A collection of essays that focuses on the interaction between humans and the natural world in and around the Rogue River in Oregon, where the author spent six months doing a writing residency.
The initial essay in Neely’s first full-length book introduces readers to his style as well as subject matter. Superficially, the essay, which includes almost as much white space as print, concerns the “semi-worthless” beach agates the author has collected along the Oregon coast. On a deeper level, it explores the notion of the essay as collection, allowing quotations from the likes of Carl Jung and Pliny the Elder to rub up against scientific facts and personal recollections, sparking new meanings. Other such challenging pieces include a sly meditation on Coyote, both as animal and trickster figure, and an exploration of chanterelles. If this were Neely’s only style, it might start to seem precious. But throughout these finely tuned essays that vary intriguingly in form and tone, the author shows that he is capable of more traditional, sustained pieces. One example is the chronicle of his experience with the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Indians as they performed a ceremony releasing a cooked salmon back into the river, as well as that of a less-ceremonial jaunt with the local fish hatchery guys as he helped them pitchfork dead salmon into the river to enrich the depleted nitrogen content. Death and human intervention into natural systems—with its usual mixed results—are central to these essays. The collection culminates in a long piece about the months Neely and his wife spent on a homestead out in the woods. Here again, acute observations of nature and records of the human history of the place are at least as prominent as anecdotes of their life.
Neely capably explores the complexity of his subjects with polish and finesse, looking carefully and thinking deeply.