"Heading home in a roundabout way made a good start to the year, a familiar place viewed in a different light." This final sentence in Gail Folkins' memoir, Light in the Trees, is a good description of her book and her life.
Folkins grew up on the slopes of Squak Mountain, near the town of Issaquah, Washington. The Issaquah Alps, which are much older than the mighty Cascades just to their east, are rich in natural beauty and wildlife. Folkins followed trails through the cedar-hemlock-Douglas fir forest, often with her older brother, who challenged her to keep up and enjoyed stoking her fear of Bigfoot when they were young. As they grew older, their companionable hikes were a source of connection that never seemed to fail. By the straighter route up the gravel road or by twisting paths through the trees, they climbed to the mountaintop and took in the big view all the way to Seattle.
Much of Folkins' memoir includes stories of these hikes and the changes she and her brother observed as this part of the state was transformed from rural mining communities to suburbs shaped by big industry, such as The Boeing Company, and high tech firms like Microsoft. Though the area around her parents' home became largely protected parkland, and the bleeding hearts, huckleberries, and ferns continued to swirl past as they walked, Folkins became a sharp observer of the land as it coped with drought, fires, logging, and a tremendous influx of people.
As she grew older, her attention expanded to include more of the state, from Mount St. Helens to the eastern desert. She notes the big news that preoccupied everyone, from the great eruption to Ted Bundy's preying on young women. And she uses her personal journey, through college, marriage, and jobs, to structure the narrative. When she learns to ride and devotes herself to horses as a teenager, she educates us on the history of the Appaloosa and its breeders, the Nez Perce tribe. When she tells the story of the volcanic disaster that kept her family glued to the television for days, she fills in facts and data with a journalist's sensibility. Eventually she and her husband would live in Austin, move to West Texas, then to Minnesota, back to Austin, and to Wisconsin, before making a move back to the Northwest. All along the way, she focuses attention on her return visits to her homeland, rather than on any of those temporary homes, and she does it largely by remembering the climate changes, animals, and plants that were part of hikes and times at the family home on Squak Mountain.
Her mother passes away. Her father remarries and then is soon made a widower again. Folkins makes a career for herself, but tells us more about her husband's work as a luthier, making and repairing stringed instruments. In fact, she is reticent about her personal story, and tends to share only a hint or two in any chapter, though the work is filled with remarkably detailed memories of hikes and drives through the mountains. This would have been a stronger book if she had been a bit less self-protective, and drawn clearer links between the environment and her own emotional growth and relationships. (And it would have been better served by a closer editing.) But it creates a real sense of place, and of the changes to the Pacific Northwest, historically and currently. For those of us who have experience with that part of the country, or an emotional connection there, it offers the feel of rain-wet mosses and the elation of a blue-sky day, and that may be enough to transport us there again.
Gail Folkins has a master's degree in English from Texas State University, and a Ph.D. in creative nonfiction from Texas Tech University. She has worked as a journalist, editor, writer, and teacher. Her writing has focused on the land and life of the American West, as well as its history, and includes Texas Dance Halls: A Two-Step Circuit (2007) and the essay "A Palouse Horse," which was included in The Best American Essays 2010. She currently writes and teaches in the Seattle area. Visit her website.
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