The new book by celebrated nature writer Gary Ferguson, "The Carry Home: Lessons From the American Wilderness," is a big-hearted, soul-searching memoir about grief and ritual and identity, about a man looking to nature for answers after the death of his beloved wife.
Of course, this sounds a bit like Cheryl Strayed's "Wild," in which she walks the Pacific Coast Trail after the death of her mother. But any comparisons end there: Whereas Strayed is a hopeless novice, both Ferguson and his wife, Jane, are professionals — she an Outward Bound teacher and search and rescue worker, he the author of 22 books on science and nature, including the award-winning "Hawk's Rest." And where nature is only a backdrop for Strayed's inward battle over her own poor choices, Ferguson probes nature itself to determine if and why it has betrayed him.
FOR THE RECORD:
Gary Ferguson: A Dec. 14 review of the book "The Carry Home" by Gary Ferguson said that his late wife, Jane Ferguson, had escaped from an alcoholic father in Indiana in the 1970s; it was an alcoholic grandfather.
In May 2005, Gary and Jane celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary canoeing the wild Kopka River through remote country about 100 miles north of Thunder Bay, Ontario. We learn this was always their MO: get to the place farthest away, the ecology least human, whenever possible. But they missed putting out at a portage because of high water and in seconds were swept into snarling rapids. Thrown from their canoe and separated, Ferguson waited as long as he could for his wife and then walked out on a badly broken leg.
An Ontario Provincial Police search dog found Jane's body in the river three days later.
Letting nature tell the story, Ferguson dwells not on his anguish but on two crying loons that call him back to the river with a message: "The message is lovely beyond imagining, heartbreaking beyond belief. The message is 'Beautiful. Goodbye.'"
He devotes the main narrative to scattering Jane's ashes in five trips from their home in Red Lodge, Mont., to her favorite places in the American West: Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, Capitol Reef in Utah, a field cabin in the Southern Absarokas of Wyoming and two spots in Yellowstone (see Thomas Curwen's Los Angeles Times feature about the Yellowstone scattering).
The lessons learned on these trips surface slowly, confounded a bit by a structure that hopscotches from biography to description of the accident to naturalist field notes to political commentary. But the first is that the hubris of a boomer generation that thought it was saving nature is no hedge against death. Despite Gary and Jane's tireless advocacy on the part of the wild, the rivers still drown you. It takes years before he finally can forgive both himself and the rushing water.
The real take-away passages involve Ferguson revisiting earlier research into storytelling and specifically native American myth to find that the stories we need to make sense of life usually have three elements: beauty, mystery and community.
The beauty is here on every page; his language is gorgeous, giving us an "American West, a region where everything kneels at the river" and "the kind of sadness that lies along the far edges of every love." Mystery pops up in the form of loons that seem to speak for Jane and a normally coy bobcat that lingers as though bringing tidings, a wilderness that speaks. Everywhere on his trips, Ferguson is deeply implicated in the larger ecological community of moose, alder, river and soil and is looking to tell its tale as part of his.
He realizes, "If I was going to have any chance of healing — if any of us were going to heal — we'd have to lay claim to a fresh trove of stories."
If that sounds not terribly full of human emotion — it's not. For all the obvious pathos of a man losing his partner this way, we don't get a good picture of who Jane is or what their relationship is like or how we're supposed to care about either one of them as people. When he carries us into the mountains, remembering their extensive travels as a couple, he describes wild places rather than intimate pillow talk, animals and plants rather than dreams or their (never mentioned) decision to not have children, conservation initiatives rather than their domestic life running a cafe in Red Lodge. We get the picture: Their love bloomed in nature.
But what are the human elements of such a love? What was it like to be in love with each other?
We get a little detail about the lives they both escaped in Indiana in the 1970s: he from a mother who beat him, she from an alcoholic grandfather and the family farm when she was young. They chased Indiana poet Kenneth Rexroth to "the lake of the mind." They were "dirtbags" with a blue van called Moby that Ferguson is still driving as he scatters the ashes, though it has 350,000 miles on it.
FOR THE RECORD
Dec. 14, 6:01 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said that Jane Ferguson had escaped from an alcoholic father in Indiana in the 1970s; it was an alcoholic grandfather.
"It seemed our whole generation was moving. Leaving home. Leaving town. And while Jane was fond of wandering, for me it was an obsession."
But in the end, when 600 people show up for Jane's memorial service in tiny Red Lodge, we see for the first time that they weren't just part of a mountain meadow or nature school: They were both part of a large and loving human community. Through all Ferguson's travels away from civilization, it is people who help him, in the words of Mary Oliver, "to let it go."
The book ends up shining a soft headlamp on love and community, and the biggest lesson may be that nature turns Ferguson back to see the people in his life. Maybe that's for the next trove of stories.
Kuipers is a writer in Los Angeles.
The Carry Home
Lessons From the American Wilderness
Counterpoint: 296 pp., $25