The deepest northern woods or most barren Alaskan wilderness vibrate with life under award-winning journalist Hildebrand’s discerning eye.
It may be the rainwater oozing up from boggy Minnesota farmland under a visitor’s footsteps. Or the “heart-shaped” tracks of white-tailed deer in the Wisconsin forest. Or the shimmering shapes of sockeye salmon heading upstream under a canoe on the Yukon. In 18 old and new essays, Hildebrand (Mapping the Farm, 1995, etc.) couples eerily beautiful natural landscapes with a sense of their fragility. The writing is heartfelt, but there’s no preachiness. For the most part, Hildebrand lets nature do the talking. True, the older essays can feel dated. “Exile's Song” paints an Ireland beset with economic despair and a fleeing population—obviously written before a high-tech invasion transformed Ireland into the “Celtic Tiger” of the last decade. In other cases, though, even the older essays carry a powerful emotional kick. In “Snow on the Mountains,” Hildebrand returns to a remote cabin he and his young bride built in 1972 along Alaska’s Stampede Trail. The marriage dissolved within a few years (after a premature baby died in childbirth), and, returning in 1976, the author finds a strange mixture of regret and solace in the achingly beautiful morning that breaks around his isolation. Hildebrand brings a serenity to the wilderness, and also a sense of literary history. He leads us to Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted River on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and through the same Minnesota prairie that Thoreau, dying of tuberculosis, walked on his final journey in 1843. On California’s Pacific Coast Highway, he mourns our passing from a country of travel-hungry Jack Kerouacs to sedentary Garrison Keillors, now willingly tethered to our “hometowns.” Indeed, whether uncovering Laotian exiles in Minnesota or ancient Indians in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge, Hildebrand proves as adept at unearthing the compelling human story as he is at penetrating nature’s subtleties.
Literate prose and a naturalist’s sensibility: a better tour guide would be hard to imagine.