In most parts of the world, the literary life stands in opposition to action. Writers nearly everywhere are expected to do nothing more than sit thoughtfully at their desks, and they may even get to enjoy a cocktail while they ponder. But around here, they’re expected to be rugged adventurers as well as intellectuals, composing mordant sentences in their heads as they hike along escarpments or kayak in an artful, solitary way. Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Norman Maclean, Cheryl Strayed, Rick Bass and the like are part of a Northwest tradition that says authors should care as much about the open land as they do about the blank page.
This can be a little tough on those of us who prefer to feel asphalt under our feet. For me, roughing it means leaving my living room to read outside on the porch where the sun might make me squint and the wind might make me lose my place. Pressured by an invitation from a friend, though, last week I took my family into the wilderness to join his for what he promised would be a fun vacation. I was apprehensive, but I figured I could manage to live deliberately for at least a couple of days.
Of course, it wasn’t really the wilderness we headed into but a managed campground not far from the city, idyllically perched between the woods and the water. The setting, and in fact the whole experience, were so idyllic that I’m not going to tell you exactly where we were. Find your own Thoreauvian retreat.
One of the things that made the trip so pleasurable was watching my kids take to the environment. Richard Louv wrote years ago about the importance of nature in his Last Child in the Woods, but it took until this summer for me to appreciate his message. With no cars or crowds (or canyons or cougars) around, I felt safe letting my kids roam on their own as long as they stayed within earshot. They got up to all sorts of good old-fashioned mischief with no worse result than a skinned knee, and they never once complained about not having anything to do.
Best of all, I watched them use their judgment and exercise independence in a way I’d never seen before. Back at home I’m afraid to let them near the stove, but there I found them capable enough to turn a pile of smoldering ashes in a fire pit into a full-on blaze. I see now the value of books such as 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) by Gever Tulley and Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. They’re excellent reminders that the point of child-rearing is not to foster dependence but instead to produce—after much trial and error—autonomous adults. Ultimately, kids learn by doing things on their own.
Doing doesn’t preclude reading, mind you. Books are an essential part of an active life, especially when kids are able to choose the syllabus. When they follow their interests from library shelf into the real world, that’s when education and growth truly happen, with results that last throughout life. I saw the proof under the stars on our first evening in camp.
As the sun set, I saw a bright speck of light low in the western sky. “Is that Venus?” I wondered. My friend, the fellow dad who was leading our expedition, said that it was, and immediately pointed higher and said, “That should be Saturn.” Over the next half hour, more and more celestial landmarks appeared, and he had me swiveling in all directions to spot Deneb, Vega, Altair, and too many other stars to count. It was a pretty impressive display for a computer jockey, particularly one who grew up under Seattle’s clouds.
He explained that this knowledge had come to him as a present when he was twelve, in the form of How to Read the Night Sky by W.S. Kals, the perfect book given at the perfect time. Expertise had been passed down and put into practice, and it was still there almost four decades on. I thought of another writer who goes by her initials, A.S. Byatt, and her novel Babel Tower. In it, there’s a children’s author who creates a Tolkien-esque fantasy called Flight North. This book-within-a-book gives a starring role to a princeling who saves his companions’ bacon more than once thanks to experiences he’s gleaned from reading. The fictional author of this fictional work says, “I wrote it for bookish children. Like myself, like you. . . To say, you can learn to live from books.”
I hope to keep doing that, page by page and year by year.
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. “Captain, all de rigging seems properly polished” is a mnemonic from W.S. Kals’ How to Read the Night Sky that helps amateur astronomers remember the names of Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon and Pollux, the six first magnitude stars that form the winter hexagon in the northern hemisphere.
Photographs by Isabelle Blasio