Tom Slayton: A North Country Life

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Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea’s new book, "A North Country Life,"
celebrates the traditional culture of rural New England, a culture in
which hunting and fishing are vital components. Here’s journalist and
commentator Tom Slayton’s review of the book.

(Slayton) Hunters
see the countryside differently than those of us who simply walk through
it for exercise or pleasure. Hunting, your senses are on high alert:
Which way is the wind blowing my scent? What was that rustle in the
brush down by the creek? And there’s an edge – a bit of tension, of
anticipation perhaps, that the casual walker doesn’t usually experience.

It’s been 25 years or more since I carried a gun in the woods,
but I still can feel that heightened intensity and focus when I go,
binoculars in hand, in search of an unusual bird.

Sydney Lea, in
his new book of essays, "A North Country Life," captures both the
feeling of hunting and the enduring native New England culture that
hunting embodies. Lea is Vermont’s current poet laureate, and he has a
clear affection for the places and people of backwoods northern New

Hunting is, of course, a part of that world. In 1994,
Lea authored an earlier book of essays on the subject, and he has hunted
and fished for most of his life. Reading this latest book, you can tell
that, right away. It rings with the authenticity of direct experience.

North Country Life," however, goes beyond the hunt itself to evoke
Sydney Lea’s mentors and guides – his woodland teachers. These elderly
men, mostly dead now, were bearers of the rural hunting and fishing
traditions that Lea so clearly loves. His book is, in a sense, an elegy
for them and the culture of woods knowledge and self-sufficiency that
they represented.

They are men like Earl Bonness, a river-driver
in lumberjack days, who was a repository of woodland stories and
woodland wisdom. "of course there’s TV and all that now," Bonness says
at one point. "That’s not the same as stories."

In August of
1993, Lea recorded Bonness telling a series of tales, some revelatory,
some hilarious. It is a measure of Lea’s enormous modesty, and his
affection for Bonness and other Northwoods men that he simply presents a
transcription of the older man’s yarn-spinning, because he doesn’t
think any writer – himself included – could improve on it:

words blended with the steady rush of the river outdoors," Lea writes;
and as he writes, he is reminded of the Biblical Ancient of Days, who,
he says, "spoke with the voice of many rivers. Who saw the beginning and
ending of a world."

That, in more than one sense, is what
Sydney Lea’s "A North Country Life" is about: nostalgia in its truest,
most honorable sense: the memory of a golden age, now gone by.

another part of this heartfelt, deeply authentic book, the author
declares of his mentors: "I mean to make Earl and all the revered elders
a part of today…"

And in his latest book, "A North Country Life," Sydney Lea does just that.

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