Light Years: A Memoir
Lyons & Burford
"From the womb, I wanted light," writes Le Anne Schreiber in a book that is both infused with, and about, light. It is also about flora and fauna, life and death, time and territory — as well as stray cats impaled by arrows, sumacs "united in a rhizomatic conspiracy" to take over the author's acre of land, one helper whose business card reads "Landscaper La Femme," and another who "wielded his backhoe with the delicacy of a gourmand probing a lobster claw for its last sweet morsel."
Schreiber's book is a masterpiece of clarity and detail; her descriptions vivid in their straightforward simplicity, as when she describes a tale told by her Aunt Veronica. "Like all the family stories," writes Schreiber, "this one was very short, little more than bare fact whittled to a sharp point." Or, when describing the piece of land she buys in upstate New York after fleeing Manhattan in her search for light, and home, she says, "It wasn't much — just one sloping acre shaped like a blunt-tipped piece of pie being lifted from the pan — but it was unposted and all mine."
Light Years is a memoir prompted by the death of much-loved parents and her only sibling, a brother, over a period of five years. Yet, Schreiber lets the reader know of these deaths almost in passing, and though they are always in the background, there are times the reader forgets about them altogether.
The book opens with father teaching daughter the intricacies of fly-fishing, mostly by telephone and mail from Minnesota after a single visit to the author's new home and the stream that meanders near it. "Each year," she writes, "he planned a visit so we could enter the stream together, but each summer he was detained, first by my mother's illness, then by his own." In the meantime, she sends him pictures and descriptions of her favorite stretches of stream; he sends trout flies that he has crafted in his basement workshop.
On what turns out to be her last visit home, he asks if the two of them can talk "about a few things 'just in case,'" then says he would like a portion of his ashes to be cast into the stream his daughter has grown to love. Only now does the reader realize just how ill Schreiber's father is, and know for certain that her mother is already dead.
". . . I said I knew just where," she writes after describing her father's timidly put forward proposal concerning his ashes, "just in case." It's not where the sycamore spanned the stream, she explains, for "the winter after my mother died, the sycamore had been pried loose from its mooring on the bank by the force of high water released during a rare January thaw."
Soon after, we learn of her father's death: "It is spring now. . . . Rod and creel and ashes wait with me for summer, for the long light, when they will enter the stream at the riffles." Up to this point, Schreiber has been releasing the trout she catches. Now she writes, "Sometimes I wonder if the creel is his permission for me to keep what I catch. Right now, it seems more important that he taught me how to release. This summer I will carry the creel, empty, and bear the wicker weight of his absence."
Moments that touch the heart with sadness are balanced with Schreiber's humor and insight, never more apparent than in her descriptions of settling into Ancram, New York (pop. 1,533), and the lessons she learns in the process. Her first battle is with the land, much of it "an impenetrable tangle of briar, staghorn sumac, thorny blackberry bushes, and wild honeysuckle, all festooned with miles of runaway grapevine."
After a series of attacks and counterattacks — with some help from Landscaper La Femme — Schreiber wisely concludes: "I knew there was no war to be won, just an annual engagement with worthy adversaries whose tenacity I admired, even counted on, to survive my onslaughts. I had intended a limited, one-time intervention, as if paths and a glade could be carved out of a jungle once and for all, as if my acre, like the house it hosted, would sit tight for interior decoration. As if I were the character, and the acre merely a setting, not a protagonist with purposes of its own."