“The Sylvan Path: A Journey Through America’s Forests” by Gary Ferguson (St. Martin’s Press, $20.95, 164 pages)
Writer Gary Ferguson lives in Montana just off the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. So why did he head to the Northeast for a journey through America’s forests? Certainly not for the big trees: That search would have taken him west to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula or to Oregon’s Williamette Valley.
No, Ferguson drove his Chevy van east for the history, diversity of species and terrain, stories, people and for a little reconfirmation of childhood memories. And, the writer’s gut feeling was that the forests of the East tell best the story of America’s relationship with its wilderness.
Ferguson did not go in search of actual wilderness or old-growth. He sought the stories of our historic spiritual interaction with woods. He found what he went after and evidently had a roadtrip of a lifetime in the process. He shares that roadtrip with us in “The Sylvan Path.”
The Red Lodge-based writer last weighed in nine months ago with “Spirits of the Wild: The World’s Great Nature Myths,” an anthology of nature stories gleaned from cultures around the world. He gathered those stories on the heels of writing “The Yellowstone Wolves: The First Year,” based on a year spent hanging out in Wyoming with a Yellowstone wolfpack.
“The Sylvan Path” is the best Ferguson writing yet. It shows us in an in-your-face way that he’s a literary talent who deserves to be talked about. For while he based “The Yellowstone Wolves” on solid and detailed reporting, and in essence rewrote centuries-old stories in “Spirits of the Wild,” “The Sylvan Path” is pure essay.
With no itinerary, Ferguson strikes out on a journey in the Northeast to visit some forests. His destination and theme undefined, he decides early on to forgo the likely destinations:
My first notion… was to weave the trip around the so-called last of the best places: the biggest sweeps of forest, the wildest, the oldest. Lousy idea. Not that there isn’t a whack-on-the-side-of-the-head value to visiting the largest of what remains of our wildlands. But the celebrity status of such places can be a bit distracting, especially when all you really want is a certain old brand of quiet - smell the smells, visit with a few locals, head out for walks on land where it’s easy to lose the path.
Ferguson shines in the storytelling. It’s no small feat to find your way to the local people who have the best stories and then to convince them to yield the gems for print. Yet the Montana writer accomplishes this with aplomb. He opens the book with the story of a couple in Maine who build birchbark wigwams and ends it with an Ojibwa storyteller in Duluth, Minn. In between he travels the backroads south to east Tennessee and north again to his childhood stomping grounds in Indiana and on to Boundary Waters to canoe past dense northern forests.
The core of the book, however, and clearly the portion of the journey Ferguson enjoyed most, is the short time he spent in the hollers of Appalachia. Here he gently tells the stories of those folks who live as close to subsistence level as probably anyone in America, who still sell moonshine and herbs (including a good deal of marijuana) and pretty much live off the forests. They grow and can vegetables, they help out their neighbors and tolerate those with anti-social tendencies who returned from Vietnam to hide out in east Tennessee more than live there. And some Saturday nights the folk gather at an open-air dance floor called Hillbilly’s and have an old-fashioned dance.
It was almost enough to make Ferguson stay on:
Leaving east Tennessee and making for the North Woods, crossing several hundred miles of what is increasingly unforested, settled country, feels like crawling out of bed after making love to go shovel snow. For the first time on this journey, the leaving is a weight.
While it’s clear the trees - whether in Maine or Tennessee or in Montana - call to Ferguson like a siren, he chose to write the story of the forests through the eyes of the people who are deeply in love with them. Those who want to read about big trees should turn to the other books - and there have been a number of them - about old-growth, important wilderness areas and jaw-dropping scenery.
“The Sylvan Path” is a book about America’s continuing love affair with nature, which at times has approached a national religion. Beware, though, that this is a book which deserves multiple readings. If possible, read it straight through at a sitting. And in a place where you can see the trees.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: Gary Ferguson will read from “The Sylvan Path: A Journey Through America’s Forests” Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Auntie’s Bookstore, Main and Washington.
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