Friday night – after stopping several times to put off the ending as long as possible – I finally finished Norman Maclean’s "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," the third story in the collection that my friend Julia bestowed on me a couple weeks ago.
"USFS 1919" is shorter than but at least as good as the collection’s lead piece, "A River Runs through It," Maclean’s most famous story (which I blogged about when I finished it a few days ago). Where "River" was a meditation on familial bonds and loss, "USFS" is a funny slow-motion adventure story about the young Maclean’s service on a U.S. Forest Service crew in the high Rockies near Hamilton, Montana, in summer 1919. Like "River," this story includes some wonderful sketches by R. Williams:
I wish the book had more of this visual art, but I am glad that "USFS" is full of literary art, especially beautiful passages of writing in which Maclean vividly describes the mountains and the woods and makes me wish I could there right now:
To a boy, it is something new and beautiful to piss among the stars. Not under the starts but among them. Even at night great winds seem always to blow on great mountains, and tops of trees bend, but, as the boy stands there with nothing to do but to watch, seemingly the sky itself bends and the stars blow down through the trees until the Milky Way becomes lost in some distant forest.
After a surprising August (!) snowstorm during a short stint as a fire watcher:
When I looked, I knew I might never again see so much of the earth so beautiful, the beautiful being something you know added to something you see, in a whole that is different from the sum of its parts. What I saw might have been just another winter scene, though an impressive one. But what I knew was that the earth underneath was alive and that by tomorrow, certainly by the day after, it would be all green again. so what I saw because of what I knew was a kind of death with the marvelous promise of less than a three-day resurrection.
Even before I got back to camp it had begun to melt. Hundreds of shrubs had been bent over like set snares, and now they spring up in the air throwing small puffs of white as if hundreds of snowshoe rabbits were being caught at the same instant.
As he rests during a long walk back from camp to Hamilton, he muses in a way that I recognize from racing in the winter:
When you look back at where you have been, it often seems as if you have never been there or even as if there were no such place.
(Two things about these passages: Maclean writes a great deal about pissing in the woods, an activity to which I can personally relate, and he is a masterful user – or non-user – of commas. He saves his commas like scarce nails and pounds them into his sentences only where truly needed.)
Into these passages of superlative nature writing, Maclean offers some glimpses of how he came to understand his mountain adventures as key phases of life and, eventually, as the raw material for literature:
I had as yet no notion that life every now and then becomes literature—not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.
Unlike "River," this piece has a big cast of more and less crazy characters, including Maclean himself – a 17-year-old kid with far more responsibility than he needs or merits but an excellent ability to make very poor decisions, like the choice to walk straight through from camp to town. The central characters though are the titular ranger and cook. Much of the story concerns how these two guys conceive of a scheme to end their season of work with a hell of a night on the town in Hamilton. I won’t ruin the story’s ending, which like the story’s landscape has several peaks (Maclean early on says he’s serving in an "ocean of mountains") but it’s amazing as prose, as story, and as life.
The only bad part about the ending of the story was that it came at the end. The good thing is that Julia has also sent me Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, his longest book and one that – she says – is as good as "River" and "USFS."