The sky can’t make up its mind, and all morning, John Hildebrand and I peel off our rain gear only to put it all back on 10 minutes later. The Chippewa River is ripping after several inches of recent rain and the 17-foot Alumnacraft canoe we’re paddling is flying downriver, stymied only by a strong headwind. John is in the stern, and I’m happy to be the bowman. Both of us are a little hard of hearing, so we converse by exchanging three hours-worth of hollering and yelling. It is the most pleasant literary shouting match I’ve ever been party to.
I’ve been an unabashed fan of John’s writing for years, since I read “A Northern Front: New and Collected Essays.” In fact, the very act of writing this column feels like an impossible task. Nothing I could write in the field of non-fiction could compare to John’s essay, “Turtles” (I believe his spirit creature may be the turtle) or the seminal “Coming Home.” What I have always admired about John’s writing is his intimate commitment to place and the environment, a commitment that never feels heavy-handed or preachy. Rather, his writing always feels organic and deeply examined. His essays are complicated, and surprising, and in reading them, you can’t help but reexamine your own notions of where we live and who we think we are. Too many Midwestern writers portray our region through nostalgic rose-tinted lenses, describing a place that was once here, or, worse yet, was never quite here. But John has always resisted that impulse, that laziness.
And now, he’s written a new book, “Long Way Round: Through the Heartland by River.” “Long Way Round” is John’s unlikely travelogue of navigating eight Wisconsin rivers and essentially exploring the small towns scattered along those waterways. Spontaneous dialogues in bars, gas stations, cafes and even a Mississippi lockhouse, with bits of Wisconsin history dribbled throughout to deepen the narrative. It only makes sense that we talk about his career and this new book with paddles in our hands under a cloudy, leaden sky.
If I was a seasoned journalist, I might have set my paddle aside to scribble scrupulous notes, or to aim a tape-recorder towards the stern (of course, the rain didn’t help). But I’ve never claimed to be a journalist, so we simply let the conversation flow and braid: The art of cooking venison, John’s years living in Alaska, fatherhood, parenting, John’s late brother, the writer Robert Stone… At times, John acts as sort of wizened river guide, pointing to the nests of certain swallows, casting a fishing line, or offering me hunting advice. But it all lands perfectly. For a former professor, he isn’t lecturing, so much as elucidating. I can see the river more clearly for his descriptions.
“I write out of profound sense of ignorance,” John writes in a latter email. “The subjects I’ve chosen over the years are almost always ones that I initially knew next to nothing about but was curious to learn. I hope readers approach my book with the same hopeful attitude.”
Ignorance, is a strong word, but I wonder about the word “humility.” More than any other conversation I’ve ever had with John, I was struck this time by the degree to which I found this master-of-the-essay to be humble. This is a writer who has published under the Knopf imprint, with prestigious editors; a writer who has written for many of the country’s most respected publications, and yet, throughout our paddle, he regularly reflects on moments in which he may have wronged another person or let someone down. And this despite the fact that I know him to be an incredibly generous and sensitive soul, an incredible educator who, even after his official retirement from UW-Eau Claire, has gone back into the classroom to help teach and mentor young people. On a visit to John’s house this summer, he excitedly showed my children a cabinet of curiosities: a buffalo skull, snake-skins and a gar skeleton that delighted the kids to no end.
I think it’s that humility, that sense of cupping his hands to study river water, its essence and value, that permeates “Long Way Round.” Because this newest collection of essays isn’t just a meditation on our natural world, on rivers, on our history, it’s a meditation on America, and Wisconsin, and on the ways in which as a nation and as a state we are slipping away from one another. The ways in which time erodes places and meaning. If you live long enough, everything around you will change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. The Chippewa River is likely cleaner than it was 40 years ago, but the state of our democracy…
On Oct. 22, at the Pablo Center, right near the confluence of two beautiful rivers, John Hildebrand will give a reading of “Long Way Round” for the Chippewa Valley Book Festival. I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening that listening to John present his newest book. Though I’m sorry you won’t be able to chat with him as I did, paddling down a beautiful Wisconsin river.