Paul Gruchow

Paul Gruchow
Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild
Milkweed Editions

IT SEEMED LIKE a fine idea to take this book into the woods on a camping trip. I lay down in my tent, started reading, and discovered that Gruchow camped with a book as well--Thoreau's Walden. For a few pages then, I felt like I was completing a harmonious literary circle around nature: Thoreau; Gruchow; me. However, as my muscles grew soggy and the crickets outside hailed the evening, that circle began to seem more like a wagon train, a defensive circling to keep something out. And that something is the very thing Boundary Waters is about: a head-on experience with wilderness.

And that's the problem with so much nature writing. Although Gruchow is one of the best practitioners of the discipline, his most effective narratives encourage readers to lay aside the book and experience the source first-hand. Where his previous works made an incision into the oft-airy methodology of Tree Talk with urgent commentary on the conduct of humans and the nourishment we take from the doomed and wondrous wilderness, this one is a diary of trips to the BWCA and Isle Royale. Thoreau in tow, Gruchow paddles, hikes, and skis into the forest, narrating what he sees, tree by tree. He conveys both the sweaty tedium and the soul-searing beauty of the endeavor in his sagacious prose. But then reading about someone paddling into the Boundary Waters is sort of like screening a friend's vacation slides: equal parts intrigue, envy, and boredom.

Perhaps, then, the question is, will nature writing alone teach readers to appreciate the real stuff? Only if it encourages you to experience it, or better yet, to not visit a wilderness already beleaguered by too many people. Will it teach you spiritual contentment, or, as Thoreau might phrase it, self-reliance? Gruchow certainly achieves that for himself, reveling in the virtues of simple, decelerated living. "The preoccupation of modern life has been with speed," he writes. "But it seems from the perspective of these woods that the real challenge lies in contriving to move slowly enough to experience anything at all of the world." By book or by boat, that's a challenge I'll accept.

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