I’m not an outdoor girl. My idea of roughing it is a night at Motel 6. So based on the title, this collection of essays and memoirs from young writers—which must mean they’re at least 10 years younger than me—didn’t offer much promise. But many of the pieces take an unexpected, one might say “scenic,” route to appreciation of natural world. They’re not all REI-equipped, hard-bodied adventurers capable of building a four-room cottage out of twigs and branches and roasting a hand-caught capon lightly flavored with hand-picked wild herbs.
Instead, we get a sissy. Like me, he’s never requested a smaller kitchen or closet. Hugh Ryan’s tale of a delightfully campy camping trip—no kidding, it’s a camp in Tennessee run by the Radical Faeries—begins with a run-in with a fierce, stiletto-wearing drag queen. “Sissies in the Wood” is more “over the rainbow” than “climb ev’ry mountain,” and that’s my kind of outdoor writing. Ryan’s main point is the way we short-change ourselves by assuming we know what we’ll like. His discovery that the natural world wasn’t off-limits for happily fulfilled sissies is an amusing romp—and a good attitude to take with the rest of these essays.
Of course, there are straight-up adventure stories, like Sam Moulton’s “Little Stick Land,” the tale of an attempt to canoe open water through Canada’s wilderness to the Artic Sea in 90 days. Then there’s a tale of working at McMurdo Station in Antarctica (“Eden and the Underworld”) by Traci Joan Macnamara.
And while “Eelian Thinking” has elements of travel writing—it includes stops in Italy and a lengthy sojourn in New Zealand—it’s also rich with good science writing, as James Prosek introduces the squiggly, squirmy eel to those who may not be familiar with its reverse-salmon life. Unlike the lovely, pink-fleshed salmon, the eel begins its life at sea and then spends most of it in freshwater before returning to the sea to spawn. Where exactly it does this birth-and-reproduction act is a bit of a mystery, and in the course of setting out to solve it, Prosek looks at the eel’s place in the spiritual life of the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people.
But most of the essays in the collection aren’t what you’d call straight-up “outdoors” writing. These are some pretty thoughtful trail-hikers. Many of the contributions are more reflective in nature—often with the sort of ironic, self-aware observation of Jonathan Kiefer’s “Trespassing” (yes, it’s that Jonathan Kiefer—SN&R’s arts editor).
Beginning with a speeding ticket in small-town Nevada, Kiefer circles around what it means to belong to a place and to feel that a place belongs to you. In the desert along the Nevada-California border, he writes of finding a place so large that it “encourages total self-absorption but absolves you of the attendant guilt by making you feel very small.” He leads the reader gently, in a roundabout, boot-scuffing way, to understand that feeling part of the natural world also involves an element of grief. It’s the cost of love; as soon as we find something worth caring about, we face the possibility of loss.
That’s something that even an indoor girl can understand. There’s something for me about the coast, probably related to having grown up on one. I can smell the sea from 10 miles away and follow my nose to the beach. Like many of the writers in A Leaky Tent is a Piece of Paradise, I come to nature in a backhanded way—but with no less affection.
Maybe if we could start with a cabin instead of a tent, I’d be willing to give camping another try.