The Wizard and St. Nick (Offerman)

All together now:

How often at night when the heavens are bright,

With the light from the glittering stars,
Have I stood there amazed and asked as I gazed,
If their glory exceeds that of ours.

Wait, what?

That's a seldom-sung stanza of our State Song, penned, as you surely know, by Brewster Higley in Smith Center, KS. Brewster seems rather proud of "our" glory, but, despite the puffery and the passage of a century and a half, words from Home on the Range still crop up all over the place. For example:

I just read Nick Offerman's Where the Deer and the Antelope Play. I rather enjoyed it. Of course, the fact that it features Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold and James Rebanks doesn't hurt, nor do the author's common-sense political leanings and sense of humor. Any book that makes me laugh out loud, or even snicker, gets a thumbs-up. I think the last one was a Calvin and Hobbes collection.

You probably know that Nick is an actor, a woodworker, a mid-westerner, is married to Megan Mullally, and likes "the outdoors." You might also know he's big on nuance, and therefore likes to use quotation marks like I just did. Perhaps you also know his hero is writer/farmer/soothsayer Wendell Berry, so much so that he helped fund a fine Berry documentary called "Look and See."

Where the Deer and the Antelope Play starts with the author visiting his "wizard-poet" hero and his wife Tanya at their Kentucky farm, where, over pie with fresh whipped cream, Wendell lays out the quest that becomes Nick's book. "Look," he says. "Examine the conservation of nature not through the lens of John Muir, which is how everybody looks at it, but instead through the lens of Aldo Leopold." To understand what that means could take years of study. You'd love it, and grow in untold ways. Or you could pick up Where the Deer and the Antelope Play for a quick and easy introduction. With more laughs. And swearing.

Rising to wizard Wendell's challenge of contrasting Muir and Leopold (though the reader may forget that's what's happening), Mr. Offerman ranges far and wide, to England and then to Oklahoma and beyond, the latter part with his bride in their new Airstream named Nutmeg.

But first he launches into the wilds of Glacier National Park, sans bride but accompanied by his bromantic brothers George Saunders and Jeff Tweedy(!), pulling the reader in with hi-culture hi-jinx on the trails, rivers, and glaciers. Glittering stars indeed. While there, he finds many opportunities to hold forth on capitalism (gearing up at REI); philosophy (he was tromping around with George Saunders, after all); Manifest Destiny and Native homelands "becoming" National Parks; John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt; -- all while hiking, hunting, fishing, and floating the Flathead River. I won’t give too much away here, but -- Laurie Anderson lyrics are quoted. Bonus points for Nick.

Moving from America's "wilderness" to 21st century England's agrarian Lake District, Offerman next visits "Britain's rock-star shepherd" James Rebanks and family (and sheep and cows). Muir, meet Leopold. Not too surprisingly, this is a charming section of the book, Nick and James watching the sheep and "belties" (belted Galloway cattle) "scattered hither and yon in their hillside pastures, rotationally grazing in the most ideal method for producing beef and healthy pastures simultaneously," while talking of agriculture (the gents, not the critters) before heading home to a wholesome supper.

You know all the while that he's setting us up for the inevitable contrast of Leopold's agrarian vision with the modern industrial "agriculture" model. Which we all need to hear, whether for the first time or the fiftieth. Somehow, he and James make it enjoyable even while forcing the reader to reconsider his or her own dietary and lifestyle choices and their impacts on the land. It seems so obvious, and almost easy, but... it's not. Because, Nick reminds us, money. 

Speaking of money, why not take advantage of the pandemic time-warp and buy a new Airstream trailer to tow around the Southwest behind your big ol' pick-up truck? Not quite "Nomadland," Nick and Megan's excellent adventure is, I'm afraid, the weakest part of Where the Deer and the Antelope Play. Very little reflecting on Muir and/or Leopold. Not at all sustainable. And as much as I too like road trips, they don’t fit well with Wendell or Aldo or John. Unless you’re on foot. Nuance, Nick would say, and with a word be done with it.

So while you ponder road trips to the "wilderness," or next spring's bountiful harvest, grab a copy of Nick Offerman's latest. Where seldom is heard a discouraging word.

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

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