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Reviews of The Far Corner

The Far Corner by John Daniel The Eugene Register-Guard
Sunday, Apr 5, 2009
Randi Bjornstad

As if there were any doubt that author John Daniel knows Oregon — and its often capricious springs — try this passage from his new book, “The Far Corner”:

“No power of place is more influential than climate, and I feel compelled at the outset to report that we who live in the wet regions of the Northwest suffer immensely from our climate. Melville’s Ishmael experienced a damp, drizzly November in his soul, but only now and then. For us it is eternally so, or it feels like eternity. From October well into June we slouch in our mossy-roofed houses listening to the incessant patter of rain, dark thoughts slowly forming in the cloud chambers of our minds. It’s been days, weeks, years, it seems, since a neighbor knocked or a letter arrived.?… Those who live where sun and breezes play, engaged in their smiling businesses, have long forgotten us, if they ever cared for us at all. Rain drips from the eaves like poison into our souls. We sit. We sleep. We wait for the mail.”

Fortunately, this “bitter state of mind” doesn’t dominate Daniel’s latest book, subtitled “Northwestern Views on Land, Life and Literature,” but truth be told, there’s probably not a dyed-in-the-wool Oregonian who hasn’t shared this dismal sentiment at one time or another.

Instead, “The Far Corner” is a lyrical collection of personal essays written throughout his more than 30 years of living here, leaving and coming back.

Since 1994, he and his wife, Marilyn, have lived in the foothills of the Coast Range, not far from Noti. She works for the state Department of Environmental Quality and he writes or takes teaching stints at colleges and writers’ conferences around the country.

“The Far Corner,” sometimes known as the Upper Left Coast, follows five nonfiction books — two of them memoirs — and three poetry collections in Daniel’s repertoire.

Anyone who has lost an elderly parent, or who in the normal order of things expects to someday, will appreciate “The Mother of Beauty,” a pared-down version of one of his earlier books, “Looking After: A Son’s Memoir.”

In it, Daniel recounts the gradual decline in his mother’s physical and mental health. Zilla lived with him and Marilyn for four years before a fall and a broken hip made it necessary for him to choose for her between surgery to repair the hip — despite the danger of the procedure because of a long-defective heart valve — and doing nothing, which would mean not walking again and would lead to eventual death from pneumonia or some other infection.

Despite Daniel’s awareness that his mother expected — even at some level, welcomed — the idea of death at the end of a long, fruitful life, “I knew these things, yet almost automatically I chose surgery,” he writes. Her heart overtaxed by the surgery, his mother never fully reawakened; she died in the hospital eight days later.

It’s a dilemma he still feels uneasy about, 17 years after his mother’s death, and one he explores thoroughly in this essay in “The Far Corner.”

In another, more playful profile-cum-homage, he writes about his long acquaintance with Ken Kesey.

Kesey was a longtime Pleasant Hill farmer and one of this country’s most famous authors, primarily for two novels — “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion” — both set in Oregon.

From their first meeting at a writer’s conference that Daniel and a friend organized in 1979 in Klamath Falls — Kesey came “dressed in white from head to toe?… a broad tank of a man with a fringe of sandy curls around his balding head”— to Kesey’s funeral at the McDonald Theatre in downtown Eugene, attended by a thousand people, Daniel sheds light on Kesey’s life. He recounts everything from Kesey’s introduction to hallucinogenic drugs through a government-sponsored clinical trial on the effects of psychoactive drugs to his later prosecution for illegal drug use, as well as his redemption as a loving family man and farmer.

It’s not until a gathering of old friends at the Kesey farm that Daniel realized why he had felt troubled by the man and his writings for decades and finally reconciled those feelings:

“I had been one of the many who waited impatiently through the ’70s and ’80s for a new novel, another major work, and I was one of the many who were disappointed in the books Kesey eventually did produce. Disappointed. As if writing two of the best American novels of the late twentieth century, and boldly lighting our times with his singular verve and enthusiasm, had not been enough. As if Ken Kesey owed me, owed us, when in truth we all owed him.”

Nature, too, plays a large role in “The Far Corner.” Daniel writes about Oregon’s wild and scenic rivers and public attempts to preserve and reclaim them. He writes about their relation to humans and commerce, from their nurturing of the Native American tribes that lived along them to their later damming and befouling for purposes of industry and transport.

And yet, Daniel writes in memoriam to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, rivers exist purely for their own sake, caring nothing for us:

“Our lives have flowed from exploding stars, from currents of time and gravity beyond our ken. Nothing in Nature can tell us our story, nothing can explain why today some die while others live on, or why we die at all, or live. The river speaks, but not our tongue. It makes itself of snow and rain, it gathers all that it touches and finds its way. In surging falls and deep green pools, in chutes and riffles and silent swirls, it bears us on through winding passages of grace and fury, until once, perhaps, in a stab of sun on streaming water, the entire aching beauty of being comes clear.?…”