by Bob Butz
$21.95 - Huron River Press
Review by Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli
So many who come to Northern Michigan have faced the challenges Bob Butz has faced. Sometimes its that dark night of the soul, when you look at yourself in the mirror one morning and ask Is this who I want to be? Sometimes its simply the journey to be true to oneself. Sometimes its about things not yet discovered.
In An Uncrowded Place: The delights and dilemmas of life Up North and a young mans search for home (Huron River Press), Butzs search has brought him north to become the writer he wants to be, the father and husband he hopes he is, and a man at one with the natural world. What he achieves, as the essaysoriginally published in Traverse Magazine progress, is an uneasy acceptance of life as it really is. All of this while engrossed in fly fishing, bow hunting, hunting for writing assignments in New York City while looking like a rube, camping, and taking care of his new son. This is a book of contradictions and semi-answers. Its a book about people like himthose who choose to live in the country or wished they lived in the country.
Some of the best writing here takes place in the dark. Night dark. Three a.m. dark. A time when the body seems to disappear and all thats left is the mind hunting for something, unseen hands feeling along into the forest; along a stream. Somehow Butz knew to challenge himself, knew that the dark we all fear holds answers and he goes out there into the woods: hunting, fishing, in the snow, in November, on summer nights of the big hex fly invasion.
In Under the Hex, the month is June. It is the dusky hatching of the Hex, when the trout rise in the rivers to feast on the huge Mayflies. Butz isnt alone. Hundreds of avid fishermen line the banks of the river, come after a big old hooked-jawed brown, a slab-sided river fish as large as the blade of a canoe paddle.
The fishing is good during the hatch, he writes . . . perhaps some of the best youll ever find. But its not easy. After midnight, in the blackness everyday acts seem heroic. Im thinking about the time my flashlight went dead sometime after midnight, right when the fishing was just taking off. I lost a fly to a fish and actually managed to tie on another, threading the monofilament through the hook eyes and everything, all by feel. Then a half-dozen fish later, I had to feel my way two miles back to the car, the whole while convinced something, or someone, was following me.
Then again, in Dream Fish, Night Fish he braves the dark to fish. He writes, Fishing at its best is done by feel. After dark, thats all there is. I most like fishing for salmon at the rivers mouth, where you stand in water up to your armpits. There, under the wide eyes of the moon, in the near dark, I tie my knots by feel, by memory. . . The water presses against my thighs. I try to imagine what the lure looks like down there, flashing in the moonlight with every twitch of the rod.
After his son is born, an unexpected consequence of fatherhood strikes him. He is changed again. It is three oclock in the morning. His wife is home. It is cold, dark, and lightly snowing, the boy was asleep. . I was going for my walk.
He drives to a trailhead where he parks and sets out. What he discovered that night was what all parents find, that the mind has been taken over by a child, by the needs of another. Immediately uneasiness settles in. Butz writes, When I was at home, all I could think about was getting away to the woods, miles away, if only for an hour to walk aimlessly alone breathing fresh air un-tinged by the smell of Johnsons Baby Powder and Desitin. Now that I was here, the real joke finally hit me. All I could think about was home.
That doesnt mean turning his back on his love of the woods and waters. Its more another change. What hes learned becomes a desire to teach his son, to be with him until hes of an age to hold a fishing rod, to let this new person into the life hes found in the Michigan woods. Hes come to the sharing part of life.
CANOEING THE BOARDMAN
River Notes: Three Days of the Savage Life, sums up what hes captured along his way. He takes us to the river and the woods on a November Friday. A storm is predicted. He is canoeing along the Boardman, camping on the shore, bow hunting, fishing, killing a mallard to cook over his fire, and climbing into his sleeping bag at dark to be covered with a blanket of light snow by morning. Here exists much of what hes come north to find. The sky this morning was powder blue and streaked with clouds the color of fire. All the trees along the banks were bent over, their branches hanging down, laden with snow that everywhere glowed with a soft pink light. The arrow stuck in the riverbank, only its fletching showing. I pulled it free and paddled in close to shore, paddling slowly, languidly, watching for deer, for squirrelsanything that I might arrow for lunch . . .Suddenly, what has come to me is a feeling of belonging to this world.
He is at peace with the life hes created. He paddles along in the river, heading back toward home, to his wife and new son.
Elizabeth Kane Buzzellis novel, Dead Dancing Women is in bookstores now. She will be signing her book at Horizon Books in Traverse City on Dec. 19, 7 to 8:30 p.m.