This memoir was published in 1990, a generation ago. Much of its appeal (for me) comes from the geographic setting – in Massachusetts, near the Boston beltway (aka Route 495). In this improbable spot, in the wake of a divorce, Mitchell built a rustic cabin on the land where his family and former wife lived.This book is an account of his first year in his relatively primitive, small (10’ by 16’) shack, which was located only half an hour from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau undertook to “live simply” in 1845.
Mitchell loves the natural world and studied Thoreau extensively, although (see blog post on Walden Warming, by Richard Primack dated June 23, 2014) he may not have realized how excellent a naturalist Thoreau was. (By now, he has probably met Primack and caught up with anything he missed. Massachusetts is fortunate in the quality of its writers.)
At the start of his sojourn, Mitchell also decided to spend time with journals he inherited from family members, most notably his father’s account of several years spent in Japan.
All this adds up to an unfocused but charming set of reflections. Mitchell’s rural retreat suffers impingement by the new headquarters of Digital, Inc. Land is developed, but he is still surrounded by an amazing amount of undisturbed nature. He also “senses” the impact of earlier occupants on the land.
Checking the usual sources, I learned that Mitchell has written extensively and also served the cause of conservation as an employee of Massachusetts Audubon. I look forward to sampling his other books, essays and blog posts.
The appreciation of nature which is not remote and exotic has more recently been carried forward by Lynanda Haupt in Crow Planet: Finding Our Place in the Zoopolis, a more urban offering which I wrote about on June 7, 2013. My next trip to Massachusetts will be enhanced by my exposure to John Hansen Mitchell’s Living at the End of Time.
Is there a name for the genre of books based on deciding to do something every day for a year? Like Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell… Could we call this the “journal format”? Sometimes it’s clever, but sometimes I think the author didn’t want to make the effort of choosing a structure. I’ll give Haskell the benefit of the doubt, and say it makes sense to organize a nature book by the cycle of seasons.
Haskell decided to visit a very small, defined forest site regularly for a year. He frames this as a form of meditation and begins with a discussion of the mandala, a Hindu/Buddhist symbol representing the universe. A mandala is highly geometric and regular. Sometimes it is intentionally destroyed after a period of contemplation.
Haskell’s little patch of woods was anything but geometrical. He had access to a bit of publicly owned, old growth forest in Tennessee. Few readers would be able to find such a place. Haskell writes about what he sees and how he feels. In an extreme attempt at “participatory observation”, he sheds his clothing to experience the extreme cold of winter. I think he was surprised at how fast hypothermia set in.
So what do we learn from Haskell? He wrote three or four entries per month, discussing the plants and animals and their relationships to the larger world. It’s entertaining, but, finally, faced with a November chapter entitled “Twigs”, I gave up. I skipped to the epilogue, where he expresses his opinion that ours is a good time for naturalists, supported as they are by technology and (sometimes) public interest.
Is this book a classic? Probably not. I liked Crow Planet (L L Haupt, see my entry dated June 7, 2013) better. The city dwelling Haupt decided to take binoculars with her everywhere, in order not to miss the wildlife that is, in fact, all over the cityscape. Many of us could emulate this! I would recommend it more strongly than Haskell’s approach.
Haskell is a good read for a temperate zone nature lover who wants to brush up on forest ecology. His bibliography would support anyone who wishes to study more deeply.