Books for Dark Days

For some reason, reading about the adventures of people who brave the harsh privations of vast wildernesses makes me feel really cozy—particularly on a cold winter evening. To prepare for the dark days ahead, I began stacking a pile of books on the floor next to my bed back in early fall; the pile has since grown tall and fat. Not all of them explore the basic theme of humans escaping to or from the wilderness, but that topic does seem to crop up in a lot of them.

Included in my pile are a bunch of books by local authors, some which struck me as obvious winter reading material—surely James Hurley’s novel about trout fishing in Maine, The Contest, for example, will give house-bound fly fishermen something to do before the streams and rivers warm up again—while others seemed like interesting material in or out of the season of short days and long nights. My winter reading also includes books that have little or no direct connection to this part of the world, but nevertheless struck me as being relevant to things going on in the Valley today.

On the very top of my trove of good reading is a recently released volume of Dick Proenneke’s journals. Although all the action takes place in Alaska between 1967 and 1973, the journals will mean a great deal to anyone looking for the heart and soul of modern environmentalism. Proenneke’s nearly 40 years homesteading in what is today the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve have demonstrated to millions the art of living lightly but purposefully on the land, an art he practiced with great style and actually made look easy.

Naturalist Richard L. Proenneke will be a familiar figure to many readers, thanks in part to the wide broadcasting on PBS of Alone in the Wilderness, a documentary film adaptation of One Man’s Wilderness, a best-selling book first published the 1970s (and re-released to critical-acclaim in 1999) that, in many ways, inspired and shaped the back-to-the-land movement of that era—a movement that continues today in places like the Pioneer Valley. No doubt, many of the reality shows that now proliferate on cable TV about living in the wilderness—shows like Alaska: The Last Frontier, Mountain Men, Yukon Men, and Life Below Zero—found seminal influences in One Man’s Wilderness and the subsequent documentaries produced and edited by Bob Swerer, using film shot by Proenneke, an adept wilderness photographer.

Now in its 26th printing, One Man’s Wilderness was written by Duxbury, Mass. native Sam Keith based on his pal Proenneke’s then-unpublished journals. Swerer’s documentary was shown and promoted by PBS during several major fundraising campaigns in the last 10 years. The success of Alone in the Wilderness led to a second hour-long documentary, Alone in the Wilderness Part II, released in 2011.

As inspiring as the efforts of Sam Keith and, later, Bob Swerer have been in introducing generations of nature lovers and armchair adventurers alike to the iconic Proenneke, they are mere appetizers to the 1,000 or so pages of original journals, which have been carefully preserved by the National Park Service. The Early Years: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke, 1967-1973, edited by John Branson, an NPS historian and long-time Proenneke friend, is the second volume of journals (in 2005, the National Park Service and the Alaska Natural History Association published More Readings From One Man’s Wilderness, also edited by Branson and covering the years 1974-1980), but for Proenneke fans, it is surely the best yet. The Early Years covers a 51-year-old Proenneke’s first extended period of year-round living in the Alaska bush. It was in those early years that Sam Keith brought national attention to Proenneke’s “Alaskan Odyssey,” so this latest set of journals covers a lot of what we’ve already seen, including Proenneke building his famous cabin on Twin Lakes.

But this is Proenneke in his own words, unvarnished and largely unabridged. A reader can soon be swept away in the details of a self-reliant man’s solo existence in the wilderness. In Proenneke’s case, the day-to-day seems to have been almost entirely pleasant, far from the amped-up, “extreme,” on-the-edge experience reported by many of today’s Alaskan frontiersmen.

While it may seem like a recipe for dull, prosaic writing, Proenneke’s focus on cutting firewood and making sourdough biscuits one moment and climbing mountains and filming bears and wolverines the next adds up to something very compelling. Through his diary entries, we see the true character of a tremendously wise and observant man emerge. While his prescriptions for good living—eat a simple, natural diet; only kill or harvest what you can eat; clean up after yourself; learn to do the whole job, not just part of it—aren’t particularly sexy, Proenneke makes the grind of daily chores and the discipline of self-restraint seem both romantic and rewarding.

Proenneke, who died in 2003 at the age of 86, will long be remembered not only as a self-sufficient outdoorsman and craftsman, but also for working closely with the NPS and with politicians like Jay Hammond, the late governor of Alaska, in establishing Lake Clark as a national park. Yet he balanced his strong belief in environmental protection of the wilderness with a fair amount of skepticism about government regulation in the new parks, and about the credibility of the emerging environmental movement. His views on the forces that threaten the last of our great wilderness are as relevant today as they were more than 40 years ago.

Here are some of the other books in my winter reading pile:


The Contest by James Hurley (Islandport Press)

A novel about fly fishing and the often odd relationships that develop between those who share a passion for it, The Contest captures the grandeur of fishing in the Maine wilderness. Local author James Hurley, a longtime guitar teacher at Williston-Northampton School in Easthampton, explores the competitive aspects that can creep into even the most solitary sports.


The New Horse-Powered Farm: Tools and Systems for the Small Market Grower by Stephen Leslie (Chelsea Green Publishing)

While it’s hard to imagine a huge number of readers looking for how-to instruction in setting up their own horse-powered farms, this engaging book will delight just about anyone interested in gardening, farming or the vastly complicated but compelling issue of sustainable agriculture. If you thought it was hard enough keeping your rows of carrots, onions and garlic straight, The New Horse-Powered Farm will introduce you to the challenges presented when cultivating those same crops with a double-horse cultivator, running a sweep only inches from the plants, drawn by a couple of 1,500-pound draft horses. Author Stephen Leslie lives in Hartland, Vt. and features a number of local farms, including Chase Hill Farm in Warwick and Natural Roots Farm in Conway.


Farmhouse Revival by Steve Gross and Susan Daley (Abrams Publishing)

Some people might consider this a coffee table book, but it’s more than just a nice decoration. For lovers of early New England rural architecture, Farmhouse Revival will seem like a whirlwind tour of some of the best restorations throughout the area. Beautifully photographed and written, the book focuses not on museum pieces but homes that, despite their age and authenticity, continue to reflect the individual tastes of those who inhabit them.


The Kept by James Scott (Harper Collins)

For anyone seeking the catharsis of a good revenge tale, the debut novel of local author James Scott will have an instant appeal. Set in rural upstate New York in the late 1800s, The Kept is a thrilling story of survivors who hunt for the men who killed their kin. The world Scott creates is harsh and brutal and shrouded in mystery.


A Home Run For Bunny by Richard Andersen, illustrated by Gerald Purnell (Illumination Arts Publishing)

Montague-based author Richard Andersen, who teaches literature at Springfield College, takes on the story of Springfield’s 1934 American Legion Post 21 baseball team in his first illustrated children’s book. As the story goes, the team arrived in North Carolina to compete in a championship playoff series, only to be told they couldn’t play as long as Bunny Taliaferro, the team’s only black player, was on the team. The 15-year-olds voted unanimously to return home to Springfield, where they were welcomed as heroes. It’s stirring stuff that honors an important chapter in local history.•


To Springdelle Farm

Barbara Parry chronicles four seasons on a Shelburne farm.

In the winter of 2000, Barbara Parry and her husband, Mike, were ready for a life change. He was the longtime CEO of Yankee Candle; she was a former English teacher who’d fallen in love with hand spinning and weaving and was looking to branch out beyond the flock of two sheep she kept at the couple’s home in a subdivision in South Deerfield.

Their quest led them to Springdelle Farm in Shelburne, where Parry now raises a flock that ranges in size from 60 to 100 sheep, depending on the season. In her lovely new book, Adventures in Yarn Farming: Four Seasons on a New England Fiber Farm (Roost Books), she chronicles life on the farm over the course of a year. In spring, the mud is deep (“When winter eases its grip, the icy back roads of western Massachusetts thaw from glacial hardpan to mud pudding,” she writes), the sheep are ready to be sheared and the lambs are ready to be born. Summer is marked by first-cut hay and the first harvests from the kitchen garden. In fall, the cooling weather is conducive to dyeing wool; Parry does it by hand, selling the results through a yarn CSA called Sheep Shares. And in winter, she writes, “When I find an inch of ice capping the water buckets and have to fish it out with my bare hands, I realize it’s time to put the farm to bed.”

Parry’s charming writing is supplemented by gorgeous photographs of life on the farm by Ben Barnhart, a photographer from Conway. And sprinkled throughout the book are ideas for readers interested in trying their hands at some of the farm’s activities, including knitting patterns, recipes and craft projects.•

—Maureen Turner

Author: Tom Vannah and Maureen Turner

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