Friday, August 11, 2017

Wild About Nature: Gary Ferguson’s "The Carry Home"

It’s a common Hollywood trope: people are transformed when they go back to nature. Think of the number of movies in which, while traipsing through the wilderness, protagonists discover their innermost selves, or confront their fundamental fears, or make peace with their haunted past. From the last decade alone, I can name several such films, all of them based on true stories of present-day Americans who—after a trip deep into nature—will never again be the same. There is, for instance, 127 Hours, in which James Franco, portraying the impetuous Aron Ralston, discovers the inner strength it will take to free himself after being pinned down by a boulder. In 2007’s Into the Wild, a young man played by Emile Hirsch journeys all the way to Alaska before realizing that his need for human contact is even greater than his obsession with the out-of-doors. And in 2014’s Wild, a recent divorcee named Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) hits the road, hiking from the Mojave Desert to the border of Washington State, in search of self-redemption and relief from the memories of her mother’s fatal illness.

Strayed’s journey up the Pacific Crest Trail spotlights how ill-equipped she is at the start of her trek. Gary Ferguson’s wilderness journey is quite, quite different, but equally compelling. Though at its core is an intense grief, the story he tells in The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness builds to an unexpectedly upbeat ending. Ferguson, an award-winning essayist and science writer, was married for 25 years to a fellow Indianan named Jane. As Ferguson puts it in his beautifully lyrical prose, “We’d been restless children, destined to become restless adults. Proud members of the last generation to soothe the anger of youth not with Ritalin, but with road trips.” 

The couple, bonding over a mutual love of nature, spent their lives both working and playing in the great outdoors. While Gary pursued his writing career from their Montana home base, Jane introduced young people to the beauties of Yellowstone National Park, and also served on search-and-rescue teams. For fun they hiked, skied, and canoed. It was a springtime canoe trip on Canada’s Kopka River, “when the leaves of the north country were washed in that impossible shade of lemonade green,” that the end came for Jane. After a tragic spill, Gary crawled away with a badly broken leg, but the waters claimed Jane’s life.

Gary explains what happened next, after Jane’s body was recovered and the local authorities dismissed their first assumption that the drowning involved foul play: “My redemption would come in the form of a last request Jane had made years before, asking me if she died, to scatter her ashes in her five favorite wilderness areas. And so I did. Five trips to five unshackled landscapes. At first, the journeys broke my heart. Later they helped me piece it together again.” His book cuts between a step-by-step accounting of that last fatal day on the river and a travelogue of the journeys he took, first alone and then with others, to return what was left of Jane to the wilderness that had claimed her life. We feel his emotions evolving, helped along by the passage of time and by some Native American wisdom that allowed him to slowly absorb the fact of her death into his own ongoing existence. Early in The Carry Home , Ferguson speaks of a “life lived as though nature were both wings and nest.” At the book’s end, having survived a tragic loss, he can again look to nature for inspiration and for solace. 

Here’s a link to Thomas Curwen’s deeply-felt Los Angeles Times story about the end of Gary Ferguson’s grief journey. Curwen was a participant in that last hike.

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