Book Review: Closer to the Ground

Closer to the Ground: An Outdoor Family’s Year on the Water, In the Woods and at the Table, by Dylan Tomine, Patagonia Books (www.patagonia.com), 2012, 230 pages, $29.95.

In a book as delightful as it is delicious, former fly-fishing guide-turned-writer Dylan Tomine’s Closer to the Ground follows the Tomine family through four seasons in the Pacific Northwest as they live off the land and sea. Writing with gentle humor, insight, and hard-earned know-how, Tomine proves himself a simple practitioner – not a preacher – of the wild food foraging/hunting lifestyle. Whether he’s examining  the challenges of living off the land, the ethics of harvesting wild food, fatherhood and relationships, the changing seasons, or the tragedy and the ecstasy of the commons, Tomine casts his introspective prose far and wide.

Together with his wife, Stacy, the couple’s effervescent children – 3-year-old encyclopedic, narcoleptic Weston; and 6-year-old Disney warrior-princess Skyla – act as free-spirited foils to Tomine’s pervasive, self-effacing pessimism. For as often as the fearless (in both the worldly and gustatory sense) Weston and Skyla accompany Tomine into the woods and out to sea to learn and practice the art of foraging at their father’s side, Tomine finds himself humbled time and again by what his children have to teach him about the outdoors, about patience, and about himself.

Whether he’s stalking chanterelles with his son or wrestling windfalls to the ground for kindling, Tomine somehow makes foraging, hunting, gathering, and gardening appear instinctual and effortless, despite the very real sweat and tears. Tomine minces garlic, not words: behind the steam baths of Dungeness crab, larded spring Chinook, pankoed Pacific oysters, giraffesque geoducks, cutleaf berry crisps, tender king salmon collars, and mule deer rump steaks are pulled muscles, slack lines, inclement weather, barked shins, tumbles, thorns, and mud and guts. And yet I still finished the last chapter salivating, feeling envious of his back-to-roots lifestyle. In the end, the buttery chanterelles, garden-grown blueberries, and littleneck steamer clams awash in garlic butter left me more than a little hungry, and a little more willing to pull a muscle or bark a shin or two in exchange for some wild-caught delicacy off Tomine’s manna menu. For today’s famined souls, Closer to the Ground is not only a taste of what it’s like to live off the land, it’s also a feast for all the senses.

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