Living Consciously in the Berkshires

Published in: March-April 2014 issue.


FallingIntoPlaceFalling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home
by Catherine Reid
Beacon Press. 184 pages, $24.95


FOR THOSE OF US who grew up city-side, the idea of discovering yourself, of settling into place by returning to a landscape of woods and water, not to mention hills and fields replete with indigenous wildlife exquisitely tuned to seasons, to weather, to cycles of light and dark, could feel like a foreign concept. In these spare and compelling essays, Catherine Reid brings it all back home even for city folk as she returns to the scenes of her childhood in the Berkshires.

Reid, a professor of creative writing at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, drew from many of the same experiences a decade ago in a memoir called Coyote: Seeking the Hunter in Our Midst (2004). Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home amplifies the writer’s tale of return, showing not only what drew her back to Massachusetts, but also how she came to leave again, without rancor, but this time for good.

Written in a direct, lean style, Coyote marked Reid as a sort of modern naturalist, aware of the harm that’s been visited on the planet by humans yet still attentive to persistent patterns of animal behavior: cycles of mating and birth, of killing and feeding, of flight and migration, and of dying. Coyote also displayed the author’s capacity for observing life and human behavior briskly and without sentimentality. The title animal served as the object of Reid’s quest as well as her metaphorical stand-in. An outcast and rogue, the coyote is poorly understood and widely reviled.

As a lesbian, Reid had felt similar stings of social rejection, and this insight propelled her search. For most of Coyote Reid was the pursuer, following animal tracks and calls. Near the end of the book, as she was about to re-enter her car after an exhausting day combing the woods around a deserted concrete dam, she found herself staring at a coyote. Suddenly seeing what she had been seeking so arduously, the author realized that the search had readied her to confront major fears in her own life.

As a kind of sequel to Coyote, the essays in Falling into Place trace a similar arc of return and discovery. The essays are roughly chronological. Thus, in the opening essay, “Song Heart Rail,” we meet the author’s partner Holly and learn that the pair has just moved into to an old farmhouse they bought near where Reid’s parents and five siblings still live. We learn about the surrounding countryside, its rivers and valleys, and about the Wetlands Birds Project, for which Reid is a volunteer. The essays recount Reid’s day-to-day treks and meet-ups with local fauna and describe their habitats. Her writing is detailed without being dull, informative but not pedantic. Reid is a published poet, and images abound—visual ones, like “a circle of fire-lit snow,” and aural ones, like the bird names that punctuate the text, such as rose-breasted grosbeaks, marsh wrens, mergansers, ivory-billed woodpeckers, greves, waxwings, wood ducks, poor wills, and king rails, among many others.

Reid’s enthusiasm brings to mind the works of poet John Clare and essayist Henry David Thoreau. Like theirs, her observations are carefully rendered, as, for example, in these comments about a beaver lodge she stumbles upon while out walking with an old friend: “Such a foolish place to build! … This will never be that marshy place made for ducks and frogs and great blue herons, for dragonflies and sleep turtles. This valley is too steep and rugged, the river too violent. … These may be teenaged beavers, kits kicked out by a new brood’s arrival, too naïve to know they can’t slow a river. … Or perhaps all the good brooks were already taken and this was where winter, not desire, made them stop.”

Falling into Place abounds in descriptions of Reid’s explorations during every season in the Berkshire outdoors. At the same time, a few core essays pull the reader back indoors, to the human settings in which change happens, and to matters of the heart. Even as the couple is settling in, for example, Reid’s father is found to require immediate surgery for a life-threatening heart condition. We see how that crisis affects father and daughter, as the writer skillfully depicts their earlier, profound estrangement and also the possibility of reconciliation. As she and Holly are leaving her father toward the end of his recovery, Reid tells us, he looks at them both, saying, “Take care of each other,” and in his words she hears newfound support for their life together.

“Hitched, Massachusetts, 2004” further explores the topic of family, recounting the story of Reid and Holly’s wedding just after the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry. The piece is ample, and tough. Far from feeling starry-eyed at the prospect of getting legally married, the author says, she found herself weighing the downside risks of making such an open declaration, fears based on her experience as a lesbian woman. One real fear was that of being physically or emotionally targeted.

We learn about the death at age 101 of Reid’s grandmother, a woman from whom she learned the skills of birdwatcher and naturalist. This same grandmother, however, did not want to hear about Reid’s life with another woman, an attitude that greatly pained her granddaughter. This essay is exemplary in its reticence. No dramatic last words, no deathbed conversion. But in the old woman’s dying calls for her granddaughter, the author comes to find a kind of sufficiency.

One way we make peace with losses in nature, and with our own human failings, Reid decides, is to look for a balance between “reckless solo acts” and making choices “with a community in mind.” After several years in the Berkshires, Holly longs to be living closer to her three grown children. With sadness, but realizing she has probably found what she came for, Reid agrees to move to North Carolina. What was revealed in her Berkshires stay? Poet Merrill Gilfillan has described landscape writing as a kind of “fundamental noticing.” Reid’s book offers three models of women who were good at paying attention: a 17th-century explorer and naturalist, a climber who was the first woman to ascend the Matterhorn, and an early 20th-century photographer of birds. These three women, all of them passionately focused on the natural world, experienced failure, but they refused to give in, persisting and at length prevailing in fraught and risky places. Like their stories, Falling into Place shows a successful quest for elusive, hard-won goals, on natural territory.

Rosemary Booth is a writer and photographer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.