Rants from the Hill: book review

by Tammy Cloutier
Editor, Whole Terrain

A pair of unamused eyes stare back at the reader.

Although this gaze does not personally belong to author Michael P. Branch, the avian expression on Branch’s Rants from the Hill (Penguin Random House, 2017) book cover offers a feathered representation of the author’s “curmudgeonly” self-description (sans alcoholic beverage). Some may recognize the title, Rants from the Hill, as a monthly series that Branch previously contributed to High Country News. The essays selected for this book are representative of that series, but have since been “revised, resequenced, and in many cases, renamed.”

With the full title of Rants from the Hill: on Packrats, Bobcats, Wildfires, Curmudgeons, a Drunken Mary Kay Lady, and Other Encounters with the Wild in the High Desert, this collection of “rants,” or essays, hails from the Great Basin Desert. Though some label this environment desolate and harsh, Branch manages to entertain readers with tales that are funny, informative, and insightful. Daily life here waxes and wanes from fierce fires to extreme winters, but readers do not have to reside in the desert to relate to anecdotes of cell phone coverage, family pets, choosing a Christmas tree, disenchanted mail carriers, and even cows.

Despite the slightly annoyed gaze of the owl on the cover, Branch’s humorous storytelling offers both natural history and life lessons. Readers may not realize they are learning while smiling. Of course, not all people experience stumbling across a ghost man-cave, singing dunes, or waterless lakes. However, Branch’s audience may unwittingly find themselves reflecting on their own connections to special places and memories as they share in his discoveries.

Branch communicates his love of family and the natural environment through both wit and seriousness, patterns of his writing style that Whole Terrain readers will recognize from his pieces in a number of past volumes, including our latest, Trust (“Scout’s Honor”). The following excerpts from Rants from the Hill display his style:

The local Mary Kay lady:

In early spring, the road to our house is sometimes so thick with gumbo [mud] that it becomes impassible even to high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles…. One morning, during the height of mud season, I was sitting at my writing desk and looking out the window — which is about all I do at my writing desk — when I saw a spectacle so astonishing and surreal that I grabbed my birding binoculars to scope it out. There, in the twin tubes of the binocs, was a pink Cadillac, fish-tailing wildly up our driveway…. The pink Cadillac had gone sideways off the driveway, slid down a small hill, and lodged firmly atop a charred juniper stump…. I worked my way down to the car…. ”Your tires!” I screamed, pointing helpfully toward the part of her car that was three feet off of the ground…She took another sip of her cocktail, leaned slowly out the window, craned her neck backward, and then began to laugh, reaching out to give me a fist bump…. “I’m the Mary Kay lady. Want a drink?”

Yucca Mountain and Nuclear Storage:

I headed with my buddy Steve to Mount Augusta, a 10,000-foot peak in the remote Clan Alpine Range in west-central Nevada…. Not far from Mount Augusta is one of the loveliest high-elevation canyons in this part of Nevada: “GeeZee Canyon.” “GeeZee” is desert-rat longhand for “G.Z.,” which is itself shorthand for “ground zero.” It was here that, in the year I was born, a nuclear weapon was exploded…. Most of the time we Great Basinians tacitly agree to ignore the stubborn half-lives of radioactive isotopes in our land and the ineradicable memories of our people succumbing to cancer in small desert hospitals…. But while we work hard to forget, there is something besides fighter jets that reminds us that the West’s nuclear history is not all in the past. Yucca Mountain, which is on the federal government’s Test Site in southern Nevada, is the proposed repository for all of our nation’s high-level nuclear waste — the most dangerous form of garbage our species has ever created…. I once attended a hearing to learn more about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s specific plans for nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain…. Among the last to testify, however, was not a scientist but Corbin Harney, an elder of the Western Shoshone…. Corbin explained quietly that he opposed the plan because it was his ethical and spiritual duty to protect the land, its animals, and the people who would come after him.

“I understand completely,” the NRC scientist replied…, “but we believe the storage casks will remain safe for ten thousand years.”

“I understand completely,” replied the old Shoshone, “but then what?”

Branch provides insight based on his own experiences, but also shares the simple wisdom that can only be offered by younger generations — in this case, his daughters. They offer their perspectives without hesitation, despite their names appearing less frequently than pronghorn and baseball in Branch’s experimental word-cloud (which has since been addressed to give his daughters due credit). One family activity illustrates this child-like ability to think beyond adult restrictions and go with one’s heart: creating a bucket list. Branch’s daughters, Hannah and Caroline, proceeded to list over 150 items in comparison to Branch’s one: “Make a bucket list.” After reviewing their lists, he is impressed “not only by the range and creativity, …but also by their uninhibited spontaneity and originality. The lists did look as if they had been made by insane people — but by imaginative, caring, insane people who recognize no limits to what is possible.”

Branch states, “We humans specialize in being afraid of things (and people, and ideas) we do not understand. While this spontaneous fear may retain some modest adaptive value, often it causes us to act like small-minded dummies and, even worse, to miss out on a lot of things that are remarkably cool.” With that being said, Branch’s Rants from the Hill should be added to bucket lists of anyone who wants more laughs, and help with staving off “small-mindedness.”

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Bio: Michael P. Branch, whose doctorate is from the University of Virginia (1993), is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is a co-founder and past president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and he served for sixteen years as the Book Review Editor of the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. He is a co-founder and series co-editor of the University of Virginia Press book series Under the Sign of Nature: Explorations in Ecocriticism. His own books include The Height of Our Mountains, John Muir’s Last Journey, and Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing before Walden. He is the author of more than 200 articles, essays, and reviews in a variety of environmental and popular magazines, and many pieces have received awards and honorable mentions. He has given more than 250 invited lectures and readings. His essays are frequently comic and often focus on arid landscapes and on parenting. New additions to his widely read essay series, “Rants from the Hill,” were published monthly for a number of years at High Country News until April 2016. Mike lives with his wife and two young daughters at “Piedmont,” a passive solar home of their own design at 6,000 feet in the high desert north of Reno, where the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada meet. Mike’s newest book, Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness, will be available in bookstores August 23, 2016.

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