More Thoreau or More Thorough?

Review: Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods by Thomas Rain Crowe ($27.95 / University of Georgia Press, 2005, ISBN: 0-8203-2734-4 Athens, Georgia 30602 / 2006.)

For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong.

–H.L. Mencken

Home. It’s easy leaving, even necessary, not so easy returning. In some ways, impossible. Thomas Wolfe wrote his best novel with that theme. But I never wholly believed that Wolfe knew what he meant by home or by going home. I met Thomas Rain Crowe at a poetry gathering, Deer Track, in South Bend, Indiana. He had with him a pamphlet he had written called “You Must Go Home Again.” He was living near Asheville, and the connection with Wolfe was obvious and appealing. I looked him over. Long hair and beard. Warm smile. Deep voice that resonated out from his chest, heart, and into the world.

I remember the Sixties, a time when America was seen not as a promise but as a problem, the advanced capitalistic industrial war machine: the solution was to get high and get out, back to the land. Simple. Clean. Wrong. So I was impressed then in the Seventies, and am even more so now, with Thomas Rain Crowe’s refusal to take the “simple, clean and wrong” solution to the most pressing problem of our time: how to live and how to write without lying. Obviously, there are other problems that seem more important: the war in Iraq, pollution of our air, land, and water, the corruption of our politicians, press, and popular culture. A lot of similarities to the Sixties. But these are effects not prime causes. They flow from the root cause that Crowe was so much aware of that he spent four years in the North Carolina wilderness, building his cabin and root cellar, growing his own food, in order to find his solution, a way to live and write honestly.

Zoro’s Field will necessarily be compared to Thoreau’s Walden. The books are similar enough to warrant a detailed comparison. And Zoro’s Field would not suffer from such a comparison. It’s not necessary, though, to bring down one writer in order to raise up another. And though Thoreau has been criticized for not revealing how little was his isolation from Concord, exaggerating his removal from society, Crowe makes it clear that his relationship to Thoreau is not competition but is completion. He writes,

Trying to complete what Thoreau started one hundred fifty years ago, I want to take his experience of the body and its toil of work and reflections deeper into the heart and soul of the woods…two full season cycles deeper in the heart and spirit of self-sufficiency and simple living to discover the soul of the wild.

Since other reviewers will undoubtedly push the Thoreau connections, I’ll try a seemingly unlikely one instead: Thomas Rain Crowe and Arthur Rimbaud. TRC’s “going deeper” reminds me of Rimbaud’s prescription for being a poet: “The first test of any man who would be a poet is to know himself completely; he seeks his soul, inspects it, tests it, learns it;… .” There is an earnestness, a complete willfulness about Crowe’s “going home” that is attractive from the first words to the last. In an age of cynicism [And what time has been more cynical that this?] Crowe’s total commitment to the truth of his immersion into the four “full season cycles” must seem overly romantic. But if you think “romantic” means dreamy, unrealistic, and false, you are simple and you are wrong. Look at these lines from his next to the last poem in the book [All of the chapters end with a poem.]:

“Learning to Die”

How can my friends find time
to dream of being rich?
To bad-mouth the moon.
Or chase women around all day –
I tell them that good sex is
having only a small room to sweep.
And a bowl of soup at the end of the day.


Compare this with these lines from one of Rimbaud’s first poems:

And I will wander far away, a vagabond

In Nature – as happy as with a woman.


Unlike Thoreau’s, Crowe’s “Walden” was a journey into authentic poetry. Rimbaud’s prescription: “The Poet makes himself into a seer by a long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses.” Crowe didn’t take the “simple, clean and wrong” solution. Millions of dope smokers have never written a worthwhile line of poetry. But Rimbaud would have understood and envied him, perhaps not the Rimbaud of myth and legend but the Rimbaud who was the age Crowe was when he entered Zoro’s field, the Rimbaud whose last years where filled with the practical, the mundane, and with the failure to integrate his poetic vision with life in the real world.

One of Thomas Rain Crowe’s mentors for his life in the wild, Gelolo McHugh (Mac), the other being Zoro Guice of the title, said to him, “To be a good writer, you have to be a good reader.” Crowe filled much of his time reading books, and he had an active letter writing correspondence with other writers, the two most prominent and influential being his friends Gary Snyder and Jack Hirschman. After his years in San Francisco in the 1970s, his literary apprenticeship among the Beats, editing Beatitude magazine, organizing poetry readings, he lived in a community in the Sierras with Gary Snyder and other “Baby Beats.” It’s here that he learns the reality of Snyder’s “real work.” He quotes Snyder on what this work entails:

What we really do. And what our lives are. And if we can live the work we have to do, knowing that we are real, and that the world is real, then it becomes right. And that’s the “real” work: to make the world as real as it is, and to find ourselves as real as we are within it.

Zoro’s Field is his record of doing the real work as a writer, integrating the heart, head, and hand. It’s his record of learning to live and write without lying, and for that it is a monumental achievement, his solution to the problem of living and writing that is the opposite of Mencken’s critique. Instead of “simple, clean, and wrong,” it was complex, dirty, and right.

Crowe learned early that the complexity of completing Thoreau’s “real work” was overwhelming, would have been without the men who were to become his mentors: Zoro Guice, the old mountain man who once owned the land, Zoro’s field, Walt Johnson, who lived in the farm house of the Guice homestead, and Dr. Gelolo McHugh, a psychologist who had bought the Guice farm and planned on retiring there. After a chance visit with Johnson, an introduction to McHugh resulted in permission for Crowe to live in Johnson’s old cabin after Johnson had died, allowing him to repair and renovate it, make it livable, and subsequently to repair and renovate and make his life livable, livable by the standards that he had set for himself, the standards of Snyder’s real work.

His four years of doing this work is recorded in detail: how to build a root cellar, how to maintain hand tools, how to raise bees, how to grow a garden and store the food, how to fish, how to gather wood, how to gather and tell stories, how to learn the new ‘old’ language that would result in writing the real work, both prose and poetry.

One of the most revealing of his poems is the one with the seemingly fanciful title of “A Beatnik Wanders into Appalachia and Learns the Language of the Earth and Sky.” The title seems fanciful without first having read the chapter that the poem concludes. The chapter, called “New Native,” is about the terms of developing Snyder’s real work, about people like Peter Berg and The Planet Drum Review, the development of bio-regionalism, the re-thinking by Wendell Berry of what does and should constitute rural community, but most of all “New Native” is about language, about, in short, how to write without lying. He learns the new old metaphors of poetic speech:

I have come home again and am finding that I can call up the past in bits and pieces and bring it into the present-day voice in which I write. Can pull up Chaucer-era canticles—the triple negative, the likes of “don’t make no nevermind” and “not nary a any”—to grace the images of my poems and fictions.

We read the prose and understand the poem, its title and its “digging” rhythm: “Dig the dance of vine / climbing stone. // Dig the blue bloom of rose /cut to caress torrents of rotting soil. // Dig the ripe wave of evening that touches flame / & breaks blood’s slow boil of mulch & rain.”

The poems concluding the chapters are treats, the cake’s icing, the physical caress of bodies after long-winded conversation. And, to me, the best is the shortest, a perfect imagist poem that Pound, Stevens, Williams would have envied. After a short chapter on the need for keeping hand tools sharp, an education for anyone longing to do the “back to the land” thing, is this poem:


Silver and slick as velvet
the edge of the old hoe glistens,
    how I’ve filed away this day –

I believe that there is a rhythm to everything. I am certain that there is a rhythm to this book, and, though very different, it’s a rhythm similar to Walden. The more I read them, the more I sense the integration of form and content, substance and style. Thoreau made much of how he was not so much a nature writer but was trying to write nature, that he learned from the leaves, the bird tracks, the clouds, and mostly from the way his writing was inspired by the mirror images along the shore lines, how nature showed him the inherent quality of writing, its deepening of the quality of reflection. Some environmental fundamentalists don’t like to admit it, but Thoreau went to nature as a writer, that writing was essential to Thoreau’s going to the wild. And like Thoreau, who saw nature through his study of Eastern Philosophy, Crowe “orients” himself with the writings of Thomas Berry, the Persian mystic poet Hafiz, and, though he never refers to them, it is obvious that he draws upon his readings and practice of Zen Buddhists. I say “obvious” because nearly all of Zoro’s Field is about learning and practicing the “beginner’s mind.” Much of the book is about de-programming the industrial, consumer, war mind, but the Zen “beginner’s mind” is the consequence of this return home to his childhood mountain home, his roots in the language of rural mountain life, his learning the skills and crafts that have been the work of millions of people before industrial capitalism turned everything, every thing, idea, principle, belief, to short term monetary profit. There is an Afterwards to this book, about his return to the hurried and harried life after he left Zoro’s field. It’s healthy reading because it’s honest. But the final chapter of the book is, appropriately, the death chapter, “When Legends Die.”

This chapter, perhaps more than any other, shows just how skillful a writer Crowe is, how much he has learned from his four-season cycles in his mountain cabin living with and learning from the mountain land and the people of the land. Zoro dies in the spring. Mac the following fall. Crowe leaves the cabin when it becomes obvious that the family who will inherit the farmstead would consider his presence at best an inconvenience, an oddity (the cabin is left to rot, “development” turns the field into a parking lot). Both men died with dignity, their final lesson. Both had little use for religion other than the spirituality gathered from the fields and forests, the mountain faith in what is essential, what endures. Crowe relates that during the time he spent with Zoro as he was dying that “something happened.” Instead of the teacher – pupil relationship, they became friends. And the ultimate act of friendship was Zoro allowing Thomas to participate in his dying. Thomas writes, Dying as he did, with such relative grace (even though he was in great pain), was maybe the greatest teaching, the greatest gift that Zoro gave me over the short years that we spent together.

Elders are supposed to teach the young this lesson. Parents teach kids how to live; grandparents teach them how to die. Zoro was old enough to be his grandfather, but he left him with this lesson in living, especially the lesson needed by a writer. Crowe recounts that Zoro had what is commonly called an active “bullshit detector.” While he was attending Zoro during his illness, he relates this incident: “‘Not true,’ I heard him say once to something that a local preacher uttered in the next room.” We don’t know what the preacher said. But it’s easy to imagine. For me, all the religions’ denial of death, the falsification of language, is contained in Zoro’s statement. Then later, “And as I sit in the churchyard where he is buried, thinking lofty thoughts or wondering about people and what they do and say, I can hear a windy voice saying, ‘Not true.’” Crowe’s final and most long lasting lesson, more than how to sharpen a shovel and hoe, more than how to can beans and beets to win a prize in the county fair, more than how to gather stories from Native American and mountain elders, is the lesson of the “not true,” how to write honestly, what my friend the poet Jack Clarke called the central issue of poetry: learning how to write without lying. Because he also was such a man, eager to learn what nature has to teach, I have no doubt that Thoreau would have appreciated Crowe’s doubling his two seasons of “wild self-sufficiency” in order to learn such a lesson. And I think Mencken would have little objection to my turning his phrase to end this review: Zoro’s Field is a solution to a problem that is mindfully complex, “dirty” with hand labor, and absolutely right.