Returning To Earth

by  Jim Harrison is a story of life and a way of dying.  It is a story of people who live close to the land.  In dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease the main character, Donald, dominates the first fourth of the book.  From his bed, inside his head, he tells us tales of growing up through the stories of his family.  A family dominated by a Native American beliefs but constantly in interaction with the white culture within which it lives.

In the second part of the story, we begin to see Donald through the eyes of K, son of Polly who is sister to Cynthia, Donald’s wife.  It is through K’s eyes and stories of his love like relationship with Clare, Donald’s daughter, that we learn how a person’s honorable life can affect the others around him. 

Donald was always interested in value rather than mere cost.  In the summer he wouldn’t drink soda pop, which he said had gone up five hundred percent in his lifetime, packing along iced coffee in a thermos instead.  When hamburgers went up a quarter at a local Soo diner he inquired and the owner, who was a friend, showed Donald his books and explained the price rise, but economics were a lacuna for him.  I once tried to explain the nature of inflation but he thought it as pathetic as daylight savings time.  

K loves Clare and occasionally admits to lusting after Cynthia.  He too lives close to the land but does so through the pursuit of a life long and peripatetic course of post graduate studies.  He chronicles the rivers and streams that wander through the land and his life has taken a similar course.

In part three of the novel, the story is taken over by David, Cynthia’s brother.  He too travels the land by living half the year in a cabin in the woods and the other half in Mexico.  His part of the story is dominated by the effect of a rape of the woman, Vera, he has loved for the past 30 years though the rape occurred when he was a teenager and involved his own father.  David has spent his life trying to make up for his father and his charity takes the form of a survival pack that he puts together and then takes with him to Mexico.

I distributed these free of charge to workers’ groups and through left-leaning Catholic priests.  I was opposed by many on both sides of the border for political reasons, which didn’t bother me except for the legal expenses I incurred avoiding prosecution by the United States.  My raison d’etre was simple on the surface.  Estimates of crossing deaths along the entire nineteen-hundred-mile border with Mexico went as high as two thousand a year.

It started when I found a dead man in a wilderness thicket a few miles from the border south of Sonoita, Arizona.  The man smelled like a dead deer.  Two days later in a local tavern an ex-dope pilot told me that two hundred miles to the west over in the huge Cabeza Prieta if he wished on moonlit nights he could navigate by skeletons on his under-the-radar flights.  Three days after that while looking into what is euphemistically called “the problem” I saw the photo of a nineteen-year-old girl from Veracruz who died of thirst on the Tohono O’odham Indian reservation just over our side of the border.  Naturally, I thought of Vera.  That did it.

The last section of the novel brings us back to Cynthia and of course the spiritual resolution that all of the characters are seeking through Donald’s death.  Throughout the story there is a core of real sexuality that underlies each of the character’s lives.  Cynthia’s path back to a sense of acceptance of the loss of her lover at such a comparitively young age mines this core with memories of Donald and her own bodily desires.  But though important this aspect is secondary to the what I believe is the true nature of this story.  How do we let go of life?

In Donald’s case, it’s is with some sense that he wants to follow his spirit.  In fact, all of the novel’s characters have dreams, listen to their dreams, and in some sense try to do what their dreams are telling them.  I speak here of actual dreams not dreams as in hopes or wishes to be.  It is a point Donald proves by finding and testing out his own burial place – a wilderness location across the Canadian border where he was able after several tries to complete a three day fast.

About a hundred yards away and below us a large bear swagged his head between a patch of beach pea and strawberries nibbling quickly as if frantic to eat.  And then the ravens above him must have warned him because he stood up and made a woofing sound.  I know that Clare and I were thinking the same thing. Is that him?  Is that him?  Is that Donald who is greeting us, saying a final goodbye?  The bear stared at us and Clare clenched at my hand.  And then he trotted over a hill as we all must.

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