Bird Cloud: A Memoir

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Overview

?Bird Cloud? is the name Annie Proulx gave to 640 acres of Wyoming wetlands and prairie and four-hundred-foot cliffs plunging down to the North Platte River. On the day she first visited, a cloud in the shape of a bird hung in the evening sky. Proulx also saw pelicans, bald eagles, golden eagles, great blue herons, ravens, scores of bluebirds, harriers, kestrels, elk, deer and a dozen antelope. She fell in love with the land, then owned by the Nature Conservancy, and she knew what she wanted to build on it?a house in harmony with her work, her

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Overview

“Bird Cloud” is the name Annie Proulx gave to 640 acres of Wyoming wetlands and prairie and four-hundred-foot cliffs plunging down to the North Platte River. On the day she first visited, a cloud in the shape of a bird hung in the evening sky. Proulx also saw pelicans, bald eagles, golden eagles, great blue herons, ravens, scores of bluebirds, harriers, kestrels, elk, deer and a dozen antelope. She fell in love with the land, then owned by the Nature Conservancy, and she knew what she wanted to build on it—a house in harmony with her work, her appetites and her character, a library surrounded by bedrooms and a kitchen.

Proulx’s first work of nonfiction in more than twenty years, Bird Cloud is the story of designing and constructing that house—with its solar panels, Japanese soak tub, concrete floor and elk horn handles on kitchen cabinets. It is also an enthralling natural history and archaeology of the region—inhabited for millennia by Ute, Arapaho and Shoshone Indians— and a family history, going back to nineteenth-century Mississippi riverboat captains and Canadian settlers.

Proulx, a writer with extraordinary powers of observation and compassion, here turns her lens on herself. We understand how she came to be living in a house surrounded by wilderness, with shelves for thousands of books and long worktables on which to heap manuscripts, research materials and maps, and how she came to be one of the great American writers of her time. Bird Cloud is magnificent.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Brokeback Mountain portrays her flawed paradise in the majestic, hardscrabble West in this vibrant memoir. Proulx bought a 640-acre nature preserve by the North Platte River in Wyoming and started building her dream house, a project that took years and went hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget. In her bustling account, Proulx salivates over the prospect of a Japanese soak tub, polished concrete floor, solar panels, and luxe furnishings that often turn into pricey engineering fiascoes. The meticulous master builders she dubs the James Gang are the book's heroes. Though the house never quite lives up to its promise, it does inspire the author's engrossing natural history of the locale. Proulx drives cattle off of the overgrazed terrain; finds stone arrowheads; recounts the lore of the Indians, ranchers, and foppish big-game hunters who contested the land; and documents the antics of the eagles, magpies, mountain lions, and other critters who tolerate her presence. Like her fiction, Proulx's memoir flows from a memorable landscape where "the sagebrush seems nearly black and beaten low by the ceaseless wind"; the result is a fine evocation of place that becomes a meditation on the importance of a home, however harsh and evanescent. (Jan.)
Library Journal
When a cherished dream—to make real one's vision of hearth and home in the vastness that is Wyoming—actually materializes, then one has to come to terms with the realities of cliffs and rivers and a "Falling Cow" incident. As Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Proulx ("Brokeback Mountain") became dissatisfied with an adequate house in a funky, small Wyoming town by the cross-country ski trails of the Snowy Mountains, she became drawn to the rabbit brush grasslands and rocky cliffs along the North Platte River, on the outskirts of Saratoga, WY, a landscape that spoke to and seduced her. Her memoir reflects upon the resulting act of creation, the design and construction of her new home, called Bird Cloud, an integration of art and nature that became sanctuary for her working library and writing space. VERDICT When reality confronts dream and one must notice the rocks, stones, sticks, and bones of everyday life, when Proulx relates the history, prehistory, and natural history of the land, that's when this memoir takes wing upon the Wyoming wind. Recommended for all builders of the Western dream.—Nathan E. Bender, Laramie, WY
Kirkus Reviews

Novelist Proulx (Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3, 2008, etc.), the laureate of the Wyoming outback and the Canadian shore, returns to familiar haunts—this time in real life.

French Canada figures as a point of origin in the author's lightly written memoir, in which a great-grandfather speaks: "I know I have feefteen child leeveing, how many more in Minnesota, Canada, y'odder place, O do not know." So do Rhode Island and a few other points on Proulx's personal map. Most of the book, however, concerns the section of land along the North Platte River that came into her possession a few years ago, and where she has since made her home. The "cow-speckled" land, by her description, is rugged, marked by gullies, dust and a dramatic cliff that marks a geological fault—good cause for a meditation on the Rio Grand Rift, a massive fault system that "has made not only the Rio Grande River gorge near Taos but some of the West's most beautiful valleys." Proulx also finds resemblances to contemplate between her eponymous ranch and Uluru, or Ayers Rock, the great Australian monolith that seems weirdly bathed in interior light. Her depictions of the Wyoming landscape in all its moods are in keeping with the best of the Western nature-writing tradition, full of celebration and evocation. But oddly, the narrative contains fewer reveries about the land than one might expect, and a lot of what might be considered helpful hints for would-be bookish homesteaders, ranging from the proper design of an office (with lots of surfaces for laying out maps and piling up paper) and bookcases (to hold thousands of books) to how to relax in a Japanese soak tub ("The long soak was wonderful," Proulx writes, "but an hour later, I discovered a terrible flood in the library").

A low-key, pleasing account of finding home—the place, "perhaps, where I will end my days"—by an accomplished storyteller.

Marie Arana
…anyone familiar with Wyoming…will revel in [Proulx's] close observations of the terrain and her quirky tour of its regional history. As she describes her hard-won demesne between cliff and river, the land comes bristling to life.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
“With every word on the page, Proulx pays homage to a rugged and magnificent Wyoming place—as well as to its surroundings, history, topography, geology and animals…. Proulx shares a part of her soul with the publication of Bird Cloud…. Beautiful and profound.”—Buffalo News

“Gorgeous descriptions… Unforgettable anecdotes.”—Alexandra Fuller, New York Times Book Review

“Annie Proulx has a wit as sharp as the winter winds of Wyoming.”—Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

The Barnes & Noble Review

Annie Proulx, author of eight books of fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Shipping News, and the story collection that contains "Brokeback Mountain," has written Bird Cloud -- described as "autobiography, history of a place, a naturalist's journal," and "the magnificent story of [her] piece of the Wyoming landscape and the house she built on it." While the book jacket promises that Proulx "turns the lens on herself," the word "autobiography" doesn't quite apply, and the word "story" fits only the suspenseful house-building chapters in the middle of the book, not the essays on either side.

Proulx once said that imagination develops best in people with few resources: "If you have nothing and no place in the world, imagination is an engine of incredible power." Her fiction is set in places with abundant natural beauty but scant shelter and less love. Her characters, with their vast reservoirs of tenderness, find that tenderness is unrequited. In Proulx's fiction, language equals consciousness. Fierce but compassionate, colloquial yet lyrical, intimate while unsentimental, it's a map of the protagonist's fears, hopes, despair. We don't get the equivalent in Bird Cloud -- no careful articulation of inchoate urges turning into compulsion, no unflinching verbal measure of the self's fault lines.

But we get glimmers. Proulx concedes that she's "bossy, impatient," apt to make decisions that "stretch comprehension." Her willingness to embrace difficulty has led to truly original fiction -- Accordion Crimes, a starkly beautiful novel. Yet strength, misapplied, is hubris. Proulx's approach to house-building suggests that she was right to equate scarcity with inventiveness. Building an extravagant house on remote land became an exercise in not just imagination but check-writing.

Building a house and writing a book are alike in that reality transfigures ambition. You use the materials and skills available, so the end result is different from the initial vision. E. H. Gombrich said that style isn't ornament but an agile way of sidestepping limitation, the ability to unite an ideal with inevitable shortfalls. But an author addresses unforeseen contingencies and alterations alone, judiciously, while an author building a house works with an architect who emphasizes form over function (at least Proulx's architect did), also a contractor, crew members, subcontractors, inspectors. Each has his own problems meeting deadlines, devising solutions, synchronizing his schedule with other people's, not to mention infinite personality tics, and the requests for money, more money. As a house-builder, Proulx lost control over the final shape. She comes close to saying so when she calls the house "a kind of wooden poem," acknowledging "I have difficulties with poetry."

The house-building section reminds me of home-and-garden TV shows I call real-estate porn, because, watching them, I watch people do things that, even if I had the chance, I'd feel too prudent or guilty to do myself. Proulx installs three floors in a year, each more expensive than its predecessor. She stumbles upon far-flung, can't-live-without materials: artsy cabinets from Texas, a tub from Japan, wood from Alaska, tile from Brazil, a sink she spots in a magazine ad where it sits in front of a roaring ocean. In the ad, it seems like sculpture. In the bathroom, it's nonfunctional, "the snooty sink." What's more, the water isn't potable. Local builders don't understand newfangled specifications. Suppliers send "ill-fitting parts." Utilities reverberate and clatter. Proulx's worst decision comes to light when the house is hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget and still unfinished. The realtor who said the road to the house would be "maintained" in winter -- plowed -- was wrong. The house-to-end-all-house-longing is a summer retreat.

Though the book is presented as a coherent whole, the four-chapter story of homebuilding gone awry is a book unto itself, different in tone and execution from the chapters on either side, which are expository and heavily footnoted. The first chapters are nominally related to house-building in that Proulx begins them by noting she lived in many houses as a child while her French-Canadian father chased the American dream. These genealogical chapters -- like the chapter after the house-building section that recounts money-grubbing exploits of white settlers in Wyoming -- are reminders that Proulx is a trained historian. Another explores evidence that Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapahoe, and Ute tribes lived there. The last chapter, which moves back in time to the only winter she stayed at the house as builders arrived by snowmobile, records the lives of birds.

If Proulx regrets that she fell violently in love with a piece of land and couldn't heed the warnings of friends and family who advised her to proceed slowly, her regret is stoic, imperceptible, or sublimated into this final description of an eagle and his mate deciding where to nest. Noting that "eagles waste no time on tears," Proulx watches them wing away: "I assumed she didn't like the place."

--Debra Monroe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743288804
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 1/4/2011
  • Pages: 234
  • Sales rank: 1,420,474
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Annie Proulx is the author of eight books, including the novel The Shipping News and the story collection Close Range. Her many honors include a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and a PEN/Faulkner award. Her story “Brokeback Mountain,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Her most recent book is Fine Just the Way It Is. She lives in Wyoming.

Biography

Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx did not set out to be a writer. She studied history in school, acquiring both her bachelor's and her master's degrees and abandoning her doctorate only in the face of a pessimistic job market. Something of a free spirit, she married and divorced three times and ended up raising three sons and a daughter single-handedly. She settled in rural Vermont, living in a succession of small towns where she worked as a freelance journalist and spent her free time in the great outdoors, hunting, fishing, and canoeing.

Although she wrote prolifically, most of Proulx's early work was nonfiction. She penned articles on weather, farming, and construction, and contracted for a series of rural "how tos" for magazines like Yankee and Organic Gardening. She also founded the Vershire Behind the Times, a monthly newspaper filled with colorful features and vignettes of small-town Vermont life. All this left little time for fiction, but she averaged a couple of stories a year, nearly all of which were accepted for publication.

Prominent credits in two editions of Best American Short Stories led to the publication in 1988 of Heart Songs and Other Stories, a first collection of Proulx's short fiction. Set in blue-collar New England, these "perfectly pitched stories of mysterious revenges and satisfactions" (the Guardian) received rapturous reviews.

With the encouragement of her publisher, Proulx released her first novel in 1992. The story of a fractured New England farm family, Postcards went on to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. She scored an even greater success the following year when her darkly comic Newfoundland set piece The Shipping News scooped both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. One year before her 60th birthday, Proulx had become an authentic literary celebrity.

Since then, the author has alternated between short and long fiction, garnering numerous accolades and honors along the way. Giving the lie to the literary adage "write what you know," her curiosity has led her into interesting, unfamiliar territory: Before writing The Shipping News, she made more than seven extended trips to Newfoundland, immersing herself in the culture and speech of its inhabitants; similarly, she weaved staggering amounts of musical arcana into her 1996 novel Accordion Crimes. She is known for her keen powers of observation—passed on, she says, from her mother, an artist and avid naturalist—and for her painstaking research, a holdover from her student days.

In 1994, Proulx left Vermont for the wide open spaces of Wyoming—a move that inspired several memorable short stories, including the O. Henry Award winner "Brokeback Mountain." First published in The New Yorker and included in the 1999 collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories, this tale of a doomed love affair between two Wyoming cowboys captured the public imagination when it was turned into an Oscar-winning 2005 film by director Ang Lee.

Lionized by most critics, Proulx is, nevertheless, not without her detractors. Indeed, her terse prose, eccentric characters, startling descriptions, and stylistic idiosyncrasies (run-on sentences followed by sentence fragments) are not the literary purist's cup of tea. But few writers can match her brilliance at manipulating language, evoking place and landscape, or weaving together an utterly mesmerizing story with style and grace.

Good To Know

Proulx was the first woman to win the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Award.

Proulx fell in love with Newfoundland while she was conducting research for The Shipping News. She now spends part of each year in northern Newfoundland on a small cove adjacent to L'Anse aux Meadows..

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    1. Also Known As:
      Edna Annie Proulx (full name), E. Annie Proulx
    2. Hometown:
      LaBarge, Wyoming
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 22, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Norwich, Connecticut
    1. Education:
      Attended Colby College in the 1950s. B.A., University of Vermont, 1969; M.A., Sir George Williams University, 1973

Read an Excerpt


CHAPTER 1
The Back Road to Bird Cloud

March 2005

The cow-speckled landscape is an ashy grey color. I am driving through flat pastureland on a rough county road that is mostly dirt, the protective gravel long ago squirted into ditches by speeding ranch trucks. Stiffened tire tracks veer off the road, through mud and into the sagebrush, the marks of someone with back pasture business. It is too early for grass and the ranchers are still putting out hay, the occasional line of tumbled green alfalfa the only color in a drab world. The cows are strung out in a line determined by the rancher’s course across the field; their heads are down and they pull at the bright hay.

The blue-white road twists like an overturned snake showing its belly. The ditches alongside are the same grey noncolor as the dust that coats the sage and rabbitbrush, the banks sloping crumbles of powdery soil that say “not far away from here were once volcanoes.” It is impossible not to think about those old ash-spewing volcanoes when moving through Wyoming. The sagebrush seems nearly black and beaten low by the ceaseless wind. Why would anybody live here, I think. I live here.

But it is a different world down by the river at Bird Cloud. On the north bank rears a four-hundred-foot cliff, the creamy cap-rock a crust of ancient coral. This monolith has been tempered by thousands of years of polishing wind, blowtorch sun, flood and rattling hail, sluice of rain. After rain the cliff looks bruised, dark splotches and vertical channels like old scars. Two miles west the cliff shrinks into ziggurat stairs of dark, iron-colored stone. At the east end of the property the cliff shows a fault, a diagonal scar that a geologist friend says is likely related to the Rio Grande Rift which is slowly tearing the North American continent apart. In no place that I’ve ever lived have I thought so often about the subterranean movements of continents. The fault in the cliff is a reminder that the earth is in slow, constant flux, inexorably shoving continental plates together, pulling them apart, making new oceans and enormous supercontinents, a vast new Pangaea Proxima predicted hundreds of millions of years from now, long after our species has exited the scene. The Rio Grande Rift deformation, which started 30 million years ago in the Cenozoic, is a stretching and thinning of the earth’s crust by upward-bulging forces in the churning heat of the mantle deep below. The rift extends from West Texas and New Mexico to about twenty miles north of Bird Cloud, and has made not only the Rio Grande River gorge near Taos but some of the west’s most beautiful valleys.1 In fact the rift seems to be related to western basin and range topography. The diagonal fault in Bird Cloud’s cliff as well as the cliff’s entire sloping shape and the existence of Jack Creek, a feeder stream, are all likely influenced by this irresistible stretching force.

Another way I think about Bird Cloud’s golden cliff is to remember Uluru in Australia’s red center. Thomas Keneally wrote rhapsodically of the rock’s “sublime sandstone conglomerate” which evenly spalls its outer layers so that its profile never changes although it becomes incrementally smaller as the centuries pass.2 This massive megalith, not far from Alice Springs, I saw in 1996 with artist Claire Van Vliet who was sketching nearby Kata Tjuta—rock formations that resemble huge stone turbans.

The resemblances of the Bird Cloud property to Uluru are several, though perhaps a little far-fetched. The two sites are roughly the same size and bulk and go through color shifts according to time of day. Both seem to be fitted with interior lights that create a glow after dark. Uluru has its pools and twisting watercourses down the huge body of the rock; the cliff has the river at its foot. Both Uluru and Kata Tjuta are extremely important in matters spiritual and ceremonial to Aboriginal tribes, especially the Pitjantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara western desert tribes, but the story of how the Traditional Owners lost these places to the federal government is familiar, sad and ugly. In the 1985 “agreement” between the Anangu, the Aboriginal people of the area, and the government, the Anangu were forced to lease Uluru and Kata Tjuta to the National Park Service and to allow tourists to climb Uluru. Despite the unenforceable rule on a Park Service sign stating that the Traditional Owners regard climbing the rock as a desecration, thousands insultingly climb it every year. In my part of Wyoming, Bird Cloud’s cliffs were once a much-used camping place for western Indian tribes, the Ute, Arapaho, Shoshone, maybe Sioux and Cheyenne. Nearby Elk Mountain was a place marker indicating a mutually agreed on battleground area.

The geography around Uluru is laced with ancient hero trails that have existed since the Dreamtime. It is a place of ritual caves where certain important ceremonies of the world’s most ancient culture still take place, where there are sacred fertility stones known to few living mortals and pools where legendary events occurred. Following the infrequent rains, twisting streams of water flow down the red flanks and into various pools. At Uluru the general slope of the great rock is reversed by a fold called Kandju, according to Keneally, “a benevolent lizard who came to Ayers Rock to find his boomerang.”3 And Bird Cloud’s yellow cliff tapers away at its east end and is balanced by the distant rise of Pennock, a reverse image of slope.

Along Jack Creek the leafless willow stems burn red as embers. Willow is cautious, one of the last shrubs to put out its leaves—there is frost danger until mid-June. The cliff is reflected in the onyx river, and swimming across it is the stout beaver with a bank den on the far side. The beaver disappears into the brilliant Salix stems.

This place is, perhaps, where I will end my days. Or so I think.

Well do I know my own character negatives—bossy, impatient, reclusively shy, short-tempered, single-minded. The good parts are harder to see, but I suppose a fair dose of sympathy and even compassion is there, a by-product of the writer’s imagination. I can and do put myself in others’ shoes constantly. Observational skills, quick decisions (not a few bad ones), and a tendency to overreach, to stretch comprehension and try difficult things are part of who I am. History seized me a long time ago. I am like Luigi Pirandello’s character Dr. Fileno,

who thought he had found an efficacious remedy for all human ills, an infallible recipe capable of bringing solace to himself and all mankind in case of any calamity whatever, public or private.

Actually it was more than a remedy or a recipe that Doctor Fileno had discovered; it was a method consisting in reading history books from morning till night and practicing looking at the present as though it were an event already buried in the archives of the past. By this method he had cured himself of all suffering and of all worry, and without having to die had found a stern, serene peace, imbued with that particular sadness which cemeteries would still preserve even if all men on earth were dead. 4

That attitude may have something to do with building a house suited to one’s interests, needs and character. Basically I live alone, although summers are a constant stream of visitors and friends. I need room for thousands of books and big worktables where I can heap manuscripts, research material, where I can spread out maps. Books are very important to me. I wish I could think of them as some publishers do—as “product”—but I can’t. I have lived in many houses, most inadequate and chopped into awkward spaces, none with enough book space. When I was a child we moved often, sometimes every year. My father worked in New England’s textile mills, trying hard to overcome his French Canadian background by switching jobs, always moving up the various ladders of his ambition: “bigger and better jobs and more money,” he said.

The first house I can remember vividly was a tiny place in northeastern Connecticut, not far from Willimantic, a house which my parents rented during the late 1930s from a Polish family named Wozniak. I liked that name, Wozniak. I can draw that house from memory although I was two to three years old when we lived there.

I have a keen memory of dizziness as I tried to climb the stairs, of being held fast when my sweater snagged on a nail. I was coming down with some illness, the dizzy sensation and the relentless nail still vivid after seventy years. When I was sick I was moved from my bed upstairs to a cot by the kitchen window. My mother gave me a box of Chiclets chewing gum, the first I had ever seen. One by one I licked the smooth candy coating off each square and lined the grey lumps up on the windowsill. How ugly and completely inedible they looked.

Another time I took the eye of a halibut my mother was preparing for dinner (in those days one bought whole fish) and brought it upstairs to the training potty, dropping it into the puddle of urine and calling my mother to see what I had wrought. She was horrified, not seeing a halibut eye but thinking I had lost some bizarre interior part. I recognized her vulnerability as a warning to be more secretive about what I did, an impression that carried into adult life.

My mother, who loved the outdoors, and whose favorite book was Gene Stratton-Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost, took me for a walk in a swamp. It was necessary to jump from one hummock of swamp grass to another. I was terrified of the dark water distance between these hummocks and finally stood marooned and bawling on a quivering clump, unable to make it to the next one.

We had a green roadster with a rumble seat where I usually rode in solitary splendor, then with my little fox terrier, Rinty, later run over by a motorcycle he was chasing. In this roadster one time my mother was stung by a yellow jacket and I wept for her. She had blood on her skirt, probably from her period, but I, connecting cause and effect, thought the wasp had caused her to bleed.

The hurricane of 1938 arrived when my twin sisters, Joyce and Janet, were only a few months old. The wind increased, shaking the small house. I don’t know where my father was, probably at work. We had no telephone, no radio. My mother decided we should take refuge at a neighbor’s house down the road. We walked, my mother burdened with boxes and a suitcase and one of the twins. Although I was barely three I had the job of carrying the other twin. At the neighbor’s house I remember the moaning wind and the French doors that suddenly began losing panes of glass, and men hammering boards over the outside of the glass doors, making the house gloomy as well as strange.

My mother came from a large rural family of five girls and four boys. A few years after the hurricane we moved to a house in Plainfield, Connecticut, a house that belonged to my mother’s parents, Lewis and Sarah (Geer) Gill. My mother’s antecedents, the Gills, Geers and Crowells, came from longtime farm people who began to be absorbed into the textile industry in the nineteenth century. The Crowells had an artistic bent; one was a master furniture maker, another created stencils for the decorative panels of Hitchcock chairs. During the time we lived in the Plainfield house, my father was abroad, helping set up a textile mill in South America.

This roadside house had been a gas station at one time, one of several of my fertile-minded grandfather Gill’s business ventures. He had invented devices for textile machinery that made him no money at all, then started the gas station and, a few years after we lived in it, converted it to a fabric and mill-ends shop. He could fix anything and was a skilled carpenter. These grandparents, whom the children and grandchildren alike called Ma and Dad, had a huge garden where I loved the exotic husk tomatoes, peeling their papery covers away and eating the sweet-tanged fruits. Dad had a grumpy old dog named Duke. There were a few cows that my uncles had to tend and an electric fence around the garden. My cousins and I thought it was fun to make a human chain, one grasping the electric fence, the one on the end getting the magnified jolt.

My maternal grandmother, Ma, nÉe Sarah Mayo Geer, was descended from two orphan brothers who came from Heavitree near Bristol, England, to Connecticut in 1635. She always seemed harassed by her large family of children, and with so many people swarming in and out, the house was less tidy than comfortable. She washed and ironed her paper money so it would be crisp. She may have starched it. She was impatient, but a sucker for kitchen gadgets and an inventive storyteller with a grand sense of humor and at one time wrote a newspaper column. The family, being what it is, has always assigned my interest in books and] writing to Ma’s influence. Why not? Others in the family have written books and essays as well; my uncle Ardian Gill wrote a novel about John Wesley Powell’s journey down the Colorado River. Cousin David Robinson wrote for National Geographic for years. Music and art and crafts were strong interests. My mother and her sister Gloriana (everyone had two or three nicknames and we called her Hikee) painted. The oldest sister, Sarah, got greatly involved in tinsel painting and resurrected the stencils of their great-uncle, Bill Crowell. All of them sewed their children’s clothes. My mother had a loom and wove rugs. My sisters and I grew up accepting the making of things as normal. For years I sewed my own clothes until computers made sewing machines so complicated and cranky that the fun was gone.

The Gill house, which my grandfather and uncles built, seemed always in exciting turmoil, someone always searching for something misplaced, and on the stair landing there was a fabulous window set with panes of colored glass. I gazed through it to see the world shift to deep red, sickly orange or an unnatural green.

Before I started school my mother, my twin sisters and I lived in a small log cabin surrounded by big pines at the back of my grandfather’s property. To this day the smell of white pine instantly sweeps me back to childhood with a sense of sadness and inchoate longing. The log cabin period may have been before the twins were born. I don’t trust the tricks of memory. My mother and her brothers had built this cabin, probably a dream of her Girl of the Limberlost days. There was an old wax cylinder player in the cabin. My mother wound up the crank, the cylinder revolved and the story of The Three Bears emerged in a tinny voice.

One cabin window faced west framing a hill that had burned years before. The black tree snags silhouetted against the sky looked like deformed giraffes and skeletal elephants. They seemed both sad and frightening. In the deepening twilight the bony creature shapes seemed to move, the twitch of a leg, a neck bent. Today, in the summer twilight at Bird Cloud, the greasewood and rabbitbrush hunch themselves into giant marmots, crippled elk. The most beautiful object in my mother’s cabin was her cerulean blue silk brocade robe, a present to her from my father. Burning with fever one winter night she walked barefoot out into the snow dressed only in this lovely garment. Later someone said she had pneumonia, a disease she harbored many times in her life.

At some point we moved out of the cabin and into my grandfather’s ex–gas station, rejuvenated as a house. I remember the boredom of obligatory nap time and the pattern of cracks in the ceiling, the nasty yellow marshmallow chickens that sugared our shoes on Easter morning. I remember waking up once in darkness and feeling something sticky and hot on my ear, being conscious of a creature leaping away. It was a rat and it had bitten me. Only the scar and the memory remain. Although my grandparents and great-grandparents were close by, and aunts, uncles and cousins constantly visiting, I had a sense of aloneness, of not being part of the buzzing hive of relatives. Old Duke killed my small kitten and I was outraged that he was allowed to go on living as though nothing had happened. I would have appreciated a trial, a jury, and a death sentence.

My mother loved to sunbathe and would lie motionless for hours on a blanket in the hot, weedy sun, her closed eyes covered with two green leaves. We had a pet crow (called Jimmy after the Civil War song refrain “Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care”). He was inquisitive and would sidle up to my mother on her towel and carefully remove each leaf. He was reassured that she was not dead when she opened one of her green eyes. When my mother built a stone fireplace in the backyard I was allowed to press my hand into the wet, gritty concrete that had not yet set and the crow walked about in it leaving his prints as well. Years later, as we were moving from 2217 McBride Avenue in Utica, New York, in a car packed to the roof with kids and clothes, my father put Jimmy in a hole-punched cardboard box, and lashed the box to the back bumper. The poor fellow was dead when we stopped for lunch by the side of the road, asphyxiated by exhaust. I never forgave my father for this crime. The misfortunes that befell loved pets were my introduction to tragic and inconsolable loss.

We moved and moved and moved. Over the years we lived in dozens of houses. A place in Rhode Island had the outline of someone’s arm in the broken sheetrock at the bottom of the stairs. A house in Black Mountain, North Carolina, offered a good view of shade trees where chain gang road crews rested. A place in Maine had beautiful elms whose roots swelled up near the surface and made mowing the lawn difficult. Then the Maine Turnpike went in a quarter of a mile away and almost immediately there was a ghastly accident that brought police, rescue vehicles and the too-late ambulance. An official state cross indicating a death had occurred at this spot went up, a safety warning policy the state of Maine dropped when the proliferation of crosses along the highway gave it a ghoulish appearance.

A large part of the reason for constantly moving was my father’s obsessive desire to escape his French Canadian heritage and reinvent himself as a New England Yankee, to escape working-class poverty, to achieve financial success, to climb the ladder into the safe middle class. He and his family were victims of the racism that infected the dominant culture of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant New Englanders, who saw immigrants, especially French Canadians from the north, as racially inferior. Less overt now, white racist anxiety persists in that area. I think an important factor in why my father married my mother—they were ill-suited to each other—was my mother’s old New England family, poor but with the superiority of early arrival, just fifteen years behind the Mayflower. They never accepted him, of course—how could they? A son-in-law with the flamboyant middle name of Napoleon! The genealogical scratching around we’ve done has turned up more florid French names in his forebears, such as DieudonnÉ, Narcisse, Norbot and Ovila, which make George Napoleon sound rather tame. Still, they tolerated him and us and we all pretended to be a family honoring equality and diversity.

Growing up we knew very little about my father’s family and rarely spent time with them. His mother, Phoebe Brisson Proulx Maloney Carpentieri, married three times: a French Canadian (Proulx), an Irishman (Maloney) and an Italian (Carpentieri) from Napoli who taught my father to make spaghetti sauce—a sauce which I and my sisters all make today, our best, perhaps our only, gift from a hard-to-know father.

So there were mysteries for us. There was some talk from our father that we were part Indian, but he believed the proof had been in the trunk of his grandmother Exilda (a.k.a. Maggie), which disappeared after her death and never resurfaced. The only evidence was his mother’s smoky skin color and a few imaginative newspaper stories. There were other intriguing stories, such as one about a growth on our grandmother Phoebe’s nose, a voyage across “the river” (the St.-Laurent always imagined) to an Indian settlement where a shaman or medicine man removed the growth in some unspecified manner. Our pleas to our father and to his mother, Phoebe, for details and enlightenment were never satisfied. Anonymity seemed the goal, but these half-stories were fuel on the fire of our longing to know more.

This attachment to clan ancestors seems to characterize all humans, and the ancient stories told about the departed—embroidered and amplified—were perhaps the rudimentary sources of history and of fiction. Certainly the Romans themselves were keenly reverent of their ancestors, polishing the links to old families, the ideal the Gracchi, founders of Rome in 753 B.C., or even the more ancient Etruscans who lived in central Italy before Rome. When Ötzi, the Neolithic–Copper Age man, was discovered in a melting glacier in the Alps in 1991, his mitochondrial DNA analysis showed he was in a subhaplogroup called K1. (There are three K1 subhaplogroups.) Roughly 8 percent of today’s Europeans also belong to the K1 haplogroup. Many then believed they were descended from Ötzi. Extremely cool to have a five-thousand-year-old ancestor with a stone arrow point in his back. But further DNA testing reports in 2008 showed that Ötzi belonged to a different subhaplogroup, one unknown before the advanced analysis. It is now called “Ötzi’s branch” and apparently this haplogroup—his genetic group—has disappeared from the human genome. It may be extinct or exceedingly rare. Now no one is known to have Ötzi as an ancestor—one of the disappointments of science.

For me, many years later, an atmosphere of specialness still hovers over the extended maternal family like some rare perfume that nearly four hundred years of New England residence emits. I imagine this aroma compounded of fresh milk, split oak wood, autumnal leaves, snow, muggy swamps, photograph albums and cold ashes.

© 2011 Dead Line, Ltd.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 14, 2011

    What a Disappointment!

    I've read the vast majority of Ms. Proulx's work and can only figure it must have been time to put out another hardback and pay for the house. The contents of this dispirited and disjointed book -- genealogy, bird watching, house building, and archaeology -- are better suited to a blog.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 18, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Nice artistry and plan

    Cross Bill Bryson’s At Home with Jane Kirkpatrick’s Homestead and you’ll have something like Annie Proulx’s memoir, Bird Cloud. The Bird Cloud of the title is a beautiful home in a beautiful location, but the book investigates the whole concept of home and home-building, starting with the many places the author has lived and ending, nicely, with the many migratory homes of birds.

    A similar parallelism continues throughout the book. The author’s quest for her family’s roots, searching through family trees and ancient documents, is mirrored at the end of the book with a search through rocks and stones for the history of her land and the ancestral people who shaped it. Her longing for a wonderful floorplan is paired with an engineer’s longing for room to work. And her quest to find ultimate perfection is proven as flawed as the quest of others to create it.

    Filled with detail about the construction of walls and floors, and balanced with glorious prose describing the wonders of nature’s construction, Bird Cloud felt like it should have been more fun to read. Maybe it just didn't resonate with me—I'm not that keen on the search for perfection. But it is a rich slow read, not entirely satisfying, not entirely frustrating, but definitely interesting.



    Disclosure: Our book club decided to read this book.

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  • Posted September 9, 2011

    DUDD

    You cancelled my order without appropriate explanation foo on you!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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