General 1-31-2004

Book Review: Raising the Drawbridge to Eden

Jean Sramek reviews "The War Against the Beavers," by Verena Andermatt Conley (University of Minnesota Press, 2003). Politics of land use, from the point of view of beavers, Eastern academics, and northwoods types, figures strongly.

The joke goes something like this:

Q. What is the definition of a logger?
A. Someone who clear-cuts old growth forests, to make room for a cabin made of old growth timber, so that an environmentalist can live in it.

Verena Andermatt Conley’s The War Against the Beavers, a collection of essays chronicling Conley’s ownership of a cabin in northern St. Louis County, is a 167-page version of that joke. This is not to say that the book is a joke, or that the book is a collection of wacky, side-splitting stories about city slickers in rural Minnesota, or even that the book offers much in the way of humor. But in buying their dream vacation home, Conley and her husband Tom do the staggeringly ironic thing that so many others have done: those with a certain degree of privilege (at least enough to be labeled “environmentalists” for the purpose of this particular joke) longing for a real wilderness experience, go out and buy some property and commune with nature. In the process, they drive thousands of miles, push reluctant nature into molds ordered from specialty catalogs, pass judgment on the natives, and watch in dismay as others also try to get a piece of “their” wilderness.

What Conley has clearly intended to do is to tell us that, even though she got the cabin in the woods she had dreamed of as a child, it came with physical and emotional trials she had not expected—but which ultimately made her into a better person. She means to say that her ideas about nature and her relationship to nature were changed by her experiences at the cabin. She is the nature-lover who fights against clear-cutting forests while simultaneously living on clear-cut forests, and she wants us to know that the joke is on her. She intends to say all these things, and technically she does, but anyone who reads The War Against The Beavers will have to strain and reach a bit to believe that Conley has indeed learned these lessons.

So what’s in the way? Why don’t we feel what Conley wants us to feel—her joy at finding “harmony of nature,” her pain when she realizes her vision will always be imperfect, her change for the better? Why don’t these sincere essays, filled with love for the land, ring all the way true? The answer might be in little bits, little flaws, none of them necessarily The Reason Why, but flaws nonetheless.

In Beavers, Conley relies on extremes. She flat-out tells us what she feels and thinks (and sometimes, inexplicably, what her husband feels and thinks); we do not have to guess. She is overwhelmed by silence; she and Tom drag their aching bodies back to the cabin; they eat the best-tasting steak they have ever had; their excitement is without bounds; their forest would be completely destroyed. One adjective is rarely used where two or three can be squeezed in, and everything seems to be truly devastating, wildly exhilarating, or unbelievably peaceful—that kind of thing. At first, it’s exhausting; then the highs and lows seem to run together.

Clichés—the kind your eighth-grade English teacher underlined with a red pen—abound in Conley’s prose, as do quotation marks around things that don’t need quotation marks around them, awkward prepositions, and odd, almost-correct choices of words (“persuaded” instead of “convinced,” for example). The book is full of lumpy passages like this one: “The general store in the nearest town, twenty miles west, where we did our shopping, after burning down in the winter—like many local businesses, for ‘unknown causes’—reopened in a larger, improved version.”

Conley is not a native speaker of English; she was born and raised in Switzerland. If one knows this from the get-go, one can easily hear her accent, as if Conley were reading the chapters aloud. Knowing this makes her unpolished writing seem charming; however, if one did not know this about the author, her unpolished writing would seem simply unpolished. Did her editors purposely refrain from tidying up her essays, to preserve that foreign-born charm? When Conley describes the labor of tree planting with, “All night long, I had sweet dreams of repetitive motion syndrome: open, insert, close …,” it is not charming. It’s just a misuse of the term “repetitive motion syndrome.” While it feels mean-spirited to be picky about, well, mistakes, the fact remains that the book is full of them, and they are a barrier to us being moved by Conley’s story.

The book is divided into two parts: “Babes in the Woods,” and “The War Against the Beavers.” The first section consists of plain, wide-eyed accounts of the acquisition of the cabin and property, and of her visions for “harmony with nature.” In the second section, the author digs in and the essays follow each other purposefully instead of dreamily. Naturally, a war against beavers is more interesting than visions of harmony, and Conley writes with more gusto and more self-awareness in the second half of the book. In part, this is because she is no longer writing from the point of view of an outsider. She knows the land, the locals, and the beavers. She likes them more for knowing them. More importantly, she likes herself better as a beaver-killer than as a naïve city dweller.

Conley is not, however, a local. She never will be, nor does she want to be. Her position is a common one—seeking the wilderness experience, but hoping few others will seek it—and her praise for the resourcefulness and strength of the local folk is weakened by her passing remarks about their physical fitness or home décor. She is not fully conscious of her own disapproval, but this, more than clumsy grammar or junior-high clichés, is what keeps her essays from saying what we want them to say: “I am humbled by this place.” She comes to appreciate the beavers partly because they are less destructive to her wilderness dream home than humans are. But is this fair to the humans, who, unlike Conley, actually live there year-round? It’s a precarious thing, to love the wilderness in modern times, to draw the line at “enough” development. Conley wisely does not say where that line should be drawn, but neither does she let us see enough of her own personal development and how her cabin and beavers have shaped it.