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Syd Lea '64 and A North Country Life

Always Time for a Walk in the Woods

Tales of life and death in rural Vermont from the state's poet laureate

Wall Street Journal Book Review

January 25, 2013

Sydney Lea is a fisherman, a hunter, a philosopher, a trainer of bird dogs, an interpreter of the past, and a collector of stories. This abundance of experience shows up to good effect in A North Country Life, a collection of essays and tales from life in New England, a place where a man can play "checkers on his wife's shirttails."

Translating the past, especially of a place with such a hardscrabble and flinty character, is treacherous business. Our New England forebears were parsimonious titans — stronger, slower and deeper. They toted bucks on their shoulders, drove logs downstream at dimly lit dawn, swilled vanilla extract (Baker's Best 80 Proof) and had a keen ear for the curious, dark corners of human existence. They spoke in a poetic vernacular: "colder than a frog's mouth"; "handsome enough to make a mare eat her own bedding"; or "running out of a house like a hen on a journey." They never wore Orvis.

Mr. Lea, who lives in Newton VT, recognizes that he, and writers of his ilk, are faced with difficult choices. One can create a jacked-up Jurassic Park where the locals are mostly fiction; one can simply repeat their stories, as a sociologist or anthropologist might; or one can interpret them, stepping into the story in the first person. Mr. Lea avoids the first two pitfalls and draws upon his own experiences to give texture to storytelling.

He writes memorably, for instance, about his own time in the woods. The odor of a forest in spring is "tobacco-and-mushroom." He spies a hawk and comments, "How languid its coastings." When his dog flushes a woodcock, he writes, "its whistle seemed spring itself, quicksilver." Mr. Lea describes a Tom turkey "stepping into the higher hemlocks, his snood turgid and scarlet, his tail clenching and unfurling, his hens fossicking behind him." Watching a fish take a fly, he notes, "the brook trout, green as spring's grass, sipped at the film." His stories ring true — he has the chops to talk about grouse, deer, big browns, bird dogs, hunting rifles, and pheasant.

Yet for most of the book, Mr. Lea serves as a literary conduit, collecting the tales of others. My favorite chapter is a transcript of stories from one Earl Bonness, "a river driver in the more fabulous period of lumberjacking," in which the reader comes across the story of the prodigal bear. A bear cub adopted by a couple was eventually set free and then, one spring, the father awoke in the night to find a great weight upon him. He quickly discovered, in a state of panic, that the bear had returned, dissatisfied with a solitary life in the great north woods, and now lay comfortably asleep on top of him.

Earl introduces the reader to places like Slewgundy Ridge, Pocomoonshine Lake, Big Musquash Stream, and Slaughter Point — a stone's throw, one muses, from the world of hobbits and elves. Earl talks about "a hound that oftentimes got so weak from hunger he had to lean agin a bank to bark." Or he recalls days so cold that they "would've froze an Eskimo in the cellar." Earl recounts the time Freddie McGeorge got so mad that he swore at the local operator on the party line, threatening to do something unnatural with the telephone. In retribution, a man was sent out to confiscate the device. McGeorge asked to him to hold up a minute; he had to make one last call. He got hold of the operator, and she said, "Oh, Mr. McGeorge, I'm so happy you called to apologize." He said, "Lady, I didn't call for that" and proceeded to repeat the offense.

The problem with A North Country Life is that the old-timers who shaped Mr. Lea's own sensibility have mostly moved on, planted in the cemetery, so that Mr. Lea must seek his colorful companions instead at the local bar, which he describes as "the next rung up from the verdant hell across the street." A sadness, a regret, permeates many of the less successful essays, in part because, I suppose, the appeal of Mr. Lea's best characters is their lack of self-examination, their ability to rise above the harshness of life by simply ignoring it.

Mr. Lea is a thoroughly modern man, despite his old-timer pedigree. Prone to self-doubt, he frets about his life; he reflects on the nature of mortality; he mourns for lost friends and bird dogs, the good ones and the goofy ones too. Perhaps it is simply a different way of treating time. The modern writer fights the march of history, fiercely holding on to youth and desperately digging up memory. The Earl Bonnesses of the world remember but seem to let go of regret, living always in the present. That is why, when a man like Earl tells a story, he is rarely in it himself.

Mr. Lea is, by contrast, "a man in the woods with his head full of books, and a man in books with his head full of the woods." He writes, in an emotional moment, "It is perhaps the recollection of wood smoke that slightly burns my eyes until they water a little." Or, he reflects, "as if it were deer or trout, I have to sneak up on what passes for frankness." Mr. Lea is a poet, the poet laureate of Vermont in fact, and he excels when bottled within the distilled confines of his verse, which he shares on occasion with the reader. In my favorite passage, he writes, "From which in this gust / into night there climbs / — like word or star — / a single feather."

Most of all, though, I loved the author's description of a tea kettle as "that drooling bastard," a turn of phrase that comes closer in tone to his subjects than some of his more fragile musings. In fact, a little less delicacy all round would have been a good thing. Mr. Lea hunts down grouse and pheasant with stoic determination, devoid of sentiment. This would be a welcome approach to his scouting for the meaning of life. I have noted, for example, in my own small Vermont town, that the dead and departed are rarely discussed in reverent tones. Instead, the locals twist tragedy into entertainment. Once your earthly remains have taken residence in the town cemetery, your failings and misadventures are hauled out over coffee at Sherman's store to the delight of all. Mr. Lea captures something of this attitude when he recounts a tale of two woodsmen coming across a dead body:

The hard gully-washer from which they'd sought refuge in the greengrowth had splattered mud on the dead man, but sodden pear flowers too, which at first they took for old snow. The poor fellow lay naked otherwise, no sign of clothes anywhere they looked. And the dirt-and-blossom trousers, the mask and cap, as one of the woodsmen told me, they would make no difference to him now."

Death wearing trousers of dirt and white blossoms offers a stark snapshot and also says something sweet and comforting about the nature of life and its end. But one has the faint suspicion that the last sentence is unnecessary, unworthy even, of the brilliant prose that preceded it. Let the thought rest undisturbed, like the corpse itself, and the reader will be thankful.