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A Fine Kind of Madness: Mountain Adventures Tall and True

A Fine Kind of Madness: Mountain Adventures Tall and True. Laura and Guy Waterman. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2000. 192 pages. $16.95.

That first hike itself was just three miles, but I remained untutored in my father’s northern New England ethic of bearing up under discomfort. We walked through a forest of hardwoods, the going steadily upward and roughed over with rocks, logs, and loose dirt. Breath came in spurts, never caught in rest. We drank water and then spit it out as we crossed and shadowed Evans Brook. Alone with my father, I stepped up beneath a green canopy of foliage. Each of us held tight to walking sticks. In the summer of 1965 I was six. This was what we did together, my father and I. And almost four decades later I still taste the metallic moist mountain air that first time seeing clear of northern New England atop East Royce.

The image kept coming back to me as I read A Fine Kind of Madness by Laura and Guy Waterman. Admittedly, this is a climber’s book, and yet I’m stuck with that early memory of the mountains and the man who walked me through them. In much the same way, the Watermans, and the narratives that comprise this book and span their life together, haunt me.

There are brief climbing tales that touch on the exploits of Fritz Wiessner, Miriam O’Brien Underhill, Lester Germer, Annie Smith Peck, Fanny Bullock Workman, Henry Barber, Julien Whittlesey, Sam Scoville, Ed Nester, and Charles Ernest Fay. But mainly it is a book about the mountains, the Gunks, the ’Daks, the Greens, and particularly the Whites.

Between the mountains and mountain people, stories hold them together. It is hard, if not impossible, to separate the writers from their writings. Even more so because by now everyone should be familiar with the Guy Waterman story. A New England mountain man finds he can no longer do all that is needed to maintain the self-sufficient homestead life for himself and his wife. He makes arrangements for her to live down in the village, and then he walks up into a February winter day on Franconia Ridge to die of exposure. Choosing that forlorn ridgeline in the frozen dead of winter is a kicker. It just doesn’t let go. Maybe it goes against everything we are taught. There will certainly be other Guy Waterman narratives forthcoming, since Laura Waterman likens herself to Ishmael. Until then, we can seek comfort in the five books the two produced. The most recent one, A Fine Kind of Madness, is the subject of this review.

There are here a succession of switches from nonfiction to fiction to nonfiction, while brief introductions set the tone for each of the 23 collected pieces. These intros tend to work as texts of their own, outlining the publication history of the piece and at times warning the reader about how best to understand a particular essay or story. With “Education in Verticality: A Short Comedy or Farce in Four Scenes,” the introduction is the funniest part. One such caution begins, “For the benefit of those readers who did not have time to read Milton’s Paradise Lost within the last year.…” What follows is a fiercely funny send-up of climbing at the Gates of Paradise called “The First Ascent: A Story.” Laura Waterman crafts the most effective fiction, particularly in “Staircase to Starland.” She carefully evokes the world of climbing as seen through the eyes of a neophyte. The story is enigmatic and wonderfully inconclusive.

In the last section, the act of entering the mountains is secondary to land ethics. In “The Death of Passoconaway,” Tufts University professor Charles Ernest Fay questions who controls access to wild places. After cutting a trail to the summit of Mount Passaconaway in 1891 and building a modest shelter, Fay opts to bushwhack down Wonalancet Ridge instead of hiking the just-built trail. It is a choice the writers interpret as advocacy for the fragile wildness that is left. In quoting Jack Turner and Roderick Nash, this book advocates taking one’s mountain ethics and acting on them responsibly to preserve the precious wild. The sprawling little essay that concludes the book, “Why the Lorax Lost,” attempts “to stir thinking that might go beyond the simplistic politics and fallacious economics of early environmentalism.” Ultimately, the Watermans succeed with a curmudgeonly anger reminiscent of Edward Abbey’s best work.

Dave Bean