Annie Proulx’s Bird Cloud (2011) immediately invites readers into Wyoming: “The blue-white road twists like an overturned snake showing its belly.” She describes the dust and the sage-brush and how it’s impossible not to think of “old ash-spewing volcanoes” as you move through Wyoming with its powdery soil. “The sagebrush seems nearly black and beaten low by the ceaseless wind. Why would anybody live here, I think. I live here.”

But her home, Bird Cloud, is built on land which includes a waterway, Jack Creek, stretching down from the Sierra Madre and sandstone cliffs. (This brief excerpt includes many more details about fauna and flora and the genesis of the home’s name.) This land’s been inhabited for ten thousand years and Proulx attends to the matter of its being indigenous homelands. Jack Creek, for instance, is named for the Ute warrior, Ute Jack (Nicaagat), who was sold by slave traders to a Salt Lake City Mormon family as a child but later escaped.

Ute Jack’s story is complex and reveals Proulx’s fascination with history, but also her compassion and sense of justice. She does appreciate a satisfying story, and the detailed accounts and excerpts from documents—about her family history or building/contracting processes or presence/activities of critters inhabiting the land—usually reveal another theme (often irony examining the gap between expectations and reality, frequently concern about exploitation and greed). The handwritten excerpts from her diaries/notebooks add a personal touch.

Mary O’Hara’s autobiography, Flicka’s Friend (1982) follows a chronological path through her life from childhood to her later years. I had the impression that she had been born and raised in Wyoming, but she went there when she married for the second time. She describes Wyoming as being “on the summit of the divide” between the East and West coasts “with an impassable wall of mountains, running like a jagged backbone from north to south”, the Rockies. When she first arrived, she felt she “had stepped off of one planet onto a sphere that orbited at a different tempo, under different skies, under different orders”.

She writes: “It was transcendently beautiful. Vast. Empty. Glowing with heavenly colors.” On the other side of one unhappy marriage and freshly infatuated with her next, it must have seemed very peaceful and soothing: “Between us and that distant horizon stretched the grass, a flat carpet, bright emerald green; cloud shadows lay upon it here and there, very dark, purple or midnight blue, constantly changing their mysterious shapes. Way off, almost invisible, was a cluster of antelopes, just tiny dots. They looked like figurines on a lady’s table.”

That image, with the figurines: it’s what I remember of My Friend Flicka, how the domestic and wild appeared in the same page. (And now I understand why so much of that trilogy is preoccupied by the marriage between Ken’s parents.) But Wyoming was also a somewhat lonely experience for Mary. She was friends with the librarian in Cheyenne and with the Episcopalian pastor and his wife, but otherwise she found no community there. “So this was Wyoming, I thought, a secret hidden world unknown to the rest of the country, serene and calm, with a slow heart beat.”

When author L.G. Cullens wrote to tell me about Togwotee Passage (2019), I was intrigued by his commitment to persuade readers to respond to the climate crisis, and by the idea of his grandson asking regularly how many people have read his book yet. It’s an act of dedication designed to inspire reciprocal dedication.

The novel opens in Saradale, Wyoming, where seven-year-old Calen’s father “isn’t feeling well”—code for behaving abusively. A few pages later, his mother is preoccupied by “practical matters”—code for starting over as a single-mother family. At first this seems very promising for Calen and his younger sister, Aileana, but he quickly realizes that it will also be a single-child family, because he’s being sent to live with his Aunty May.

At thirteen, Calen has long-ago adjusted to life in a bunkhouse on a ranch in western Wyoming, about a three-hours-drive distance from his mother and sister. Aunty May is plain-spoken with “odd Scotch remnants” and understands that boys can be “bone-headed and insensitive”, while Uncle Euen has a “fixed hint of a smile in his twinkling eyes”. This is all rather fortunate, and Calen adjusts to a life of badgers and biscuits, coyotes and collecting kindling, oil lanterns and porcupines.

The heart of the story rests in Calen’s developing relationship with his Shoshone friend, Derek, who teaches Calen about the “natural balance of life being fueled by life” and how it’s “disrupted by excesses”. The Shoshone way is characterized by balance: “It’s just our way.” An epigraph opens each chapter and that of the sixth, from Havelock Ellis, particularly resonates for me: “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.” Another kind of balance.

The first half of the book’s sixteen chapters focuses on younger Calen, whose experiences range from the troublesome (i.e. Vodka) to the tragic (i.e. the American-Vietnam War). The second half presents career and relationships changes (and a reading of The Sand County Almanac). Most of the book is in Calen’s voice, but occasionally a chapter shifts to centre on another character. As the chapters unfold, the idea of balance is ever-more insistent (from wilding a patch of land, to more literal death and rebirth cycles)

L.G. Cullen’s book includes endnotes to clarify the terms used from the Toyahini Shoshone language as Calen learns more about his surroundings and the Earth from Derek. There’s also a list of illustrations and a list of characters for easy reference in the back. This is the book which inspired me to take a closer look at Wyoming. It has also inspired me to read more eco-fiction, a habit that I’ve allowed to lapse in recent years.

Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

The unexpected joy of reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories (1999) was discovering the watercolours by William Matthews. Overall, I anticipated the collection would be on the bleak side. My only experience deliberately reading her short fiction was Brokeback Mountain, published as a standalone when the film was released. (Maybe I’ve read some others in The New Yorker.) Now, it seems appropriate to find that story to be the last in this collection, its tender moments presenting as a balm after a series of stark and beautiful, but often painful stories.

The collection opens with an epigraph from a retired Wyoming rancher in an article in Outside magazine: “Reality’s never been of much use out here.” That’s what begins the book and this is what ends it: “There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.” Even these two glimpses into this volume provide some clues as to its contents: a sense of apartness (whether hyper-realistic or sur-realistic), a sense of expanse (literal but also metaphorical, her syntax is spare and clean enough to run sheep between the sentences), and a sense of resignation twinned with stoicism.

Short fiction is a form that Proulx finds difficult, but she expresses gratitude in the author’s note which opens Wyoming Stories for her publisher allowing her this “side-trip”. She writes that an entire collection set in Wyoming “seized me entirely”. These stories will satisfy readers already committed to the short form, appreciative of language and lyricism, and reconciled to the idea that the “right” ending is not always a “happy” one.

Gretel Ehrlich’s essay “Wyoming: The Solace of Open Spaces” was published in The Atlantic in 1981 and later appeared in The Solace of Open Spaces (1985). I read it in: Of Women and the Essay: An Anthology from 1655 to 2000, edited by Jenny Spinner. Here, she describes plains that are “really valleys, great arid valleys, sixteen hundred square miles, with the horizon bending up on all sides into mountain ranges”. She writes: “This gives the vastness a sheltering look.”

Winters last six months in Wyoming, Ehrlich claims. And, like Proulx, she writes about the wind: “This big room of space is swept out daily, leaving a bone yard of fossils, agates, and carcasses in every state of decay, Though it was water that initially shaped the state, wind is the meticulous gardener, raising dust and pruning the sage.”

She also speaks of the American tendency to fill space. “We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.”

And how about you, what do you know of Wyoming?