North of Now
W. D. Wetherell
Lyons Press, $27.95
In 1990, while working for a Philadelphia advertising agency and writing on the side, Barbara Holland inherited her mother's summer cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Northern Virginia. Unable to find a buyer for the "one-bedroom, one-bath house without furnace or insulation," and unable to pay her rent in Philadelphia as well as taxes and upkeep on the cabin, Holland made a choice. "I quit my job and gave my landlord notice. I kissed my children and friends goodbye and stuffed my possessions into a U-Haul."
Though Holland's cabin was only 50 miles northwest of the Washington beltway, life was so different in this land of gentle farmers and county fairs, it might as well have been 500. "I had been ripped out of context," writes the author, "and the torn edges continued to drip blood, slowly, for months." Indeed, being an outsider was not easy in a land where "from cradle to grave, my neighbors swing in a hammock of family ties and nobody leaves except for the churchyard."
Though never pushy, Holland was quietly persistent and was rewarded with small victories along the way. Late one afternoon, desperate for companionship, she drove down the mountain to a neighborhood tavern. Finding the tables filled with early diners, she eased as unobtrusively as possible onto a bar stool. "No one is rude," she writes, "but I can feel the subterranean shudder."
Bravely, Holland begins making regular stops at the tavern on the way home from her part-time job writing obituaries for the county newspaper. One day the barmaid nods when the author enters. Months later, when Holland pushes open the tavern door, the barmaid asks, "The usual?" Eventually the men at the bar talk to her. "I am still an aberration," Holland writes, "but no other woman . . . has ever sat at the bar. Only I have managed to claim a stool there where I can look at faces and hear voices after the quiet days." The reader shares her triumph.
Winters are a true hardship, a time when it's difficult to believe that the nation's capital is so close. Claustrophobia mounts as snow drifts Holland's doors shut and blocks sunlight from windows. The road down the mountain is closed to anyone without a pickup and a plow. Weeks pass with the companionship of only her two cats.
Other than the telephone or the television, theirs is the only conversation she hears for weeks at a time. "Except when the wind whines, sleet rattles, an owl calls, or a branch cracks under its load of ice," she writes, "the quiet is so intense I can hear the cat breathing." It is a silence "so complete it circles around and turns into something like a sound, a song I could understand if I listened long enough." Eventually her ears "ache with paying attention, straining to hear trees dreaming, foxes walking, stars wheeling, rocks thinking."
Holland survives her lonely winters and grows to love her adopted corner of the world. "Very slowly I got used to living among people of goodwill and grew nicer myself. Remembered to say please and thank you to the waitress and gas-station attendant. Smiled more."
But there is trouble in paradise. The land and the people are being threatened, and Holland's book is as much a tragedy as it is a love story. To the east, houses are thrown up in developments named for what they have replaced — Rolling Meadows, Forest Glen — and on the hillside beneath Holland's mountain home, where peaches once grew, the development-cum-golf course is styled The Orchard. "Of course people do need to play golf," she writes, "but what shall we do for peaches?"
"Maybe I'm supposed to watch what's happening; take notes," she concludes as civilization creeps westward. "End my days as an eccentric holdout from forgotten times . . . reminding strangers of something they don't remember. Maybe I will." With her book, Holland has done just that.
W. D. Wetherell made his move to the hills in 1982 when he and his wife "went looking for the perfect town," which they found in rural New Hampshire. Unlike Holland's move, however, which tore her "out of context," Wetherell had long known this was the kind of place — and the kind of lif — he wanted. One suspects, in fact, that Wetherell heard the beat of his personal drummer at a very young age.
Like Holland, Wetherell — who sees himself as a "relic of another era, a footnote to an age that not only rushes ahead in heedless bondage to the new, but tramples in contempt on anyone who stubbornly refuses to keep pace" — finds himself bemoaning suburbia's inexorable spread. The newcomers from cities to the south, he writes, "gradually . . . lose patience, revert to type, want pavement and restaurants and instantaneous gratifications." Already, he notes, "on top of the ridges have gone up some astonishingly ugly versions of what trendy owners think a New England house should be."
Both Wetherell and Holland fear they may end up as eccentric curmudgeons, but where Holland's worried view of the future takes the form of philosophical resignation, Wetherell's view of tomorrow — and much of today — has a pessimistic edge to it: "the very conception of man has changed dramatically in the last one hundred years — and not for the better," he declares.
He scorns computers as writing tool — "the wimpy beeping the world has substituted" for the solid kuchunking ring of a manual typewriter. Though admitting nostalgia for the TV shows of his childhood, he will not have a TV set in his house today. He frowns upon downhill skiing and notes that "books are rare items to encounter in most American homes."
Such statements, with their hint of self-righteousness, made this reader feel somewhat defensive about her own crowded bookshelves, and a bit guilty about her enjoyment of a first-rate TV show or a fast run down a ski slope. There is much, however, that Wetherell treasures: the memory of his storytelling grandfather, his wife and children, reading, clouds, stars, rivers and trout — to name only a few. Indeed, Wetherell not only lives life, he savors it. "If you take your time in small, quiet doses," he writes of his days on the upper Connecticut River, "there are many golden moments to be had yet."
He finds these golden moments and chronicles them in extraordinary ways. He describes "the kind of fog that eats snow, so when we woke up this morning the ground was absolutely bare, as if trolls had opened up hidden petcocks in the earth to suck away the drifts," and tells of "going outside at midnight to look at the way our trees split apart the moonlight" and "a Connecticut [River] as silvery and slippery-looking as a child's playground slide."
At the end of his book, Wetherell informs the reader that his intention has been "to tell the story of a country year from the angle of a man of quiet habits living in an isolated pocket among forgotten and enduring hills . . ." His all-encompassing work does far more than that.
Emily d'Aulaire writes from Connecticut.