Lessons from a life in the natural world
The back-to-the-land movement was nearing its peak in 1971, when Susan Hand Shetterly, her husband and their young son moved to a small cabin in coastal Maine with “no electricity, no plumbing, no phone.” Almost 40 years later, unlike most of her peers who soon beat a retreat back to urban comfort, Shetterly still calls Maine home, a word that resonates powerfully throughout Settled in the Wild, her clear-eyed and loving tribute to the land, wildlife and people of her adopted community.
Though the essays in Settled in the Wild touch on the stuff of memoir—a second child, a divorce and work as a teacher, writer and wild bird rehabilitator—Shetterly focuses most acutely on the natural world she inhabits: walking, swimming, caring for animals, chopping trees and, always, observing. Whether she is telling the story of an injured raven who gradually leaves her care for the wild, describing the dead tree outside her kitchen window which turns out to be an ecosystem of its own or observing her neighbors as they navigate the changes that come with the development some welcome and others resist, Shetterly’s nuanced and attentive prose brings her world to life.
Over the course of the book, several related themes emerge. Like Shetterly, who believed from childhood that she belonged in the country, the book’s eels, alewives, ravens and dogs have an innate, even ancestral sense of home. However, their homes are shared, and the sharing is not always pretty: Settled in the Wild is full of dead and injured animals, some harmed by people, some by other animals who hunt, kill and eat as nature intends them to do. Human intervention, on the other hand, takes nature in unforeseen directions. “Cormorants,” one of the book’s most powerful essays, details the ups and downs of local bird populations, undone and restored by the acts of people whose solutions to problems inevitably create new problems, leaving Shetterly, finally, “in hell.” For her readers, though, this wise and subtle book is a gem: beautiful, insightful and realistic, a lesson in embracing the world as it is while envisioning how it might be.
Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.