It's tempting to compare rural writer Verlyn Klinkenborg to pillars of American literature such as Robert Frost and Henry Thoreau. Like Frost, Klinkenborg can find the universe in a dead bug on a page of writing paper. Like Thoreau, his meditations get at the natural relationship between man and the woods. But Klinkenborg, The New York Times editorial-page writer, uses language with such mastery and has such a unique style that these comparisons may not do him full justice.
The Rural Life is presented (somewhat deceptively) in the form of a journal, begun in January in a flurry of good intentions for the New Year. Each of the 12 chapters contains a series of meditations on the tasks and the weather of one calendar month. The individual meditations are self-sufficient, each a little gem with passages so witty and insightful, readers will find themselves looking around for somebody they could read them to.
The loose weave of the book allows Klinkenborg to write about a wide array of rural phenomena, from raising bees to watching the first snow fall to lighting the wood stove to mending fences. There's no narrative device holding the pieces together no plot, in other words. On the contrary, the action doesn't even take place in a single setting, but leaps from Wyoming to New York to Utah. As the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that this is not simply the journal of one year in Klinkenborg's life but a collage of remembered experiences, recalled against the vivid backdrop of the changing seasons.
So the focus here is not upon any particular sequence of events in the author's life, but on how people experience the seasons and the movement of time, a subject Klinkenborg keeps drifting back to like an Iowa snowfall.
One of the strongest chapters in the book is "June," in which Klinkenborg remembers his father's habits of industry, his love of carpentry and the family ranch he built on the outskirts of Sacramento, California. The writer honestly reports on his adolescent rebellion against this quiet, hard-working father. Then, in the middle of life, Klinkenborg finds himself putting on the garden gloves and going outside to do some project, just as his father used to do. Here Klinkenborg has caught an experience common to people in middle age finding their parents in themselves, after all.
Because its charms are so subtle and its structure so non-linear, it's almost impossible to adequately capture The Rural Life in a review. But I do find myself wanting to e-mail some of Klinkenborg's best passages to my friends or paste them on highway billboards. This one, for instance: "We live in a world of margins, every hour an occasion of its own, where sometimes the weather and the landscape and the state of the foliage live up to the idea of the very season we say is at hand." Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.