Sky Time in Gray’s River
Robert Michael Pyle
hardcover, Houghton Mifflin
$20, 246 pages
As Robert Michael Pyle admits in the afterword of his latest book, Sky Time in Gray’s River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place, he keeps with a traditional form by offering a “closely observed country year,” following Donald Hall’s Seasons at Eagle Pond and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, among others. Still, there’s nothing stale or musty in Pyle’s book of natural history observations compiled over 30 years in one soggy southwestern Washington river valley. Instead Pyle crafts a meditation of sorts, poetically recounting nature’s lushness with an obsessive eye for everyday detail.
Sky Time is calendrical in structure; each of its 12 chapters represents a month along Gray’s River, a tributary of the Columbia not far above where it rolls into the Pacific. It’s a valley that’s losing its traditional role as a seat for dairy farming and logging while battling the prospect of development. Despite encroaching modernity, the valley takes its tempo from the tide, harvest, migrations, moon and flooding, and is flush with life: trees and brush, birds and insects, elk, deer and coyote. Pyle, a lepidopterist by trade, stumbled into Gray’s River some three decades ago and impulsively bought the ancestral home of an early valley settler. He’s stayed ever since, despite the incessant rain and overabundance of blackberry bramble and thistle.
The first few chapters of Sky Time begin with walks, first of Pyle’s yard, then of the boundary of his property, then a ramble through the neighborhood. Along each, Pyle describes in exacting detail what he has seen, heard and smelled. Here a chorus of Pacific tree frogs. There a visit from a rustic bunting, an accidental tourist drifted a thousand miles from its natural range. And now the sexual acrobatics of the leopard slug, Limax maximus, which copulates with its partner in midair on a string of congealed slime. His neighbors and valley locals, too, are subject to the same observing eye; a good-natured exchange with a beer-swilling logger, for example, is just as considered an encounter as Pyle’s run-in with a honeybee colony in the wall of his house. Like a good walk, Sky Time’s narrative eye drifts over the landscape, dislodging ideas and memory serendipitously as it sees.
Memory is integral to the book. Pyle’s immediate observations draw recollections from a seemingly endless supply of personal anecdotes and wider historical knowledge. For example, Pyle describes the history and restoration of the valley’s covered bridge—the only bridge of its kind still in use in the state—while employing the structure itself as a backdrop for fish, birds and stray cats. Likewise Pyle delves into how the ancestors of his neighbors helped form the valley populated by the flora and fauna he observes. In the book, then, history merges with the present, as if all things past and present occur alongside another.
At first, Pyle’s abundance of detail is overwhelming; there’s a stark lack of exposition. Only infrequently does observation of, say, a swallowtail butterfly evoke any explanation of the butterfly’s range, lifecycle or ecological “importance” other than what informs the immediate observation. Instead, Pyle treats readers to a list of Latin or proper names, substituting words for imagery. But this is part of the meditation. Like a novelist refusing to use exposition to describe his characters, Pyle shuns explanation in favor of subtlety. The denseness of the words, the sheer volume of description, forces a sort of immediacy—even the sounds of the words adding to the effect.
For a memoir, personal reflection is scant and disguised. Pyle summarizes his first marriage as follows: “Lives change, and after greatly enhancing the fabric and gardens of the place, Sally returned to her native England in the early eighties.” Which would seem to be a brush-off of one of his life’s great events, if it weren’t for the carefully constructed parallel story of his house’s original inhabitant, Peter Ahlberg. Pyle describes Ahlberg’s first wife by writing: “Belle lived with him there for twelve years before frontier life defeated her. She went one whole year without seeing another woman, then lost her reason in the rain and solitude. Gray skies overwhelmed the blue, and Belle died in Steilacoom State Hospital.” It’s as if the women migrate to and from the valley with the seasons, like geese. Perhaps it’s Pyle’s way of coping with emotion, but no less moving or beautiful for its brevity or impersonal tone.
Pyle’s own words for his book, “a personal phenology,” are the most apt. The study of recurring natural phenomena, phenology derives from the Greek word, phainomai, which means “to appear, come into view.” And that’s exactly the effect that Pyle’s book has. While reading it, we have no choice but to regard our natural and human environments with the scrutiny Pyle has shown. And, following in his footsteps, our vision may penetrate the fog arising from everyday traffic and inward-looking obsessions, revealing a world present but obscured.
Robert Michael Pyle reads from and signs copies of Sky Time in Gray’s River Saturday, April 21, at Fact and Fiction. 3 PM. Free.