“Light in the Trees” by Gail Folkins
It seems improbable, but from the arid Llano Estacado — the far southern end of the Great Plains region — comes a new book of essays that celebrates the verdant foothills on the western slopes of the Cascade Range.
Texas Tech University Press, based in Lubbock, publishes a Voice in the American West series, and the latest offering is “Light in the Trees.” This nature-based memoir was written by Gail Folkins, who grew up in Issaquah exploring the forest that was just steps from her back door.
Career opportunities and grad school led Folkins to Texas, and marriage to a musician inspired her to write her first book. After making the rounds as a “dance hall wife” with her bass guitarist husband John, she wrote “Texas Dance Halls: A Two-Step Circuit,” in collaboration with photographer Marcus Weekley.
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Folkins also lived and worked in Switzerland and Wisconsin before recently landing back in the Puget Sound region.
Indeed, for all of her far-flung adventures over the years, a piece of Folkins’ heart always remained in the Pacific Northwest. She returned regularly to visit family and hike the Cascades. Most of these pieces are from those years when she came back as a tourist to her own hometown — witnessing change, reminiscing, and building new memories.
Occasionally this writer ponders without being conclusive, but her language is unfailingly lovely. Take this sentence from a horseback riding session in the Palouse, for instance: “We galloped into apricot-colored light, hills multiplying like waves.”
One of the ways Folkins tackles a topic is to take some of the splashy news of the day — Sasquatch sightings, serial killers, rampant forest fires — and look at it through the lens of her personal experience. The results are uneven: sometimes that approach illuminates the subject, and other times it confounds it.
Her tale of the unidentifiable crashing sound that frightened her mom and her when they were hiking on Squak Mountain attempts to intertwine bogeymen real and imagined, conjectures about mothers and daughters, our biological wiring for fear, and the social necessity for trust. It’s an ambitious agenda for one essay, and it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens and Folkins’ post-blast visits to the volcano are an attempt to reflect on her own shifting surroundings. It doesn’t pack the punch that it ought.
On the other hand, the essay titled “Upstream” is a terrific rumination on the impulse to leave home, and the impulse to return. Folkins talks about the salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest with the turtles of Texas’ aquifers and spring-fed rivers. She touches on the balancing act between human access to waterways and environmental impacts. Some species have more options than others when it comes to defining what makes a place home. Perhaps she could have worked in more on the human-caused degradation of habitat, but even as is, this work knits together nicely.
Welcome home, Gail Folkins — we’ll look forward to hearing more from you.
The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at email@example.com.