"The story of the meadow is a litany of loosely patterned weather, a chronicle of circular succession. Indians hunted here in summer, but they never wintered here, as far as we can tell, not on purpose. It's the highest cultivated ground in this spur of the Medicine Bow, no other level terrain in sight. There have been four names on the deed to it, starting just a hundred years back." So wrote James Galvin at the beginning of his book, The Meadow, first published in 1992 and available since 1993 in paperback (An Owl Book, Henry Holt and Company, New York, $13).
Much has been written of this unusual book, called "a mixture of novel and natural history" by Legends of the Fall author Jim Harrison. Next Wave readers who enter The Meadow will find a hundred-year history of a place somewhere high in the arid mountains of the Colorado-Wyoming border intertwined with the story of the people who tried to become a part of it.
"The landscape is the main character" in The Meadow, says Galvin, acclaimed poet and professor at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, speaking by telephone from his home in Iowa City. Galvin was raised in the ranching community surrounding the meadow and started writing the book to chronicle for his daughter, then 4 years old, a disappearing way-of-life.
But The Meadow is more than Galvin's lyrical prose applied to descriptions of flora and fauna. Because Galvin originally intended the book for an audience of one--his daughter--he introduced elements of fiction about his neighbors, the succession of humans who attempted to colonize the meadow. Galvin's intention was "to make those people come alive" by obeying what he describes as "a painterly impulse." The result is a canvas in which the viewer is drawn inside the lives of the characters, especially the main character Lyle Van Waning, who lived in the meadow, or "weathered" it as Galvin puts it, for nearly 50 years.
Lyle, who Galvin describes as "properly humbled by his surroundings," raises a barn alone in the wintertime but also cooks extra breakfast pancakes to feed the sparrows arriving on his windowsill. Beginning to write the book during Lyle's last year on earth, Galvin knew that Lyle wouldn't be around "to mentor my daughter as he had mentored me."
In many ways, The Meadow is a novel--but it is not just the human characters that keep the reader wanting to turn its pages. In an awe-inspiring feat, Galvin has managed to invite the reader into the life of the land. He writes: According to scientists who study avalanches for a living, snow has the widest range of physical properties of any known substance. ... Then there are the properties of snow that are not physical, or not exactly physical: its lethal whims, its harmlessness, its delicacy, its power, its relentlessness, its flirtatious disregard, its sublime beauty.
Of Galvin's seven published volumes, five are books of poetry, two of which-- Lethal Frequencies (1995) and Elements (1988)--he believes to be most firmly rooted in the natural world. The most recent work, Fencing the Sky (1999), is a "politically motivated" novel about "corporate rapacity" in the West, says Galvin. Poetry, he remarks, is "too complex to be good for political issues," and so he turned to prose in The Meadow and Fencing the Sky so that he could better express his "deep outrage" at the disappearance of life's meadows.
James Galvin's natural world extends into "an invisible world--an intangible world," as he puts it. Readers of his books have the good fortune to be invited to step inside.