Closer To The Ground: An outdoor family’s year on the water, in the woods and at the table
By Dylan Tomine, foreword by Thomas McGuane
Published by Patagonia Books
Paperback, 264 pages
$17.95 US|$22.95 CAN
Ironically I received a copy of Dylan Tomine’s book, Closer To The Ground, just as my least favorite time of year was approaching: w#nter. In chapter one, Tomine paints a painfully accurate description of the gloomiest season of the year in the Pacific Northwest:
“There’s no question winter here can really take a chunk out of you. Not like the extreme cold of the upper Midwest or the round-the-clock darkness of Alaska might, but rather the opposite. Here, it’s the general lack of severity–monotonous flat gray days and constant drip-drip of misty rain–that erodes the spirit.”
With that, I was intrigued. I felt as though perhaps I’d discovered someone who understands why, despite being a lifelong resident of western Washington, I have never become mentally acclimated to our long, dreary winters. I live about 25 miles by overland travel, plus a 30 minute ferry crossing, from the author’s home on Bainbridge Island. Despite the Puget Sound region being one of many microclimates, we endure essentially the same winter gloom, and it’s during this time of year that I bitch and moan and become a considerably less dangerous version of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining. Perhaps, in Dylan Tomine, I had found my kindred Seattle-winter-loathing spirit.
I quickly learned, however, that the author is not condoning that we give in to the temptations of Seasonal Affective Disorder and become reclusive, bitter shut-ins. Au contraire. While admittedly not an optimist, Tomine points out that hope is not lost during the bleak winter months. Take, for example, digging for razor clams on the ocean beach. In the face of a raging winter storm. In what would be the pitch blackness of night if not for a lantern (which only required 90 matches to light thanks to cold, wet hands). What’s not to enjoy about that, right? The book goes on to show that each of the 4 seasons offer something new and different when it comes to outdoor pursuits that involve harvesting Earth’s bounty. Each season provides something to look forward to.
Most anyone who lives in the Pacific Northwest—who is involved in recreational fishing and pays any mind to the conservation issues as pertaining to wild anadromous fish—has likely heard of Dylan Tomine. While his activism on conservation matters is well known among certain circles, this book is not a pulpit from which the author preaches. That said, as an advocate for conservation, Tomine would be remiss if he did not offer some commentary on environmental issues facing the Pacific Northwest. And THAT said, the chapter titled, “Prius Envy”, does touch on some weighty matters. But this book isn’t so much, or overtly, about conservation. Although it may be, but perhaps not necessarily.
Closer To The Ground is Tomine’s journal of time spent with his family throughout the seasons of the year; living a more naturally-grounded life as they explore the forest in search of mushrooms, grow their own produce and fish for salmon. They also harvest shrimp and Dungeness crab, and gather oysters and uncover clams at low tide along the beaches of Puget Sound. Anyone who has ever dug geoducks (non-intuitively pronounced ‘gooey-ducks’) can appreciate Tomine’s reference to these giant bivalves as being offensive in appearance to all but perhaps a female horse. I don’t care who you are—that’s good, sophomoric stuff right there—and there’s enough subtle humor woven into each chapter of the book to keep things entertaining and fun. There is also some underlying, deeply personal stuff that is revealed from time to time.
Speaking of wood, in more than one chapter Tomine reveals his self-professed obsession with firewood that makes me wish I heated my own home in this manner. Heck, I even have access to Tomine’s favorite tree species for firewood: madrona. Then again the gathering, splitting, stacking, drying, moving, and re-stacking of firewood, not to mention the anxiety that accompanies a rapidly-depleting inventory, makes me glad that I’m not a slave to this sort of fuel.
The chapter in which Tomine goes hunting for Chantrelle mushrooms with his then 3 year-old son will make readers wish for a 3 foot 2 inch tall partner—one who is agile, enthusiastic, and energetic—with whom to go forth into the woods in search of these delicacies.
While we’re on the topic of delicacies, I don’t recommend reading Closer To The Ground on an empty stomach as the included recipes, such as Chantrelle Pizza, Mom’s Blackberry Pie, Vine-Maple Smoked Salmon, and Crispy Panko Razor Clams, to name a few, will leave you salivating (and reaching for a bag of chips as a distant consolation prize).
We live in an age where kids (and adults) are ever more disconnected from the natural world. Through Tomine’s words we see that spending time outdoors with kids, in pursuit of the wild things, does more than just allow kids (and adults) to have fun getting wet and dirty: it creates a sense of gratitude for the natural resources. This heightened understanding leads to stewardship. It’s all connected. Overall, kids today don’t have the same opportunities to immerse themselves in the natural world as previous generations did. Tomine offers ways in which parents can address that, and combat what is called the Nature Deficit Disorder. It’s fairly simple: take kids outside, spend time with them exploring and foraging for consumable treasures that they will be thrilled to discover, and curious to eat. Involve them in the entire process. Create memories.
We also live in a world where many parents are so busy running kids around from one activity to another that the concept of a family dinner is often lost. After each harvest, the Tomine family gathers ’round the table to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Aside from the invaluable family together-time, the author’s kids learn to appreciate that, thanks to their active involvement in the gathering process, food doesn’t just grow on the grocery store shelves. And nature’s treats are just that—delicious and healthy (not that kids care about the latter). These lessons are a result of making a conscious effort to seek out that which is around us, often times just a short ways off the beaten path.
Closer To The Ground is an easy, enjoyable read thanks to Tomine’s sense of humor and casual story telling that is neither fraught with nor obfuscated by the supererogative use of sesquipedalian verbiage. The author writes in a comfortable manner that is masterful without being fancy. He presents compelling and enjoyable reasons for us all to spend more time outside in search of nature’s gifts: gifts which may be food for the table, or our souls.
Perhaps worthy of note: The book isn’t exactly new—it was first published in hardback 2012. However, this is the second printing, in paperback, and it has 30% new content. And speaking of new content, I’m hoping that since the book was written the author has replaced his old Montero with a proper firewood-hauling F250, and added a heat source to his office.
Take a moment to visit DylanTomine.com and watch the short trailer for the book.