I’ve long depended on Granta to push me out of my comfort zone and have always loved the format. It’s a quarterly collection of new writing — fiction, nonfiction, poetry — with some amazing photojournalism thrown in as well. I’m consistently drawn to the idea of a program or publication striving to put many different lenses on a single theme. Although some themes are more relatable than others — for many readers, Granta‘s “Mothers” issue may be slightly more accessible than, say, the “Pakistan” issue — I always enjoy each issue. A long time subscriber, I’m forever three or four issues behind and also prone to reading issues out of order, which is how it came to pass that I am only just now getting through last summer’s issue American Wild.
In Anthony Doerr’s “Thing with Feathers that Perches in the Soul,” the writer recalls starting a family, planning a home for his wife and twin sons, and constructs a lovely imagining of that same process in 1863. Drawn to the history of a log cabin near his home — which turns out to be the town’s very first family homestead — the writer imagines what life was like for the cabin’s builder — who traveled months by wagon into the wilderness of what would become Boise and, in great anticipation of his young wife’s arrival, raced against winter to build a home. Of love and hope, he writes, “When you prepare a welcome, you prepare yourself. You prepare for the moment the beloved arrives, the moment you say: I understand you’ve come a long way, I understand you’re taking the larger risk with your life. You say: Here. This might be humble, this might not be the place you know. This might not be everything you dreamed of. But it’s something you can call home.” How very different the circumstances in 1863 — carving out a life under such harsh, unforgiving conditions — and yet our internal struggles are no easier today. Throughout this piece is the paralyzing uncertainty that is ever encroaching upon our hopes, and that is no less relentless a century and a half later. “How many thousands of questions must have been coursing through that little space at that moment? Is it good enough, does she like it, did I make it all right? Where will I cook, where will we sleep, where will I give birth? Will I find gold and will winter be awful and how will I feed us?” And then, of course: “Have we finally come far enough to stop moving?”
Callan Wink’s “Exotics” was another great piece. At the end of one relationship, and drifting through another, a teacher finds himself at one of life’s crossroads — and a hunting ranch full of exotic animals — following a short, uninspired visit with his brother and sister-in-law. Wonderful writing with several deeply hilarious moments. At the ranch: “Clearly it was going to be a long night, the mind chasing the heart in circles around the moon.” With his brother: “Casey was a lawyer. One of the most unsatisfying parts of his life, as far as James could tell, was how infrequently his family members needed legal counsel. … At some point, James realized he might have to get himself incarcerated, just to make Casey feel needed.” A great short story concerning life’s indignities — for man and animal alike.
“Chasing Wolves in the American West” by Adam Nicholson was another great piece that explores wolves as “meaning-vehicles” in America along with the grip they have on “the modern rewilding imagination.” The piece takes you into the homes of New Mexico ranchers, who struggle to raise cattle, losing many calves each year to the federally protected wolf population, living below the poverty line, watching their neighbors give up — ranchers who feel they are “under siege from extreme environmentalism.” The piece also takes you into a wolf recovery area where dedicated individuals work to restore the dwindling numbers of the Mexican grey wolf. “Here in the South-West, despite $28 million spent on their recovery, Mexican grey wolves continue to creep along the margins of viability, genetically depleted, under attack physically and politically, scarcely supported by the government agency whose legal obligation it is to guarantee their future.” The piece does a really fantastic job of tracing the many forces that collided over the years to create this battleground, “a tangle of different political authorities, state based and federal, all operating in the gravitational fields of vast cultural and symbolic forces.” Acknowledging the power of this cultural conflict, the piece remains centered in grave scientific warning. Quoting Aldo Leopold: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on the land is invisible to laymen. An ecologist must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
Claire Vaye Watkins’ “Mirage” is an excerpt from a new project, and it is a lovely and gripping dystopian piece set in future California — after the water runs out. I look forward to reading more of her work. “River So Close” by Melinda Moustakis was another gorgeous, terrifying piece, about a young woman trying to survive her first few weeks in a fish cannery. “This isn’t her life. She’s waiting for the real one. The one where she has a bed again. The one that is always out there, after the cannery job, after she saves up enough money.”
Diane Cook’s “The Mast Year” was perhaps my favorite piece, a fantastically creative story about the world encroaching on our most private spaces and personal relationships, just when we need it least. “Her mother explained that some years trees grew far more nuts than ordinary years. … When people have mast years it’s because they’re having extra good fortune. Like you, with your raise and your engagement. Don’t you think you’re very fortunate right now?” An excellent question — one that made me laugh out loud, and one that the story’s main character struggles to answer for herself amidst a curse of ragged and relentless bystanders. I’m not sure what it says about my life that reading a tale so far fetched also felt so gravely déjà vu, but I experienced that feeling in the truest sense — as a complete anomaly of memory. A great piece, and I’m looking forward to tracking down her first collection of stories, Man v. Nature, which came out last fall.
Overall a great issue, in which every piece “suggests a journey into the wild, one way or another.” As the editor notes, “death and violence, often with a sense of melancholy distance” are part of many of these stories. “America is mourning, and no wonder.”