I came across John Haines while reading William Kittredge's great anthology "The Portable Western Reader." Haines is better known as a poet, and maybe that's why these essays are so vividly written. They represent a period of years from the 1940s to the 1980s during which Haines homesteaded off and on near Richardson, in central Alaska. They are only somewhat reflective and focus instead on capturing the raw experience of living in the woods, along creeks and rivers, through the seasons of the year. As a homesteader, Haines lived off the land, raising his own vegetables, hunting game, and trapping marten, lynx, beaver, and fox. Many of the essays concern hunting and killing animals, and they are written in a matter-of-fact way that may repel some readers. They do, however, capture a point of view toward wildlife that is possible for a man of letters to entertain, and as such they illuminate a set of values that has a long history among people who have lived by hunting and gathering on the frontiers of the world.
For me, the memorable essays in the collection deal with the kind of isolation that the author has chosen to live in. One essay describes a three-day winter journey to check trap lines, cataloguing in detail how he dresses, the gear and food he takes with him, and the one dog that accompanies him. Along the way, he has a close encounter with a grizzly, which highlights the vulnerability of a single man in this remote terrain, and there is the description of overnighting in a cabin, where he is alone with his thoughts as darkness falls early, silence reins, and the cold night sky fills with stars. Another essay is a long account of how the streams and a nearby river gradually freeze over in the autumn and winter. With his poet's eyes and ears, Haines describes how ice forms and the sounds made by flowing water as it freezes, until it is utterly silent under snow.
A few essays describe the men who live in this area, swapping stories about others who have chosen this faraway world to live in alone and make what living they can to keep soul and body together, season after season. Given these lives of isolation, the prevalence of dark and cold, and the recurring theme of death and dying, there is a certain melancholy throughout the book. You put it down at the end with a kind of respect for Haines' clear-eyed vision and sensibilities and certainly his skill as a writer. The simplicity of a life stripped to essentials (work, food, sleep) will have an appeal for some readers who dream of self-sufficiency and getting away from it all. But the romanticism Haines evokes has much to do with a test of character, spirit, and physical stamina. The tough and the lucky survive, but only for as long as the wilderness lets them.