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IN THIS WE ARE NATIVE Memoirs and Journeys by Annick Smith; The Lyons Press: 224 pp., $24.95

THE INVISIBLE GARDEN by Dorothy Sucher; Counterpoint: 244 pp., $14

FOUR WINGS AND A PRAYER Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern; Pantheon Books: 224 pp., $23

July 29, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

IN THIS WE ARE NATIVE Memoirs and Journeys by Annick Smith; The Lyons Press: 224 pp., $24.95 "Maybe you'll forgive me," Annick Smith writes. "I'm sixty-five, a senior citizen with nowhere to go but down, and can't help feeling it's time to enjoy all the pretty things before the dimness sets in." Smith is apologizing for bragging about remodeling the log cabin she built decades earlier with her husband in Montana. "A liberal like me should feel guilty," she writes later, a tourist in Peru. She marvels at her lack of compassion for her dying father. She revisits the guilt she felt as a young mother, dragging her four children between Montana and Hollywood, when she and her then-husband, David, thought they could make it as screenwriters. There are painful moments in this memoir; mostly because the guilt seems so unnecessary, so sooty and self-indulgent. One moment she is striding through the woods, tracking bear, swimming in the Blackfoot River; the next, she is describing the awkward dance of her relationships. Smith insists she is much better suited to particulars than to big pictures, and this is clearly evident in her writing. Huckleberries, Glacier National Park, grasslands and humpback songs are the high ridges in this hike. Smith's fury at Plum Creek, the company logging and developing and thoughtlessly destroying her piece of heaven--with the sounds of chain saws and the dust of trucks and the havoc wreaked on the forest habitat--is deeply written, swelling like a strong wind through the book. Of all her many losses, those forests she has known seem the hardest to bear. They inspire--no, demand--an evolution in Smith's consciousness that makes liberal guilt and career woman blues look, as my grandmother used to say, like a comic Valentine.

THE INVISIBLE GARDEN by Dorothy Sucher; Counterpoint: 244 pp., $14

"All sorts of memories and emotions cling to them," Dorothy Sucher writes of gardens she has known, including hers in Vermont. "I think of this complex of conscious and unconscious associations as an 'invisible garden' that each of us, gardeners and garden visitors alike, carries around." Sucher bought her house in Vermont because she fell in love with the stream on the property. She was not a gardener until she met an herbalist, Adele Dawson, who gave her a cutting from her own garden. She was, at first, afraid of the woods. Her approach to nature in general was a timid kind of stewardship, intellectual on the surface but irrational at bottom. She relied on the offhand tips of neighbors and on books more than instinct as she slowly transformed her property, summer by summer. As in Smith's book, human relationships seem less compelling. Her husband, Joe, is a shadow in the book. There is a beautiful dispassion in Sucher's relationship with her garden, the kind one rarely sees in women's relationships with men or their children or even their work. "Things that don't last forever can still be worthwhile," she writes of the garden's transience. "I had learned that lesson a long time ago, for hadn't I spent years doing things that were gone by the end of the day, when my children were young and I was a housewife?" Sucher's relationship with nature involves a letting go, a loss of control: "Nature has its own laws," she writes, "some stern and some gentle."

FOUR WINGS AND A PRAYER Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern; Pantheon Books: 224 pp., $23

Sue Halpern marvels at our ability to be irrational, to put rocks in our pockets because we think they are beautiful. It is the ability to be irrational, she writes, that distinguishes us from other species. In this book on the monarch butterfly and the people who study their 2,000-mile migration between North America and Mexico, Halpern is on the trail of passion. What makes people ask the questions they ask? She writes about the different ways that people study the butterfly, from the seat-of-the-pants obsession and delight of biologist Bill Calvert, to the laboratory study of famed lepidopterist Lincoln Brower, to the sadness and passion of poet Homero Ariidjis, who grew up with the butterflies. "Was lepidoptery a way of cleaving to the authenticity of childhood?" she wonders, "to a world undistracted by pretensions, the way certain passions of the flesh were not so much about loving someone else as about finding and expressing one's true essential self?" Passion, she continues, keeps one "fully in the present." There is a lot to learn here about the monarch butterfly and about Monarch Watch, the organization of scientists and nonscientists to track the butterflies and about the destruction of their habitat (not Halpern's main mission here). But it is a book about something else, really. "How better to describe the endless pursuit of knowledge than passion?"

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