Mary Theresa Kelly: Madcap Women in the Wild

Mary Theresa Kelly's first book is the memoir On Mockingbird Hill, which subverts over the over-romanticized lifestyle of fire lookout observers made popular by Jack Kerouac in The Dharma Bums and shows us how lonely freedom really is. In this list, she celebrates madcap women in the wild, whose stories disrupt the wilderness narratives readers have become accustomed to. 

*****

Growing up in the Toronto suburbs, I dreamed about living in the country and yearned for the backwoods, as though the West had already been inscribed on me. When I left Ontario and moved to Alberta synchronicity flowed; I hooked up with new friends who drifted between the city and the wilderness, embracing a gypsy lifestyle. This tension between the excitement of cities and the reflective silence of nature has been an ongoing theme in my life. Even though I have never been much of a homesteader, tree-planter, fire observer, or long distance hiker, I have entered those worlds and subcultures, and I understand the desire to be off the grid, free of the hum of sprawling urban development. Wilderness stories, especially fire lookouts, have traditionally been dominating by male writers, but there are accounts by women—and they are different indeed.    

*

Burning Ground, by Pearl Luke

How this novel reminded me of the mysterious radio voices streaming into a mountain fire lookout! Percy, a young woman assigned to watch for smoke at a fire tower without the benefit of visiting hikers, uses her isolation in two ways. She reflects on past losses and family secrets while simultaneously becoming enamoured of, and abetting, the romantic interest of a neighbouring lookout observer, a person she can know only by voice, over the radio, until the fire season ends. The conclusion to Percy’s fire season is stunning and I won’t spoil it for you. This book won the Chapters/Robertson Davies First Novel Award.

*

Between Forest and Sky: A Fire Tower Journal, by Sharon Stratton

If you think the job of a fire lookout observer might be for you, take a look at Stratton’s reflections on the lifestyle. She conveys the quiet and peaceful aspects of a tower person’s life in the Northern Alberta bush, and by necessity overcame her reticence to climb the 100-foot tower several times a day to watch for smoke. Stratton worked at many different fire lookout stations but chose to give the locations pseudonyms, therefore, it is uncertain exactly which Albert fire lookouts she is documenting. After breezing through her first season, Stratton fell in love with the lifestyle and pledged a life-long vocation. For this decision, she deserves honorary madcap status.

*

Book Cover Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies

Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, by Mike Potter

Are you keen to hike right to the door of a mountain fire lookout? Then this is the essential field guide for planning how to access some of the most intriguing top-of-the world destinations in Alberta. The guide includes photographs and clearly written directions for finding each lookout station, including the fire lookouts I wrote about in On Mockingbird Hill. Look out gals! You could find yourself falling for a lookout man or lookout woman if you get invited inside.

Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-planting Tribe, by Charlotte Gill 

Oh the life of a tree-planter in British Columbia! Gill’s first person account of climbing over slash piles and surviving the soot and charcoal of a burned-out cut block is memorable. Long after finishing this book, I could visualize, in graphic detail, the run-down motel rooms the crews inhabited, their sweaty filth and grimy work clothes peeled off at the end of every day. How different than the sedentary life of a fire lookout observer—a pair of binoculars and a radio mic are so civilized compared to the tree-planter’s shovel and heavy work boots. But the two subcultures have much in common: the protection of trees and forests, and a shared mistrust of Big Timber. Gill also devotes sections of her book to a discussion of forest eco-systems and the beauty and necessity of West Coast forests. Her book won the BC National Award for Non-Fiction.

*

North of Normal, by Cea Person

This debut memoir slammed me hard, not because the author’s childhood is so peculiar, but because I knew the main characters, her pot smoking mother, Michelle, and her backwoods grandfather, Dick; in fact, during my 20s, I lived in a tipi camp in the foothills north-west of Calgary with Dick and some other back-to-the-land friends who wanted to learn outdoor survival skills from the charismatic mountain man. I loved the depiction of Person’s grandfather teaching hippies how to hunt for deer, and her mother with a joint in one hand and a homeopathic Bach remedy in the other, which are not in any way exaggerations; for me, her portrayals are spot on. The story illustrates the degree to which her mother was ill-equipped to parent, a madcap of sorts, evoking empathy and incredulity. Despite the challenges in her family of origin, Person carries out a daring plan to jettison her bizarre wilderness childhood, and at 15 years old gets herself to New York City to launch a career as an international model. The descriptions of her unique family encapsulate the Me Generation and counterculture movement of the 1970s in its collective idealism and mistaken assumptions about how the future would evolve. Curiously, On Mockingbird Hill begins at the moment when my adventures with some of the tipi tribe Person describes have ended.

*

Where I Live Now, by Sharon Butala

The authentic and intimate tone of this memoir lulled me gently into Butala’s world of loss and her connection to the grasslands of south-western Saskatchewan, near the Cypress Hills. A prolific and successful author, after 30 years of married life with rancher Peter Butala, Sharon is confronted with living alone after her husband dies from esophageal cancer. Her grief is dual: the loss of her life partner and the realization she does not want to live alone as an older woman on the Butala homestead and ranch. But, I cringed when Butala decides to rent a crummy apartment in Calgary, relinquishing her place amid the glorious prairie hills. I was reminded of my own misery in rundown Calgary apartments after relationship endings and failed attempts to live in the country forced me back to the city for work. Butala’s life on a working ranch may have little in common with the subcultures of fire lookouts, tree-planters, or back-to-the-land hippies, but her love of the rolling hills, coulees, and prairie skies transcends any cultural differences. Butala has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award twice, for fiction and nonfiction.

Susanna Moodie: Roughing it in the Bush, A Graphic Novel, Carol Shields & Patrick Crowe

What a delight to learn about Susanna Moodie through the beautiful illustrations by Selena Goulding. Moodie is the famous Victorian emigrant who wrote Roughing it in the Bush way back in 1852. Her tales of hardship and suffering on two bush farms in the backwoods of Upper Canada (which would, of course, become Ontario) have inspired many Canadian authors. Margaret Atwood’s introduction details the immense impact Moodie’s writing had on her own creative work, as well as that of other successful CanLit authors, such as Margaret Laurence and Carol Shields.  

Voice in the Wild: A Memoir, by Laurie Sarkadi

This memoir is on my to-read-list.  A career journalist, Sarkadi lived off-the-grid in the wilderness outside Yellowknife, way up north in the North West Territories. She is known to be an astute observer of animal behavior and I get the sense she is able to communicate in subtle ways with many species of wild animals. 

**

Book Cover On Mockingbird

About On Mockingbird Hill: In the same vein of tree planters and lighthouse keepers, Mary Kelly flips the over-romanticized lifestyle of fire observers made popular by Jack Kerouac and shows us how lonely freedom really is. When Mary meets Daniel, a handsome quirky potter, sarod-player, and fire lookout observer, she falls in with a tribe of young people who earn a living by watching for smoke and fire in the mountain foothills of Alberta. For several summers, Mary commutes each weekend from Calgary to Daniel's isolated post on Mockingbird Hill, where she gets a close-up look at the job in the clouds. Dissatisfied with her own job in a health food store selling vitamins and herbal remedies, she and Daniel concoct a plan to leave the city and move to the woods of interior British Columbia. On a remote acreage above Shuswap Lake, they erect a yurt, and dream up ways to earn a living without joining the local pot growers. Debt and unemployment ensue. 

Disillusioned with the limited employment options in a rural community, Daniel rejects the pressure to sell his art work, and decides to go back to fire lookouts. In spring of 1992, Daniel is posted to Moose Mountain Lookout west of Calgary, a rocky summit at 8,000 feet. Unemployed, Mary follows him back to Calgary to resume their weekend visiting schedule and hunt for work. But that summer a series of betrayals and violence explode apart relationships and friendships, transforming the group of lookout friends.

November 30, 2017
Books mentioned in this post
On Mockingbird Hill

On Mockingbird Hill

Memories of Dharma Bums, Madcaps and Fire Lookouts
edition:Paperback
tagged : women
More Info
On Mockingbird Hill

On Mockingbird Hill

Memories of Dharma Bums, Madcaps and Fire Lookouts
edition:Paperback
tagged : women
More Info
North Of Normal

North Of Normal

A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Counterculture Family, and How I Survived Both
tagged :
More Info
Where I Live Now

Where I Live Now

A Journey through Love and Loss to Healing and Hope
edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook
More Info
comments powered by Disqus

X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...