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Book Review : Obsessed With the Unpossessable Land

October 10, 1985|CAROLYN SEE

Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry (North Point: $8.50)

Sometimes an accident happens. Sometimes a review book, especially if it is a narrow one, gets lost or overlooked. "Nathan Coulter" got put in the wrong stack five months ago, and only a reminder was responsible for getting it rescued. So, with a sense of shame--and some resentment--one opens it up . . . and is almost immediately lost in a world of dark beauty.

Nathan Coulter is a farmboy in the South, younger brother in a family that has been working this land for more than a century. He is in the third of three generations; his father is obsessed with his own farm and his own land, and across a hollow--where an obscure great-aunt has been buried long, long ago to settle a border dispute over several feet of property-- his father still lives, farms and is obsessed with his own land.

Nathan sees all this in a curiously passive, almost subconscious way. He knows his father is in an adversarial position to the earth, to his own father and to his elder son, Tom. But Nathan is torn between this position and the way his Uncle Burley thinks--Burley the sometime drunkard, a man who jokes rather than fights, who realizes that it's folly to try to own anything out here, since something far larger than man is in charge.

Tiny Farming Community

The Coulter family, like the rest of the people who dwell in this tiny farming community (and like all of us, except we're too far away from the process to notice it), are caught on the wheel of nature, which is at once blindingly beautiful and unwittingly cruel. This is material that all of us know, at some level, but young Nathan Coulter doesn't know it yet; no one has bothered to tell him; everyone is too busy either working or dying or quarreling or being born, so he must pick up the knowledge by himself.

Thus, the first part of the narrative is stunning, the natural scene is beautifully evoked, Nathan and his older brother, Tom, browse about in a wilderness-paradise in which mountains, meadows, valleys, fields, river combine to produce a heaven on earth. Then Tom and Nathan, visiting a grandson of a family named Crandel, borrow, for a minute, the Crandel kid's pet crow, jamming a cap and fuse up under the crow's tail feathers:

"The crow flew around over our heads for a minute, and Brother and I got out of the way. Then he looked around and saw that little ball of fire following him, spitting like a mad tomcat. He really got down to business then. He planned to fly right off and leave that fire. But it caught up with him over old man Crandel's barn. BLAM! And feathers and guts went every which way. Where the crow had been was a little piece of blue sky with a ring of smoke and blue feathers around it."

Inexorable Wheel

So! What looked to be a paradise may still be thought of as "beautiful," but there's this one little drawback. Death is (just about) as plentiful as life, and all creation is caught on that inexorable wheel.

Nathan's mother has been "sick" since Nathan was born and at some point gets too sick to feed the chickens, takes to her bed and dies. Nathan's father, always an ill-tempered loner by nature, sends his boys to live with his parents across the hollow (and the grave of poor Aunt Mary). Kids or family are not the point here; the matrix, the scrim, the mis e en scene is simply man-in-nature. Will Nathan choose to fight it, like his father and grandfather, or simply live on it, like the feckless (but far more intelligent) Uncle Burley?

The great thing here is that the author makes us see this is a purely existential question. Do what you want, Nature seems to say--if, indeed, she's doing any talking at all--I'm just chugging along in my wheel of birth and death, and you're along for the ride. It doesn't matter what you do.

Largest Fish in Christendom

When family life gets strained at grandfather's house, Uncle Burley takes his nephew fishing. They stay at a shack in a rainstorm, and catch what may be the largest fish in Christendom. Great bravery and dash go into this feat, but what happens then? Whom does the fish "belong" to? Whom does the "adventure" belong to? What part of this earth can any man really possess? Does the river care if a fish is taken from it?

"The surface of the river was still. You could see every leaf of the trees reflected in it. The white glare of the sun glanced so brightly it hurt your eyes; and in the shade where we rested the water darkened, rippling a little as it passed the boat. The whole calm of the river moved down and past us and on, as if it slept and remembered its direction in its sleep. And somewhere below the thin reflections of the trees was. . . "--another character in Nathan Coulter's small, intense world, snatched away to an untimely death.

A Fight Over the Land

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