Worshipping the woods

Going Green
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  February 17, 2010


From its first sentences, Susan Hand Shetterly's Settled in the Wild: Notes from the Edge of Town drew me in with lyricism: "I leave a window open on April nights and put my pillow close to that cold slice of air because I want to hear spring come back to this small clearing," Shetterly writes, welcoming us not just to her home in Downeast Surry, but into her bed. "Sometimes it snows and I hear that soft muffled falling, or it sleets and I hear instead the sharp tick of ice against the glass. But mostly the sounds are new." She writes of these new spring noises — bugling geese, a crying loon, a curious raccoon — and then shares an anecdote about stepping outside, barefoot and wearing just a T-shirt, to throw stones in the general direction of a mischievous porcupine.

And so the reader is introduced to Shetterly, who left the life she knew (a city and suburban one in New York and Connecticut) in 1971 to move with her husband (artist Robert Shetterly) and one-year-old son (a second child, Caitlin, who used to write for the Phoenix, came later) to an unfinished, off-the-grid cabin in Downeast Maine. Over the last several decades, Shetterly has entered a kind of communion with the natural world around her, and in this collection of essays, she honors both that world and her connection with it.

With a reverential, poetic, and often humorous tone, she describes some of the animals, plants, and people that she's encountered along the way. Several creatures are rescued along the way — a baby hare, an injured garter snake — and naturalist's observations are offered. One of the most moving pieces in the book is about Chac, a hurt raven Shetterly (who now has a wild-bird rehabilitation license) nursed back to health many years ago. Chac's tale is one that touches on fundamental truths of nature, friendship, and growth, as so many of these stories do.

More than anything else, Shetterly's book made me want to go outside, to listen for my own spring sounds, to look up in the trees and under the leaves and across the lake — in short, to appreciate my natural environment in a quiet, thoughtful way, and in doing so, to shift my mental landscape even minutely.

"These are the gifts that last," Shetterly writes of walking with Caitlin in the woods, and the moment when forest opens into field. "Small, as easy as breathing in and out, as plain as bread, they sink beneath what we think we remember, what we think we know, but they remain."

There are stories missing here, stories that would help this city-dweller better understand the emotional causes and implications of such a dramatic life change. Shetterly mentions her divorce only in passing; her children's reactions to growing up in such relative wilderness are only superficially explored; her own fears and joys are described primarily in relation to nature as opposed to people. Not that she ignores the human element altogether. There are some interesting (but not stereotyped) characters portrayed in Settled in the Wild — fishermen, grumpy neighbors, and local politicians — but few of these stories are about interpersonal emotional connections.

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