Paperback: 200 pages
Publisher: University of Michigan Press (January 1, 1982)
Reviewed by Stephen Page
While I was reading the introduction of Living Off the Country, I thought, Oh no!, this is just another treatise by an egotistical writer filled with ego-driven philosophy; but I soon changed my mind. By page seven I knew I was reading a good book. Haines’s perception of the evolution of language is keen: “one of the consequences of having a language and a culture is that these begin to exist for themselves in place of the original things we once lived by.” Our minds manipulate language, but mostly, language is manipulated by the powers-that-be to take on meanings other than the idea or thing. “Go West young man,” or “conquer the last frontier,” are a couple of examples. The statement is also an introduction into the main theme of the book, that is, place. For Haines, place is Alaska; moreover the land, the natural world, the things in the natural world. We must get back to nature and be a part of it. This is sound advice, for the natural world is important and the human race has lost sync with it. We build cities that wall out animals, and make noise that scares away more. We give names to things so they fit our conception of the world (reminds me in a parallel sense of Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines). Haines believes we must get into the “spirit of place.” Try not to let the names of things block our perception of the world nor our sense of being one with the world. And most of all, we shouldn’t allow our culture or leaders to manipulate our thoughts and feelings about things and ideas. The natural world is where the spirit of the universe can be felt best, and since people are natural beings, they should try to “be” with nature in order to “be” with themselves. All places have different characteristics, different versions of the spirit. Haines goes on to say in other essays: not everyone is in love with nature, nor can he or she be in tune with it all the time, the world has progressed and changed too much for that. So a writer must be in tune with his surroundings wherever he may live. A writer’s job is to write literature that takes on place. Place must be in the writing. I also liked how he emphasized in the latter half of the essays, especially in “From the Beginning,” that writers should be concerned about concepts larger than themselves. He says that poets today lack grand ideas because they are only inwardly tuned, catharsizing and thinking that is all they need to do. Writers certainly need to be inwardly tuned, to get in touch with themselves, but they should also be concerned about larger principles. Worldviews that concern humanity and the environment are some examples that poets might tackle today. I still dislike introductions of books written by the authors, and I felt Haines’s autobiographical sketches at the end only turned the book around to himself again, which is defeating the purpose of many of his essays. In all though, the meat of the book is informative and world encompassing, and I am going to return to it many times, and recommend it to other writers.
You can check out the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Living-Off-Country-Essays-Poetry/dp/0472063332
Stephen Page is from Detroit, Michigan. There he worked in factories, gasoline stations, and steel-cutting shops. He always longed for a vocation associated with nature. He now lives in Argentina, teaches literature, ranches, and spends time with his family.