My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Michael Branch completely had me at “Bug.” I too have a vivacious, curious, energetic daughter I raised in the Great Basin and that I nicknamed “Bug.” Although mine was raised not in the wild but in the suburbs of Salt Lake City on the east edge of the Basin with only frequent trips to the Wasatch Mountains and to a remote second home high in the center of the Colorado Plateau. That and she is 32 years old already.
Michael’s Bug is going to have a lifetime of enjoyment of the book her father has penned with her at the center.
Like his daughter, Bug’s dad is a keen and energetic observer. In The Way of Natural History upcoming Torrey House Press author Tom Fleischner describes natural history as a practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the world, one that is a prerequisite to intimacy. Intimacy is what Branch creates and invites and such is the reason I read books.
Branch briefly draws a parallel between Thoreau building a writing shack on Walden’s Pond to write and philosophize from. It is Thoreau who should be flattered. For, as Branch points out, Branch is taking his family with him on a whole family hermitage. And to the howling, bone dry, high desert and not to a bucolic, wooded pond. Branch can’t say it, but a reader is soon drawn to wonder if we aren’t holding in our hands the work of this generation’s next Henry David Thoreau.
Much of this hilarious, poignant romp in the wild is about the wild trying to reclaim for its own what Branch and his family have built. Fire and wildfire not being the least of the elements. My Bug has survived a house fire as a toddler as well. These girls really need to meet. The telling of the Branch family fire slows down time, walks backward and sideways through it, exploring what it is to see, observe and even to know something as intimate of a dangerous fire breaking out under the roof where your wife and daughters are. I stopped and read the chapter twice just to better experience what Michael was doing to my mind with his pen.
As much a natural history book and memoir this is a manual about how to live. I want my kids to read it, my wife, my sister. My brother would have loved and benefited from it. In the opening chapter, after Branch takes a marvelous “pre-amble” with us, Branch is decided to become a father. He is sitting quietly with the idea that has already taken him over with obvious joy and as he gazes at his wife he “. . . sees in her face a child, and I could as see a mother and an old woman. I heard the swaying ocean and felt the evening breeze and witnessed the bone moon lifting slowly out of the dunes.” As he contemplated his future with this women he said, “It was like sitting backward on a bale of hay in the bed of a speeding pickup: the first moment you see what’s around you it’s already racing away toward the receding horizon. Only is such a moment can we wrinkle up or lives to make the best parts touch–fold the cascading narrative of days to see ourselves being told by a larger story that, however haltingly, is still being written.”
At 60 years old, I relate to those years that have already raced away. But reading Michael’s honest and vulnerable prose, I feel invited to wake up and more mindfully embrace the world, human and non-human, around me. Such is the reason for literature and I highly commend Michael Branch for his craft and efforts of awareness to bring a work of art like this alive and into my hands. I hope he keeps that pen, craft and wild mind of his fired up.