Our Neck of the Woods
Edited by Daniel J. Philippon
Published by the University of Minnesota Press
(2009, 277 pages, $19.95 Softcover)
“Dense woods or mountain valleys make me nervous. After once visiting Burntside Lake north of Ely for a week, I felt a fierce longing to be out,” late Minnesota author Bill Holm once wrote. The urge was so strong that he crept to his car in the middle of the night and fled back to the prairie, only to stand in a moonlit field and sing at the top of his lungs. The spitting image of insanity? Perhaps. But pick up a new collection of essays edited by Daniel J. Philippon, Our Neck of the Woods: Exploring Minnesota’s Wild Places, and you’ll see that Holm was simply being Minnesotan.
In Minnesota, it seems, we forget our sensibilities when it comes to loving our state. Ask Philip C. Whitford. He studies frog populations, standing on the side of the road with his hands cupped to his ears in the middle of the night. Seem curious? The highway patrol thought so, too. Or, ask Hal Crimmel. He scrambled down a river slope and flagged down a kayaker to “borrow the paddler’s clammy life jacket, strip to his underwear, climb into the kayak, and shove off.” There is also Terri Hutton, dedicated vegetarian so curious about hunting that she bounced down the Echo Trail in the cab of a hunter’s truck, intent on finding out: why? And of course, Holm makes an appearance with his modest admission to inventing “islands on the prairie” as a boy.
As essay collections go, Our Neck of the Woods is more of a confessional than a nature tale. Up and down the state, and via every outdoor pastime (fishing, hunting, skiing, canoeing, camping), writers confess to a love Minnesota so intense it motivates them to ski through dark, bone-chilling cold to watch the sunrise on Lake Superior, fish a creek with no fish, or spend the lunch hour in a Wendy’s parking lot just to catch site of a bird. It is this diversity that makes Our Neck of the Woods best suited for random reads: open to a different essay whenever you feel the need to flea. You won’t always relate—if you are, say, a prairie person like Holm, you might not long to see Sigurd Olson’s trapper’s cabin in the woods. But there is sure to be something to take you back to your own little island of reprieve, that place where you unabashedly sing at the top of your lungs.
Reviewed by Alissa Johnson