The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Deep Creek
Deep Creek
Finding Hope in the High Country
by Pam Houston

Paperback (7 Jan 2020), 288 pages.
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN-13: 9780393357660
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"How do we become who we are in the world? We ask the world to teach us."

On her 120-acre homestead high in the Colorado Rockies, beloved writer Pam Houston learns what it means to care for a piece of land and the creatures on it. Elk calves and bluebirds mark the changing seasons, winter temperatures drop to 35 below, and lightning sparks a 110,000-acre wildfire, threatening her century-old barn and all its inhabitants. Through her travels from the Gulf of Mexico to Alaska, she explores what ties her to the earth, the ranch most of all. Alongside her devoted Irish wolfhounds and a spirited troupe of horses, donkeys, and Icelandic sheep, the ranch becomes Houston's sanctuary, a place where she discovers how the natural world has mothered and healed her after a childhood of horrific parental abuse and neglect.

In essays as lucid and invigorating as mountain air, Deep Creek delivers Houston's most profound meditations yet on how "to live simultaneously inside the wonder and the grief…to love the damaged world and do what I can to help it thrive."

Ranch Almanac: Carving Rivers

Today I'll spend three hours carving rivers through ice with a pointed shovel and a maul, and by the day's end I'll have the blisters to prove it. It's to do with Deseo, who finds all manner of things scary and off- putting. Purple buckets, flapping jackets, the wind whispering through the pines.

The trough where the horses drink in winter is at the end of the pasture where all the water from the snowmelt drains toward Lime Creek. The trough is there because that's where the frost- free hydrant is, and the frost- free hydrant is there because it's the closest point to the house from which the water originates. The longer the line from the house to the frost- free hydrant, the higher the chance of the system freezing, and then we go back to hauling water again.

Unfortunately, when we get into the freeze- and- melt portion of the winter, which can last from early March to mid- May, a pond develops around the trough, which turns into a skating rink every time the temperature dips below 30, which is to say, every single night. And to Deseo, a skating rink surrounding a horse trough might be the scariest thing of all.

When Deseo doesn't drink, his metabolic condition gets worse. When he refuses to cross the ice, I carry a bucket of water out to him. Sadly, then, the bucket becomes the object of his fear. I can leave it on the ground and walk away to prove it is neither strange nor alive; I can float little bits of carrot on the surface of the water to make it more enticing; I can even get on my hands and knees and pretend to slurp some of the water up into my mouth myself, but he simply won't have it. He feels there is only one designated safe place to drink in this pasture and that is the water trough, the water trough now booby- trapped by a nonnegotiable platform of ice.

So I wait until the temperature crawls above freezing— about noon— and head to the pasture with my tools. The sun has felt truly warm all week, but this ice that formed on the bottom of what used to be deep snow has had a good four months of subzero to harden. I jump up and down as hard as I can and kick at it with my steel- toed boots and about detach my arms from my shoulder blades wielding the maul over my head to shatter the surface (this part is fun, how it must feel to break a car's windshield). Once pits and cracks begin to form, I dig little tributaries into the ice with the tip of my shovel.

In about thirty minutes, it has warmed up a few more degrees, and I get a satisfying little trickle to flow downhill, out of the skating rink, around the trough and into the yard. I hack some more, the thermometer ticks up another degree, and the water does what water does best— gives in to gravity. I follow it, assisting with a few hacks of my shovel all across the front of my property. Before too long, I have the world's smallest river flowing from the bottom of my pasture, all the way across the yard, and into Lime Creek. I watch the creek water tumble toward the Rio Grande, imagine it running past the town of Creede, and then through Wagon Wheel Gap, down the canyon and across the San Luis Valley, through the Box near Taos, eventually forming the border between Texas and Mexico and flowing into the Gulf. I am filled with a completely disproportionate sense of satisfaction. For a second, I understand why those guys were crazy enough to think they could build the Panama Canal.

I return to the trough and hack my way to another tiny river, and then another one, learning quite a bit about the various properties of water and ice in the process. Once I get the little rivers started, for instance, they deepen and widen and hasten on their own, just like I learned in geology class. Two cubic feet per second turn into twenty with a little more sun and little more coaxing. In three hours I have ten outlet rivers carved into the ice surrounding the trough, and I am starting to develop blisters on my blisters. But the sun is still up and snow is in the forecast and I love my old nervous horse, so I cut five more rivers around the far edges of the ice just in case the pond gets even bigger.

Full Excerpt

Reprinted from Deep Creek by Pam Houston. Copyright © 2019 by Pam Houston. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved

In this contemplative collection of personal essays, Pam Houston writes about recovering from trauma through her abiding love for her Colorado ranch.

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Many of us have a safe place to call home. For most, home is somewhat close to family, friends, a community, or a job. It took author and essayist Pam Houston until she was in her thirties to find her home, and she didn't choose it to be close to work or family. A four hour drive from the Denver airport, nestled among rivers and mountain peaks, Houston's 120-acre ranch is both the setting and the focus of her memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country.

The book unfolds in the form of personal essays. Some of these recall the events of the author's childhood, during which she was neglected by her mother and violently and sexually abused by her father. As we learn the details of her early life, we come to understand how and why her ranch has become her sanctuary. Each essay is followed by short, italicized "ranch almanac" entries that anchor the memoir to its setting and detail the finer points of ranch management, such as the importance of finding high-quality hay, or how to saw off a ram's inward-growing horns with burning metal.

Houston has relationships with friends, fellow writers, students and the residents of the small Colorado town of Creede – but the main characters in her memoir aren't the people. Instead, her story centers around the animals on her ranch, both resident and wild; the history of the acreage in its structures and ghosts; and the trees, flowers and contours that make up the landscape. At one point she mentions a handful of books that had "shaped [her] sensibility as a young writer." Among them are Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. Echoes of those works are evident in Houston's awe of the natural world and her stewardship of the land. She says, "right from the beginning I've felt responsible for these 120 acres, and for years I've painted myself both savior and protector of this tiny parcel of the American West."

Her longest essay, "Diary of a Fire," spans mid-June through July 2013, when one of the largest wildfires in Colorado history was sparked by lightning that struck 15 miles from Houston's ranch (see Beyond the Book). In this essay, she relays the fire reports, and learns – and teaches us – the USDA Forest Service terminology. Weather reports and memos from online emergency bulletins gain new urgency as she carefully watches temperature, relative humidity, precipitation and wind speed readings, holding onto the hope that the rivers, the aspens, or the continental divide would somehow protect her ranch. As she writes the check for her final mortgage payment, she wonders about the irony, noting "the fire [was] still burning a half mile from my kitchen."

The details of ranch life are firmly in the foreground of Houston's memoir – whether in descriptions of native wildflowers or how she navigates to fill horse troughs during a winter storm. But the recurring theme of climate change is ever present as well, both as a wider political concern and as private grief. Houston's writing seems to be part of her answer to these anxieties:

As we hurtle toward the cliff, foot heavy on the throttle, to write a poem about the loveliness of a newly leafed out aspen grove or a hot August wind sweeping across prairie grass or the small of the air after a three-day rain in the maple forest might be at best so unconscionably naïve, and at worst so much part of the problem, we might as well drive a Hummer and start voting Republican.

Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Maybe this is the best time there has ever been to write unironic odes to nature.

The one critique I had reading the first part of the book was that it was hard to track the various ranch sitters and friends who came and went throughout the essays. I'd find myself stopping and restarting the new section to get my bearings. But I also thought Houston's voice more than compensated with its grace. I've read other stories from daring women who venture out, take on the world, and "find themselves" along the way. Too often, I feel chastised. When I get to the end, I'm left with the feeling that I am somehow "not enough" – whether that means I'm not daring enough, not healthy enough, or not environmentally-conscious enough. Houston's memoir did not affect me this way; she writes with a humility that is plain, arresting and beautiful.

Houston considers large and vexing questions that stem from climate change: "Would I give up my life to save the earth?" Her answers weave in and out of her essays, mostly as the physical details that move her toward gratitude and awe. She details the seasonal cycles and the smell and discoloration of the forest along the burn line. She shows passion for the living and grieves the creatures she can no longer protect. Facing climate change, she doesn't focus on anger or blame. She looks ahead to a renewal that comes, suddenly, in new shoots of green grass.


Further Reading: Essays by Pam Houston

Reviewed by Chris Fredrick

Chicago Review of Books
Pam Houston is in possession of a deep, heart-achingly beautiful love for her own personal piece of earth. And as equally deep is her ability for hope. In a time where the world is either drowning, or burning, or being drilled-into, Houston’s outlook promises a better tomorrow—even if that means we’re no longer here.

Los Angeles Times
[G]ood writing can make you envious, no matter how foreign the terrain. Other times, you read a good memoir and find yourself wanting to track down the author and become friends. A third kind of book is so insightful and evocative, you shelve it beside other favorite and instructive titles. Deep Creek might just do all three.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Houston's vision find a solid place among the chronicles of quiet appreciation of the American wilderness, without the misanthropy that often accompanies the genre; her passion for the land and its inhabitants is irresistibly contagious.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. A profound and inspiring love letter to one piece of Earth--and to the rest of it, as well.

Booklist
Starred Review. Always impressive, Houston is in striking form here. Her talent remains remarkable and her words extraordinarily affecting and effective.

Author Blurb Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild
There is so much beauty, wisdom, and truth in this book, I felt the pages almost humming in my hands. I was riveted and enlightened, inspired and consoled. This is a book for all of us, right now

Author Blurb Tommy Orange, author of There There
This book is endlessly wise, funny, and full of heart. To say that its clear-eyed, doom-laden, yet loving, message is important and timely would be an understatement. It is unapologetically sincere, utterly moving.

Author Blurb Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Misfit's Manifesto
This is the book we need right now to remind us how to endure, passionately. An unstoppable heart song.

Author Blurb Samantha Dunn, author of Not by Accident
Pam Houston is the rodeo queen of American letters. In Deep Creek, her voice has never been more fully realized, and her message never more important.

Author Blurb Camille T. Dungy, author of Guidebook to Relative Strangers
Full of wisdom, wit, and loving attention, Pam Houston's survey of her life and land should be required reading for anyone who loves this planet we call home.

Author Blurb B. K. Loren, author of Animal, Mineral, Radical
In the face of the world's turmoil, this book is utter clarity. In the face of the world's harshness, this book is a soft place to land…If you find yourself careening toward despair, pick up Deep Creek and read even just one page. The words there will lift you back to hope--not the sentimental kind, but the kind that can and does change the world for the better.

Author Blurb Craig Childs, author of Atlas of a Lost World
Houston has a great range of vision, and she's fun to read. She gets the land right…In this perfectly American memoir, a restless heart finds its place.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by BuffaloGirlKS
Finding Beauty in a Difficult Life
A wonderful book. The abuse by her father and the neglect by her mother and the failure of all the adults in her life, except one, to try to rescue her was hard to handle, but the author's forgiveness enabled me to do so. As she said, Mother Earth became her parent. I share her overwhelming concern for the future of our planet, but her book also gave me hope.

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Escalating Wildfires in the Western U.S.

Clouds of smoke from the Western Complex wildfire, June 27, 2013On June 5, 2013, lightning struck dead spruce trees 15 miles south of Pam Houston's ranch, sparking what would become known as West Fork Complex – one of the largest wildfires in Colorado history. West Fork Complex eventually consumed over 100,000 acres in Colorado and became one in a long and growing list of recent wildfires that have ravaged swaths of the Western U.S.

Wildfires in this area are on the increase, whether measured as a count of large fires, the number of acres burned, or a count of states setting records for single wildfire size. A few data points summarize this trend:

  • Over the past 30 years, forest fires have quadrupled in Arizona and Idaho; and doubled in California, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
  • The number of cumulative U.S. forest acres burned between 2005 and 2013, at approximately 65 million, was over twice the acreage burned between 1985 and 1994, at 30 million.
  • Since 2000, more than half of the Western states have experienced their largest wildfire on record. California set a record for its largest wildfire in 2017, then broke the record again in 2018.

Several sources point to multiple and converging causes that directly contribute to the escalation of wildfires, but one of these is acknowledged as the primary, driving factor: the increased temperatures brought on by climate change.

Some of the direct factors cited include:

  • Increased temperatures in spring and summer: Overall, temperatures are increasing. However, temperatures in the Western U.S. are increasing much faster than they are globally. Since 1970, the average annual temperature in the Western U.S. has increased 1.9° F, which is about twice the pace of overall worldwide temperature increases.
  • Longer fire seasons: The average fire season in the Western U.S. lasted five months in the early 1970s. Today, fire seasons in the same geographic area are over seven months long.
  • Earlier snowmelt: Scientists can identify the onset of spring snowmelt by monitoring streamflow gauges. In the Western U.S., with some location variability, the onset of the spring snowmelt is occurring between one and four weeks earlier now than it was in the late 1940s.
  • Beetle outbreaks: Warmer temperatures mean that beetle populations can survive the winter and reproduce more frequently. These outbreaks lead to substantial tree deaths, which fuel wildfires. Unprecedented mountain pine beetle outbreaks have affected high-elevation communities, and bark beetles have harmed more than 43 million acres of forests in the Western U.S.
  • Fire management practices: The extent to which firefighting practices affect wildfires is still in debate. While some evidence shows that fire suppression tactics reduce the number and frequency of large fires, there is also evidence to suggest that in the long term, intense fire suppression may result in larger fires because of built-up fuel, such as trees and brush. An MIT study published in 2013 highlights this dilemma, showing how well-funded – but shortsighted – suppression efforts take resources away from more holistic and longer-term preventative efforts.

These factors, though listed and described here individually, are interconnected and reinforced by each other. Rising temperatures lead to an earlier snowmelt. Drier conditions lead to the spread of tree-killing insect infestations and the increase of wildfire fuels.

The escalation in wildfires isn't limited to the Western U.S.; research shows that this is a global trend. The factors listed above stem from the complex interplay of forces under the larger umbrella of climate change. According to "Western U.S. Wildfires and the Climate Change Connection," a fact sheet published by World Resources Institute: "No single wildfire can be attributed to climate change. However, research shows that climate change is increasing the duration and severity of wildfires in certain regions, and is expected to continue doing so in a warmer world."

West Fork Complex wildfire courtesy of The Denver Post

Filed under Nature and the Environment

By Chris Fredrick

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