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Staking her territory

Annie Proulx’s rambling memoir is a nature journal, history lesson, and love letter to rural Wyoming

In “Bird Cloud,’’ Annie Proulx demonstrates that she stands unmatched in describing the natural world. In “Bird Cloud,’’ Annie Proulx demonstrates that she stands unmatched in describing the natural world. (Gus Powell)
By Alec Solomita
Globe Correspondent / January 2, 2011

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Annie Proulx’s novels can be as discrete and orderly as a series of postcards or as leisurely as the ebb and flow of Heart’s Content Harbor in Newfoundland, but they are almost always shapely and finely tuned, with form following function and loyal to landscape — like the work of the most sensitive architects. Tough, sweet, and droll, her short stories are even more controlled. Proulx’s three volumes of Wyoming stories prove her not just a tale spinner and humorist in the great tradition of Mark Twain, but an exemplar of writerly discipline.

The nonfiction writer Annie Proulx, author of the memoir “Bird Cloud,’’ is, on the other hand, not quite so restrained. This assortment of essays and reminiscence is (mostly) about the building of a house, a complex, outlandish structure on a wind-lashed Wyoming site amid 640 acres Proulx purchased to make a home (which she christens Bird Cloud). It’s curious that when writing about the building project, Proulx’s usually architectonic structuring becomes a wild and baggy thing. Circling, winding, stretching, and compressing, “Bird Cloud’’ jumps from place to place and time to time with a startling and often confusing license. The author has taken the opportunity in “Bird Cloud’’ to indulge all her interests. And they are legion.

Proulx’s immense learning and variety of interests make this memoir unclassifiable. It is archaeology, topography, meteorology, genealogy, ethnography, and history; it is botany and zoology; it is industrial arts. It is tall tales and tiny insects. We learn about the history of Wyoming, its flora, fauna, indigenous peoples, and colonizers. We also climb Proulx’s family tree for a chapter or two and travel with her nuclear family from Canada to Maine to Rhode Island to New York and points south and west.

This mix of subject and genre is not entirely promiscuous. The history of Wyoming is told in several sections, and it ranges from the middle of the Cenozoic age (30 million years ago) to the first decade of the present century. For this shallow reader, the legends of cowboys plugging each other over boundary disputes and hanging each other for rustling proved more compelling than a disquisition on the “Rio Grande Rift deformation’’ (although it must be said that Proulx writes about abstruse subjects with a singular liveliness and clarity).

Proulx’s outrage at the awesome damage wrought on the American West by European settlement gives much of the book its frenetic energy, but also leads her into some familiar rants and tired judgments. Her preference for Native American culture detours this characteristically hardheaded writer into the kind of muddled sentimentality that mars her pastel pastoral “Brokeback Mountain.’’ She writes, “Running through everything these people [Indians] thought or knew, like the vast root systems of grasses that extend deep beneath the surface . . . were spiritual filaments that guided behavior and nourished rich mythologies. We today can barely comprehend the interconnectedness of their observations of the natural world, their ideas and lives.’’ Well, we can and do, actually. And the same paean can be sung to thousands of peoples, places and times, including the European Middle Ages, Puritan New England, and sixth-century Arabia.

Proulx is driven by inquisitiveness so voracious it becomes in “Bird Cloud’’ a form of acquisitiveness. Her need to acquire and disseminate knowledge matches the desire of her sworn enemies — the white Euro-American plunderers of the West — to acquire property and control. Like the horrendous hunters she describes so vividly, who travel from Great Britain to Wyoming in the 19th century specifically to kill hundreds of animals, Proulx (without hurting a flea) assumes ownership of the Western land, sky, birds, and beasts through thorough, sometimes compulsive, investigation and description. For the reader the result is often pleasure, although occasionally the glut of information chokes an otherwise flowing narrative. For example, Proulx describes her building project in detail that could put Bob Vila to sleep: “The roof, the trusses, the beams all were tricky, load-bearing crucial parts that had to join perfectly. . . . [The] roof engineer . . . decided that someone at the truss builders had miscalculated the load where the beams tied together.’’

Describing the natural world, Proulx remains unmatched: “It started snowing. Hard. The air shuddered with volant snow like bead curtains in an earthquake.’’ Her loving yet unsentimental descriptions of animals, birds in particular, light up her narrative like “sharp slice[s] of sunlight.’’ “At dusk I went up again to the top of the cliff. The sky was filling with clouds trailing long fingers like rake tines. A golden eagle flew past at eye level, a limp prairie dog in its talons.’’

“Bird Cloud’’ is a strange, disjointed, often beautiful book. Although there are stretches as tedious as Wyoming’s Red Desert, episodes, description, and insights rise up like frequent and delightful oases as we ultimately resign ourselves to following Proulx where she willfully leads.

Alec Solomita, a fiction writer and critic living in Somerville, can be reached at alecsolomita@ymail.com.

BIRD CLOUD: A Memoir
By Annie Proulx
Scribner, 234 pp., $26