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Book Review : Author's Private Eden: A Universe Free of Threats

September 26, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

Having Everything Right by Kim R. Stafford (Western States Arts: $14.95)

Kim R. Stafford could be called a neo-naturalist, one of a still small but growing group of young writers who celebrate landscape with the passion of the English Romantics. Like Blake, he can see the world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower. The fact that this literature is entirely secular and in prose in no way diminishes either its lyricism or its spirituality. If you've yearned for a contrast to the languor and disaffection of so much contemporary fiction; an antidote to earnest sermons offering radical proposals to combat terrorism, drugs and AIDS, "Having Everything Right" will transport you to a universe remote from these threats.

The title alone is restorative! "I want to live in that place by water the Kwakiutl call 'helade.' This name means 'Having Everything Right' . . . a portable place, an expandable place. It would be what we call Earth. But it will not, unless we sift from our habits the nourishing ways: listening, remembering, telling, weaving a rooted companionship with home ground." In these dozen essays, Stafford shows how to create a private Eden in the midst of the clamorous environment at hand. In his case, the setting is the Pacific Northwest, though there's no reason why his techniques couldn't work anywhere.

Stafford is teaching heightened perception, aided only by his senses. Where you apply the lessons is your affair.

Leaving This Century Behind

As a child, he would come home from school, shuck his city clothes, change into a fringed buckskin shirt made by his grandmother, check his pockets for his exploring kit--string, matches, a knife, a book, a dime, a magnifying glass, a stub of hacksaw, a measuring tape and so many other essentials that he finally surrendered to the need for a canvas sack. Thus equipped, he could leave this century behind. Within a mile of his Portland home he'd be in the wilderness, a routine he followed alone or with friends from the time he was in third grade to high school, when the present temporarily distracted him. Apparently there wasn't a day when he didn't discover something marvelous: an arrowhead, a hammerstone, a shard of Indian pottery, a fossil. Though not all the treasures were tangible, he'd always have an answer for his grandmother's question "What did you find today?"

Thirty years later Stafford is still answering that question, ranging thousands of miles from the woods behind his house, talking to eccentrics, hermits, friends and family, survivors; coming away with legends, myths, outright lies and hidden truths. "Schools trained me to read books, and then to teach subjects," he tells us in his introduction. "I would rather read the world." Even so, the books broadened and deepened his view of the world, providing him with historical context and philosophical perspective. Stafford is no primitive. Chaucer appears in these pages, along with Cicero, Dante, Milton, Kepler and a host of closer contemporaries whose observations fuel his own.

Enchanted by Place Names

Place names enchant him. In Wisdom, Mont., he investigates the battlefield where in 1877, 800 Nez Perce Indians attacked 163 soldiers and 33 civilian settlers. He dutifully watches a slide show of battle scenes, reads the dryly factual pamphlet, and quizzes the taciturn park ranger, who finally tells him that the Nez Perce still hold secret ceremonies at night on the battlefield, leaving ribbons tied to the tress. Stafford not only finds the ribbons, but discovers a trail of tiny blue glass beads in that grove, a relic of far older rituals.

"And before the beads?" he wonders. "An ant was skirting around a gray sphere half-sunk in the ground; a round musket ball of lead." He leaves the ribbons, the beads and the musket ball, though not without a moment of longing. He's an adult now and believes things should be left where they are, and in any case, he's not collecting souvenirs but states of mind, stories, and visions, the stuff of his books. Still, it isn't easy to abandon the beads among the pine needles, where the next careless tourist will surely grind them into the ground forever.

The language is the sort seldom encountered now; the images stretched to the limit, the description lushly metaphoric, but somehow the effect is reverent rather than flamboyant. Since "Having Everything Right" means the words as well as the feelings, there's a deliberateness to the writing, an obvious striving for effect, but when that effect is achieved, Stafford's prose has a seductive way of making the next book you open seem featureless and bland as tofu.

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