Eugene Weekly : Books : 6.10.10


Determination, Perseverance, Humor
Evelyn Searle Hess’ To the Woods brings humor to the planet
by Suzi Steffen

My mother moved to Guam when she was 62, Germany when she was 64, England when she was 67 and back home a year and a half ago. So I have a tiny inkling of what Evelyn and David Hess’ adult kids must have thought when their 60-year-old parents moved out of town to live in a trailer on a patch of land in the foothills of the Coast Range and run a native plant nursery from there.

Fifteen years later, OSU Press has just published Evelyn Hess’ memoir To the Woods: Sinking Roots, Living Lightly, and Finding True Home ($18.95), a book filled with small delights and reminders that you just never know what’s going on in the brains of your friendly Saturday Market plant salesfolk. With almost preternatural good humor, Hess writes about the couple’s decision to abandon town and move to the forested spot of land where the old trailer starts to molder, where mice inhabit every spare nook (when the cats don’t get them), where kittens don’t live long out of doors and where conveying water to the nursery plants takes up most of the day.

That sounds depressing, and considered in the light of a middle-class, comfortable city life, it kind of is. But part of the book’s charm is that while Hess acknowledges her life’s drawbacks, she also writes about the joys of walking at night (and falling on her face a few times thanks to a dislike of flashlights) or in the morning (and skidding down icy hills), ways of comprehending the ecosystem in their area and figuring out how to work with “pests” natural to the environment instead of murdering them.

The book’s structure shakes around for a bit before settling into a rhythm of following the seasons, mostly because Hess has a fair amount of backstory to tell — her history, the history of her relationship with her husband, a terrifying medical emergency that interrupted their early life on the land. 

She’s not Self-Consciously Eco-Wise (a Pacific Northwest subgenre fraught with danger for memoirists); rather, Hess truly imparts some wisdom through the nature of her self-questioning and ability to laugh at and with herself while remaining humorously gentle with the ways of the world. She made me laugh out loud several times (perhaps because I’d been doing a little late planting myself), especially in sections about how much she thinks she’ll get done during the rainy season … and how little she accomplishes each year no matter how much she plans. Her wry glances at the human spirit and the complex ways of humans and other animals make To the Woods another in OSU’s astounding list of strong, quirky works by local voices. As David and Evelyn Hess build an actual house on their land and continue their lives not so far and yet very far from Eugene, I’m rooting for them, cheering the publication of this fine book and buying a copy for my own wry, smart, strong mother for her 70th birthday.

Evelyn Searle Hess reads from and signs To the Woods at 5 pm Saturday, June 12, at Tsunami Books.