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Archive for Sunday, December 22, 2002

The seasons are king in ‘The Rural Life’

December 22, 2002

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"Humans prefer to live in the rooms that seasons make," says Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose exquisite chronicles of the natural world are collected in "The Rural Life."

Klinkenborg, who divides his time between toiling for The New York Times' editorial board and tilling the gardens on his farm in upstate New York, is well-qualified for both pursuits. He is the son, grandson and nephew of Iowa farmers as well as the recipient of a Ph.D. in English literature from Princeton University.

The author of two books, "Making Hay" and "The Last Fine Time," and contributor to such magazines as The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire and National Geographic, he is perhaps best known for his "Rural Life" essays that regularly appear on the Times' editorial page.

This book gathers some of those pieces in "a yearlong meditation on the deep joys of country life," inviting us into those "rooms" and reminding us of the eternal cycles of growth, fruition and decay.

He begins the book with a chapter on January that contains a meditation on the uses of keeping personal journals and the "presumptive force" of winter. "Other seasons come abruptly but ask so little when they do," he writes. "Winter is the only one that has to be relearned."

Much of the book centers on his small farm in New York, where he keeps dogs and horses and bees and dreams about raising pigs, but there also are excursions to Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Iowa, California -- and Walden Pond. Wherever he goes, he captures the essence of the place in commentary that can be wry or lyrical but is always penetrating.

"A couple of years ago, judging by roadside signs," he notes, "it looked as though the rural economy of America depended almost entirely on the sale and resale of Beanie Babies."

Still, the bulk of the essays are about his farm, set in a landscape and dominated by weather that will ring familiar to New Englanders. "The root of the New England character is incredulity, a state of chronic weather-induced heartbreak," he writes.

The book follows the cycle of the year, from January days "so gray, so white, that the winter color of the goldfinches -- pale as olive oil -- feels like an overdraft on the eyes," to mud-luscious March, ripe July, bright October and December with its "almost painful hunger for light."

The book is replete with startling images and beautifully phrased thoughts, but that doesn't mean it is devoid of humor. Here he is, having some fun at the expense of roosters:

"Until you've watched roosters chase each other round and round, propelled by their hormones, you have no idea how much they can move like Groucho Marx. They're that sardonic too."

"The Rural Life" sparkles with such observations. Klinkenborg is a master at showing us the familiar in new and illuminating ways and has produced a book that can be profitably read and re-read throughout the year, by country and city dwellers alike.

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