something more than it is, just living it, Blackmarr finds meaning and value in her immediate experience—going for walks, having her sister for a visit, learning how to deal with snakes.
She writes about things like the death of her cat, Grace, whom she loves, killed by her dogs, Max and Queenie, whom she loves also. Though this kind of upsetting incident is not special and could happen to anyone, Blackmarr doesn’t minimize it; she sees the value in trying to understand how it happened and the feelings it brings up. She reports her emotions honestly, describes the incident with precision—not attending when another event sends a warning signal, not shutting the cat in the bathroom while cleaning house to make sure she doesn’t get out, failing to interpret cries she hears in her sleep at night. The account is probing and thorough, and, as you’ll see from the quote in Middle English with which she concludes, provides a broad perspective as well as gritty particulars:
Ne noghte es sekire to yourselfe in certayne bot dethe,
And he es so uncertayne that sodaynely he comes.
(Nothing is as sure to you, and certain, as death,/And he is so uncertain that suddenly he comes.)
In the chapter titled the condition of not-seeing, Blackmarr extends her reach. When she went hunting with her third ex, Terry, she could never spot the pheasants. He saw them in tall grass, hiding in shadows, pecking at dirt a half mile down the road. On the other hand, when she first lived at the cabin, Blackmarr saw bird feathers everywhere. Rare ones, owl feathers, blue heron feathers. Then she started seeing arrowheads. Half buried in the soil, they glinted at her from a distance. She can hardly go for walk without finding one. Her nephew, who comes to visit, can’t see arrowheads at all, and, it turns out she can no longer see feathers, while her nephew finds an owl feather right away. She reflects:
I wasn’t sure why Terry could always see pheasants and I couldn’t find feathers any more.
I didn’t know why Richard never found arrowheads and I had a bowl full of them by the lamp. But then I thought of what Krishnamurti had said about conditioning, that until I could open my awareness to everything around me, I’d only be able to see what I had always seen . . . .
When I saw how narrow my focus had been, I began to wonder what in my preoccupation with arrowheads I’d been missing besides feathers. I wondered if I went out walking and didn’t look for anything, I would see everything.
She tries, and though not very good at it, she practices, and sometimes has “a moment of not-seeing, when my awareness is not bound in by the sharp spotlight of the eyes and mind, when my vision opens out into the whole range of the experience of the out-of-doors.” Until, coming home from a walk on which she’s noticed a variety of things, she kneels to examine a beaver print, “and at the edge of my vision I glimpsed an owl feather. It was blowing back and forth in the breeze, held out like a present on the tip of a plum branch beside the pond.”
That’s how this book feels to me: A present held out at the tip of a branch, full of vision and vital energy, waiting to be plucked.~