Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Inland Island and the illusion of escape

I went for a walk to help me think last evening but found my ruminations interrupted by mosquitoes. Pesky critters--how am I supposed to think deep thoughts when I'm being dive-bombed by blood-thirsty vermin?

On the other hand, blood-thirsty vermin of a different sort play a part in the book that inspired my deep thoughts, The Inland Island by Josephine Johnson. The book had been recommended as something I might want to assign in the place-based class I'm teaching next semester, and while every description of the book makes it sound ideal, I found it deeply frustrating.

The Inland Island, published in 1969, recounts a year in the life of a plot of ground outside Cincinnati, Ohio, and given my longtime interest in nature writing and the Midwest region, it's surprising that I'd never read the book before. It earns high praise for its lyrical descriptions of nature, but Johnson occasionally interrupts those pastoral passages with sharp criticism of events taking place outside of her rural refuge: the Vietnam War.

The contrast is jarring--peaceful description of spring wildflowers followed by sudden images of children burning--and it reminds me of nothing so much as a poem by James Wright, "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" (click here), which transports us to a lyrical pastoral moment until the final line: "I have wasted my life." An interesting insight, but it's so unearned and abrupt that it feels like someone has flipped the hammock and dumped us unceremoniously on the ground.

As I was walking and swatting mosquitoes last night, I thought of other works that combine lyrical descriptions of nature with deep thoughts about philosophy, theology, or the human condition. Take Walden, for instance, or if you want something more recent take Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Amy Irvine's Desert Cabal: the descriptive and ruminative passages are so intimately intertwined that you can't separate the strands; pull on one thread and it's all knotted up with everything else.

The Inland Island is different, and that difference is apparent in the title: the author's rural refuge is so separated from the outside world that the occasional dispatches from that world feel intrusive, disconnected, unearned. She could have found more effective ways to link the two worlds, but maybe the separation is the point: we need to retreat to a pastoral refuge to escape the horrors of everyday life. But when those horrors keep intruding despite our attempts to escape, it's hard to know where to turn.

I'm thinking of assigning one or two chapters of the book in my class next semester but I'm not sure what my students will make of those sudden irruptions of violence. Et in Arcadia ego, I'll tell them, and they'll look at me as if I'm nuts, which maybe I am. I don't particularly like the book, but sometimes we need to be reminded that even the loveliest setting might include mosquitoes.

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