Annie Proulx’s ‘Bird Cloud: A Memoir’
“Bird Cloud” is an almost-memoir, a partial memoir, a patchwork quilt of a memoir. Annie Proulx digs deep into her family history and even deeper into the four-year process of designing and building her dream home in Wyoming, leaving roughly seven decades unexplained and unaccounted for, but never mind — the book is the story of one woman’s love/obsession with every little detail of her new home, inside, outside and backward into the history of the place.
Proulx’s enthusiasm for the 640 acres in Wyoming that she purchased in 2004 is inversely proportional to the restraint, the reserve she has become famous for in literature and life. Proulx was 68 when she first saw the property in July 2003; she fell hard; she thought it would be forever, her last house, her final home. In she dived, feet first, checkbook open. Was it the 400-foot cliff with a fault line running through it? The North Platte River, a spawning place for trout, the island in her back yard, the riparian habitat, the birds — great horned owls, elk, eagles, pelicans and ravens? In hindsight, 200 some odd pages later in “Bird Cloud: A Memoir,” she tells us that she would not have bought it, that she would not have built the house, that she catalogued her books the way they were catalogued, that she put the window in her office too high to be distracting.
“In no place that I’ve ever lived have I thought so often about the subterranean movements of continents.” And she’s off, exploring every corner, every layer and detail of the property and the people who have lived and worked on it. Bird Cloud bears up under scrutiny — Proulx is a follower of the Annales school of history, a methodology that begins with physical details, artifacts and dates and ends with a picture powerful enough to leave a trace. “After Bird Cloud was finished and I was living in the house I found that the Euro-American division of time into five-day workweeks and two-day weekends crumbled away. I became more intensely aware of the seasons, animal movements, plant behavior and I could imagine the different shape of time in the Indian world.”
But Proulx is the queen of hindsight. Just when she finishes building her picture, she admits to us that she will not grow old here — it is too isolated, the road is not plowed in winter, etc., etc. There is more than a bit of whining here, which is especially hard after she has gotten readers who may not be able to afford tiled floors and handcrafted deer antler drawer pulls to overcome a natural jealousy and bitterness, to fall in love with her house.
At least she could have stayed.
But in the first few chapters of the book, where she traces her own French Canadian lineage, right down to her parents, who moved frequently, Proulx admits that she is an incurable wanderer. “We Franco-Americans are a ‘rootless people,’ ” she writes, “who really have no national identity, who really belong nowhere in the United States.” This is as close as Annie Proulx could ever come to memoir; her life as seen through a place, a house, eagles and trees that she will watch intensely and then leave. She veers close to intimacy here and there — uncharacteristically personal like a lover flooded with dopamine — telling us wary readers about problems with her teeth and then veering off, taking flight into general inquiry — “What is the collective noun for dentists? A crown of dentists? Or a brace of dentists? A pain of dentists more fitting.” How disappointed she must have been, after finding the right architect, hiring a group of fine contractors — three brothers she calls (with just a hint of Peter Mayle-style patronizing for local laborers) the James Gang, and four solid years spent on elk drawer handles and floor tiles and windows and Japanese soaking tubs; along with the archaeology and biology and human history she uncovers while getting to know this “poem of a landscape.” “The river at sunset became mottled green and peach in patterns that recalled the marbled end pages of old books. Quickly the evening dusk filled with darting swallows, their dark bodies gradually absorbed by the intensifying gloom. The great horned owl called from the island and everything fell silent except the murmuring river and a more distant owl. In this place there was so much to know.” She names the property after a giant cloud in the sky on the day she first sees it, a cloud in the shape of a bird “looming over the Rockies.” She is on the lookout for omens.
“I fell for it, hard,” she writes. “I was in love.” The key word here, the word that gives a structure to the memoir, is the word “was.” All writing is, by its very nature, nostalgic. Hindsight is the mechanism that makes it tick. When she first saw Bird Cloud, Proulx was already disillusioned with the Western political machine — bureaucracies that allow oil companies and cattle ranchers to destroy Wyoming. But she was looking for a place to grow old. She had left behind another much loved landscape, her home in Newfoundland, surrounded by plovers and arctic terns and peregrine falcons. Where will she go next?
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.