October 15, 2015
Watershed Days: Adventures
(A Little Thorny and Familiar)
in the Home Range
Mercer University Press, 2015
by Brian Gilmore
I read Thorpe Moeckel’s book, Watershed Days: Adventures in the Home Range in Taos, New Mexico. Taos is located in the high desert and is a city and area known for being close to nature. It is also a favorite hideaway for artists and writers, and for individuals who want to slide off the grid for a while or, in some cases, permanently. Reading Watershed Days, I didn’t necessarily get the impression that Moeckel wanted to slide off the grid, but he is celebrating the simplicity of nature and human relations within that space. His writings recalled two of the more well known writers that have also mined writing of the natural world very well in their own way: Gary Snyder and Barry Lopez.
Moeckel’s writing is careful and easy, snippets of precious life that reveal and argue for the majesty of simplicity. Moeckel has no agenda other than to share with the reader his experience and to provide the reader with an account of the days in the lives of Moeckel and his family. Moeckel has a cinematic approach to his work, which is not surprising since film was the inspiration for his art.
There are many pieces worthy of mention here. “Boogie Water,” has an expressive title and is one of the first pieces that draws you into Moeckel’s world. It is here where readers learn that Moeckel’s family, “we”, “moved to a nook of the James River watershed a few months ago in July,” and that, “it rained the first day...” Moeckel’s family is intimate with water throughout the text. Moeckel’s use of symbolism in “Boogie Water,” makes nature come alive. “Jennings Creek,” is “boisterous” and it is a creek that Moeckel has “known exclusively,” like hearing a “band play live after you’ve fallen in love.” In that respect, the creek was “cranking,” according to Moeckel, another either intentional or accidental allusion to music.
Another stand-out poem in the first section is, “My Skateboard, the Hills, and Other End,” Moeckel’s adult-life celebration of his youthful exuberance. “I ride a forty one inch FlexDex Wingnut Pro Model skateboard,” he writes at the beginning of the piece. Moeckel’s description alone states the obvious. Yet, out in nature, at least in his kind of nature, Moeckel’s love of skateboarding is tempered a bit. His past enthusiasm has taken a “back seat to one’s other enthusiasms,” in this case—living in the natural world of limited roads and places to ride a board. Nevertheless, Moeckel is not to be outdone. He finds his space even out here on the Blue Ridge Parkway:
Maybe it is vaguely secular of me to be skateboarding on the Blue Ridge Parkway. If a place has been paved, however, you might as well skate it. I don’t take it as far as Ed Abbey, histy crunchmeister, and justify tossing my garbage here by some logic that suggests since a stretch of ground has been asphalted it might as well be a dump.
“Going to Natural Bridge” feels like reportage as Moeckel slowly describes a long hike he takes to a “Natural Bridge” in Virginia where Moeckel lived with his family. The bridge, according to Moeckel, is so famous it was described in a New York Times article in 1899 and is also mentioned in Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick. Moeckel’s description of his one hour hike to the bridge feels like its own mythology as well:
It was around the bend, Natural Bridge, tremendous and silent. The sun beaming through the long shadows. What can be said? I sat on a bench – there were lots of wooden park benches at the edge of the paved path – and looked at all that rock and at all that air and light where once there had been rock. It reminded me of going to feed the chickens and finding two of them dead, victim of possums.
The second section, 2006-2007, is more of the same: Moeckel interacting with nature. If there is a weakness here it is the writings never drift very far from the same deliberate, exacting tone. Perhaps, the best piece of all is “Among the Tributaries.” Once again, Moeckel is as one with water, interacting and enjoying this part of the natural world. This is the Charlottesville area, a tributary known as the Moormans is brought to life, a body of water where he falls “in love with the rocks,” “metamorphic stone...deepened in color when wet and in the light.” His description of his father fishing in this spot is quite impressive: “Fish struck but they were small fish and they couldn’t seem to fit their mouths around the fly. Dad was tuned in. You could sense his body getting more comfortable in the canoe in the water.”
This more personal writing, of Moeckel’s family, also can be found in “Chicken Midwife Girl,” a piece about the writer’s daughter, Sophie, raising chickens. The mixture of Moeckel’s love for the natural world and his family’s intimate experience with it is poignant and effectively used throughout the book. Moeckel never has to state these themes explicitly; he just tells you what happens.