Bird Cloud: A Memoir of Place, by Annie Proulx
The memoir by this award-winning novelist (The Shipping News) and story writer (“Brokeback Mountain,” from Wyoming Stories) centers on the experience of building a home in the titular tract of Montana wilderness—a place, and a house, Proulx comes to love. We learn of the house she builds with meticulous care, one that will be built “with shelves for thousands of books and long worktables on which to heap manuscripts, research materials and maps.” Bird Cloud, published in 2011, received mixed reviews. As the publisher states, “Proulx’s first work of nonfiction in more than twenty years, Bird Cloud is the story of designing and constructing that house—with its solar panels, Japanese soak tub, concrete floor and elk horn handles on kitchen cabinets.”
The memoir is said to suffer from, how to put this, an excess of privilege. Debating which high-end materials to choose for your treasured home may not cause most readers to readily identify, but then again, it depends on the reader. The larger point, I think, is that most readers of memoir want stories of adversity, of outliers and delinquents, of character in conflict with her surroundings. What’s the point in a portrayal of place if you’ve already got it all and all that remains is putting it together?
Still Proulx is a master of description, and when it comes to landscapes, characters, interiors, you name it—Proulx can rival the best of them. Here she is describing a remote encounter:
“A bald eagle perched in a dead tree, watching us. The landscape was bold. Not only was the property on the North Platte River but the river ran through it, taking an east-west turn for a few miles in its course. The land was a section, 640 acres, a square mile of riparian shrubs and cottonwood, some wetland areas during June high water, sage flats and a lot of weedy overgrazed pasture.”
Not only can Proulx show us what her surroundings look like, but she can show us with equal skill how it feels to be there:
“Walking on the land or digging in the fine soil I am intensely aware that time quivers slightly, changes occurring in imperceptible and minute ways, accumulating so subtly that they seem not to exist. Yet the tiny shifts in everything–cell replication, the rain of dust motes, lengthening hair, wind-pushed rocks–press inexorably on and on.”
In the best of the memoir genre—Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, or Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club—there’s a compelling personal history, a polarity that fuels events, and in those instances, place is often the defining milieu. How else to know a character than by the world she comes from and the place she lives? Some may read a sense of privilege here too great to overlook, one that casts a light this American landscape in terms we can’t quite make our own. Still, you can read Proulx for her vivid and singular prose and likely still come away satisfied.