Flat Rock Journal by Ken Carey. Not recommended.
After reading two pages of glowing reviews (and even a comment about Carey being a successor to Thoreau), I was expecting a well-written, thoughtful book centered on nature, the forest, and the life within. Instead, Flat Rock Journal struck me as more of a tribute to one man’s ego.
The book got off on a bad foot for me when Chicago-born Carey buys a clunker car to begin his quest for nature and life in the forest. It struck me that, 100 years ago, this would not have been an option at all and that it seems a strange way to get around when there are alternatives, such as cycling and walking, that bring one closer to the earth. Next, he runs into the woman who will become his wife on the Berkeley campus with whom he makes love on some bleachers. He sees this as a spiritual moment and her as a strong woman with no fears, while in reality it comes across as young people doing what comes naturally to young people. One also wonders why these children of nature did not find some grass under a tree.
Carey and his wife move to an old farmhouse in the Ozarks, where they have few conveniences (although, of course, they can’t seem to get by without a truck and eventually a gas-powered refrigerator). Carey’s day in the forest gives the reader little real feel for life, but does provide insights into his perspectives, which are at best centered around himself rather than the world around him. He says that a day in the forest helps him to rid himself of assumptions, the baggage of the world, what have you. He then describes clouds, storms, lizards, rock formations, birds, trees — everything in sight — in purely anthropmorphic terms as though he can’t grasp that this is part of those unnecessary, irrelevant assumptions. He talks about the copperheads that live around the long-abandoned house he buys as “intruders” without seeming to understand that it is his family that is intruding on them. He kills them, albeit regretfully, as a danger to his young children, not seeming to understand that this is how humans have always justified killing so-called “pest animals.” When he can no longer take killing them, he pollutes the atmosphere and uses nonrewable resources by driving them elsewhere so they are not underfoot. He is surprised when they return; he doesn’t even seem to know the basic biology of territoriality that man and his fellow animals all have at heart. When he pets them in his lap and they relax, he thinks this is a sign of friendliness (whereas someone a little more in tune with the mind of reptiles — and I put myself in this category — understands how much reptiles like a comfortably warm spot, like a lap). This kind of anthropormophising is a grave injustice to nature, and anthropomorphising is a large part of what we do that disrespects nature and leads to environmental trouble and imbalance.
Carey also has a fair amount of contempt for urbanites who don’t understand the country and nature, and who exploit “cheap country resources” to lead lives that of excessive consumption. He has a blind side to his own consumption and to his own lack of understanding. He does not absorb nature or sit back and appreciate it; he consistently forces his own predispositions onto it.
He believes environmentalists are wrong to assume that man and nature cannot coexist, and that man has the unique capacity to improve the earth, although he doesn’t really explain how. (I would have liked at least one example of a building, structure, or anything that is manmade that “improves” nature, but one is not forthcoming.) He and his wife produce a large family, which, while well within their rights, is unnecessary in this country of low child mortality and long life spans, and surely even Carey can acknowledge that it is a combination of excessive consumption and overpopulation that will be the downfall of nature. He can happily live on many acres in a forest, but doesn’t seem to think that, if all 280 million Americans tried to follow the same lifestyle, basic as it is, there would be no wild left — all would be farms, gardens, and watering systems simply to accommodate the volume of people.
He seems to think that depression is something that one shrugs off with the proper attitude and that too much of depression is blamed on “childhood” or “somebody else.” This reveals only his profound ignorance of clinical depression as well as issues of child physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
His pseudospiritual ramblings are more annoying than enlightening. They are not the type of beliefs that can be universally felt, but are based on his own approach to his own readings, thoughts, and feelings. They are frequently contradictory to both common sense and a sense of wonder.
I was looking forward to a book that would make me feel like I was part of the forest, part of the Ozarks, part of the world. I have read the works of many environmental and nature writers who put their egos in the back seat and channel the beauty of the woods around them with minimal interjections of self, and those are the works that transport me, move me, and help me renew my own touch with my world and with all that inhabits it. This is not it.
Despite the glowing blurbs, which make me wonder if reviewers put any thought into their reviews, this book is not worth the time when there are so many more thoughtful, eloquent writers out there. It is apparently out of print. I can understand why.
29 July 2000
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf