Book Review: Bird Cloud: A Memoir by Annie Proulx

I have been living in rented apartments and houses for several years now, ever since I left Greece to return to the States. In Greece we had owned our own home; here, I struggle every month to pay the rent and bills. I can’t help but daydream about a home of my own, someplace I can furnish and decorate as I see fit, somewhere with a spacious porch or yard where I can step outside into the fresh air and draw sweet breaths and admire natural beauty. At this point in my life and fiscal situation it seems a long shot, to say the least; but I can at least dream, can’t I?

Perhaps this longing for a place of my own is why I enjoy reading about how other writers carve out spaces for themselves in various locations of their choice. Several months ago I read and reviewed Michael Pollan’s book A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams in which he plans and constructs a writing studio in the woods behind his house. And now here is Bird Cloud, Annie Proulx’s memoir about building a house in a wild remote part of Wyoming.

Most of this book, in which Proulx describes the construction of the house, the landscape around it, the nearby wildlife, and the extreme weather, I enjoyed a lot, but there were one or two sections that just didn’t flow like the rest. Let’s get these out of the way first. My main problem was with the first few chapters. Proulx teases readers with a brief description of Bird Cloud, which is her name for the property she bought in Wyoming, and then launches into about fifty or sixty pages of description of her family lineage. Much of it does not consist of anecdotes either, but rather of lists of ancestors: so-and-so begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so, and so on. I almost stopped reading in the midst of the begats. I’m glad I didn’t, because I so much enjoyed most of the rest of the book, but I had the feeling that this beginning section, which has nothing to do with the rest of the book, was perhaps shoe-horned in because the publisher wanted a higher word count. I don’t know. The other section that I found kind of slow was an elaborate history of big game hunting in Wyoming.

Okay, now that that’s done, allow me to say that the rest of the book is fascinating. Proulx describes finding this gorgeous location in Wyoming with the Platte River running through it and across the river a scenic cliff. The area is bursting with wildlife: deer, elk, cougars, rabbits, prairie dogs, coyotes, bald eagles, golden eagles, and all sorts of other bird species.

The construction of the house takes two years. She hires an architect and a construction team, and they are dedicated and talented men, but there are all sorts of obstacles, not the least of which is the radical and often violent weather. Snow and high winds keep the area far below freezing for about six months out of the year, and without vigorous actions by snow plows, the road would be closed for months in the winter.

Proulx kind of lost me there in a practical sense. I would never be able to handle that kind of cold. If I were to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into building a home, I would do it where the weather is mild and tolerable. To each their own. In this memoir, though, the weather is part of the adventure, part of the challenge of constructing an elegant home in such a forbidding place.

Proulx’s land was used extensively by Native Americans for millennia, and she goes into the history of the Indian peoples of the area and the artifacts that she and her guests regularly find on her property. In the final chapter, she describes the birds that she observes along the river and on the cliff side. All of this makes for absorbing reading. All in all, I highly recommend it, but if I were to read it again, I would start at chapter three and skip the genealogy.

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