Book Review: A Rural Conversation

Posted Wednesday, June 1, 2011 in Culture

Book Review: A Rural Conversation

Between House and Barn: A Rural Interlude

By Christopher Ayres and Stephen Hyde

2011: Standing Stones Farm Press

Pownal, Maine 04069

Soft cover, $30.00

 

Reviewed by David D. Platt

I’ve waited a long time for this book. For years I periodically edited Steve Hyde’s essays and selected Chris Ayres’ images for old Maine Times. The essays and images weren’t paired in those days – Chris was shooting for the paper in general, while Steve wrote essays on his own.  Photographer and author are each deep and thoughtful in their own ways; Chris has an understanding of the black-and-white image that few share, and his work was one of the things that gave old MT its special quality. Steve is a writer of rare quality who also happens to be a Zen master — with an affection for things like standing stones, barns and starry nights. On the surface, his essays are meditations on rural life in a small community, but underneath the fields, stone walls, haying, cattle, horses, cats, children and crows they are about kindness, families, the passing down of knowledge from generation to generation, and death. They are about wildlife – ever wonder about the connection between blue jays and forests? About coyotes and dogs? Chickadees? Antlers in the woods? Steve wonders about all of these things and figures out what they really mean.

He writes about war, connecting to it — I know it sounds far-fetched — by way of a meditation on farm chores. “Chores are chores. Winter is winter. War is war, and, aside from that, life keeps on from being life … is there a point to life, to all this living and dying, living and dying, living and dying? Some days I am sure there is, and some days I am sure there is not. Is war the point? As much as peace is, I suppose. But if neither war nor peace is the point, if good and bad, love and hate, right and wrong, summer and winter, morning and night, hunger and satisfaction, if all these are not the point, then what is? What’s all this living and dying about?”

A reader familiar with Robert Frost should appreciate this book – not simply because Steve writes like Frost or because the geography here is like Frost’s Vermont – but because like Frost, he digs deep into what makes us all human.  A rooted life is rare these days; more of the old ways survive in rural Maine and other parts of northern New England than in the rest of the country; understanding and celebrating that kind of life and what it means, without nostalgia, is what Steve Hyde’s writing is all about.

Chris Ayres, whose photographs start a conversation with Steve’s essays rather than illustrate them, understands light and darkness as only someone who works in black and white can. He has a great sense of humor (check out the cats on p. 115 of this book if you don’t agree). He catches the surface of new ice on a winter pond as well as muddy water in the summer. He captures the high clouds of summer as dramatically as a fox in winter snow.

House and Cats

photo courtesy of Christopher Ayres

At first I wondered what the book’s subtitle, “A Rural Interlude,” meant. An interruption in an otherwise busy life? Some kind of break in time? Perhaps, but not exactly. It refers to Steve and Chris’s strong sense that they are only temporary residents of the two neighboring tracts of farmland they occupy. Their lives there now are the “interlude” between a past stretching back to a time when country life was the rule rather than the exception – and a future that is theirs/ours to create as we wish. One of the best ways to ensure a good future is to understand where we came from, who we really are, what the world around us really means.

 

David D. Platt edited the old Maine Times from 1986 to 1991.

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