In this spare, elegant, and compassionate little book, Susan Hand Shetterly takes us with her into the wild world at the unsettled edge of a small village in Maine. She and her husband went there in the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s, "idealistic, dangerously unprepared, and, frankly, arrogant." But when others moved on, they stayed, having brought with them the willingness to do hard physical work, the desire to practice patience, and—perhaps most importantly—"the ability to pay close attention."
It is the paying attention that accounts for so much of the quiet grace of this book, for Shetterly passionately wants us to see and smell and touch and taste what she is paying attention to: the daily small affairs of birds, periwinkles, green crabs, and clams; a porcupine stripping tender young branches from her willow tree in an April night; a rescued raven; a baby snowshoe hare threatened by a bobcat—the wild things that populate her life on the edge of what's left of wildness in this rapidly urbanizing world.
But it is not just the wild things that Shetterly brings to us from the margins: it is the people who live in the village and share the "hard, dangerous gift" of this place. Danny, who doesn't believe in throwing things away. Clarence, who died upside down in the water, weighed down by a trap he'd thrown overboard. Jack Dudley, counting loons, living a sense of place. Settled in the wild, Shetterly is also settled in community, a small community made up of a few utterly unique human individuals, dwelling in a "neighborhood of millions of lives, depending on how and whom you count."
In some important ways, the community itself, long ago settled on the shore of the wild bay, remains an unsettled place. When Shetterly helps to create an association to protect the surrounding wetlands, many of the villagers are threatened and antagonistic. Living in a world of private property, where land is worthwhile only when it can be "developed," they find it hard to believe, as does Shetterly and her conservation colleagues, in the "self-renewing community between wild land and human beings," in the "wild commons."
But at its heart, that's what this book is about: the need that we all have to be a part of the wild commons, to recognize and share the bonds that exist between species, ours and all the others who live in our neighborhoods, inhabit the wild hours of the night, roost in the trees, and hide in the grass and plants in our gardens. It is also about our need to watch and listen and observe for a long time, for a very long time, until, as Shetterly says, we become, "instead of watchers, witnesses, heavy with the gravity of what is revealed to us and what we have chosen to carry of it."
I love this book because it teaches what I take to be the most important thing a human being can do to be at home in the world: to simply watch, and look, and listen—to become witnesses.
Susan Hand Shetterly has lived in rural Maine for almost forty years, and held a wild bird rehabilitation license for fifteen. Now she works with land trusts to save habitat. She has taught courses in writing at the University of Maine, and various writing workshops. She was a contributing writer to Maine Times from 1980 to 1996. In 1993, she received a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and Individual Artist Fellowship Grants from the Maine Arts Commission in 1994 and 2001. She is the author of the essay collection The New Year's Owl and several children's books. Her work has appeared in Birder's World, Audubon Magazine, Yankee, and Down East. Visit her website.
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