nnie Proulx has a dedicated and near-cult readership. Plus, there’s a Pulitzer for “The Shipping News” and an Oscar-honored film drawn from her short story “Brokeback Mountain.” Yet now, at 77, Annie Proulx has other use for her creative drive. She’s building “my final home.” This aging author is into a last-shot identity hunt.
In remote northern Wyoming she sights a bird-shaped cloud above a golden cliff. “Bird Cloud: A Memoir of a Place,” first published by Scribner in 2011, parses that natural, isolated, even foreboding wonderland, and tracks her 2005-2009 struggle to erect a very personal dream house there.
True to the solitary nature of her own fictional actors and the rough landscapes they travel, Proulx purchased “Cloud,” which is 640 acres of Natural Reserve property. She also got building rights “The cow-speckled landscape is an ashy grey color… the land is wind-beaten in summer, snow-clogged in winter… Why would anyone live here, I think. I live here.”
Well, almost. The setback list grows.
Proulx totally fails to grasp the embarrassing gap between a wealthy homebuilder’s problems and those faced by your average cit dealing with a two-bedroom home on a max half-acre. But maybe we all like to read about a vast dream.
Another reader challenge: the book’s format is a homeowner construction diary. The Proulx-defined and defining “final” habitat has more plumbing and roofing problems than really need underlining. Every oddly angled corner and even the 48-foot long, fully window-walled study reflect her stubborn, visionary design.
If these details were Cloud’s sum total we might all close the book early on. But this diary is chockablock with keen location word-scapes. It also explores a much larger concern. Underlined through her two bookends: the opener, a family genealogy research; the long close, a hunt for the archaic, historic origins that form our shared genealogy.
Unfortunately for Proulx, this isolated and geographically stunning location has always been a really implausible building site. In the Late Archaic Period more than 4,000 years ago, seasonally present Indian tribes dug out temporary work sites. Tens of thousands of years ago there were actual inhabitants. The kind Proulx wants to be. This dismal habitation record is a reminder: This writer’s works have always measured character against the odds.
And, despite inadequate heating and 40-below temperatures, how can she renounce her dream? There are great blue herons, a daily discovery of bird species, barely-known native plants and flowering shrub. And not far from the future house there’s a different world down at the North Platte River that runs across her property. Rearing above it there’s a white coral-capped golden cliff. It’s a constantly shifting landscape scenario, and climate. It’s also a construction crew’s nightmare.
What never alters throughout is this author’s drive toward permanent roots. She calls it “a very American dream.”
After her French-Canadian father migrated to New England and married, he shifted jobs constantly. From her birth to age 15, Proulx lived in 20 different homes. They led her to “a very American question”… “Who were we? Who were our people? … The American experience, the mobility, the focus on individual achievement, “it’s all built on this sense of loss… alienation…” Cloud will provide roots… and closure?
As construction starts, she lives in the nearest city. After four years, in late September she moves into the nearly completed building. Winds shear off and rattle the windows. Winter will bring mountainous snowdrifts across her one-mile access lane from the nearest county road.
According to the realty salesman the state plows those huge drifts on her access. An assertion that, in her bliss of cloud sign-sighting, she should have checked. But didn’t. Her “final” home is not habitable from October through March.
But Proulx’s determined to find an identity here,
Her opening bookend, on Canadian and New England genealogy, yields thin results, so in the months she lives at Cloud Proulx she turns to studying the land itself. In the long, closing bookend she works alongside archaeologists, geologists, botanists and ornithologists to discover millennia habitant relics, and thousands of rare wildlife and vegetation species. To trace her ancient landscape.
It’s an “origin search” that links to a larger, universal story and significance. Half-a-dream is better than none. Proulx now lives between Wyoming and New Mexico.
The real winner here is the reader who wisely skims the plumbing and enjoys “Cloud” for its crisply sliced word-sketches of one of America’s unique and pristine landscapes. A heritage.