Home on the range

An­nie Proulx’s ec­cen­tric mem­oir of build­ing a dream house in Wy­oming.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - aranam@wash­post.com Marie Arana, a writer at large for The Washington Post, is the author of “Amer­i­can Chica.”

BIRD CLOUD A Mem­oir By An­nie Proulx Scrib­ner. 234 pp. $26

Few con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­cans have writ­ten about place with as much pre­ci­sion and pas­sion as An­nie Proulx. She has sum­moned the wind-whipped har­bors of New­found­land in “ The Ship­ping News,” the squalid slums of New Or­leans in “ Ac­cor­dion Crimes” and the harsh beauty of the Amer­i­can West in many a short story and novel about Wy­oming. She has re­ceived the Pulitzer Prize, the Na­tional Book Award and just about ev­ery other honor the Amer­i­can lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment can be­stow. Two of her works, in­clud­ing “ Broke­back Moun­tain,” have been made into Hollywood films. Surely she has earned the right — in this, her 75th year — to knock around her house awhile.

Proulx’s highly idio­syn­cratic mem­oir, “ Bird Cloud,” is a rat­tling trunk of mis­cel­la­nies. It starts as fam­ily his­tory but jumps quickly to free-as­so­ci­a­tions about dwelling places: Proulx’s houses in par­tic­u­lar; Wy­oming habi­tats in gen­eral; Na­tive Amer­i­can wig­wams; sheep ranch­ers’ acreage; and, while we’re at it, the nest­ing habits of birds. It’s a herky-jerky jour­ney— some of it fas­ci­nat­ing, much of it dizzy­ingly ran­dom — as ec­cen­tric and chaotic as a lost-and-found bin.

Not that there’s any­thing wrong with that. In­deed, any­one fa­mil­iar with Wy­oming (full dis­clo­sure: my grand­fa­ther’s house out­side Rawl­ins can’t be more than a few miles from Proulx’s) will revel in her close ob­ser­va­tions of the ter­rain and her quirky tour of its re­gional his­tory. As she de­scribes her hard-won demesne be­tween cliff and river, the land comes bristling to life.

Proulx bought her first Wy­oming house in Cen­ten­nial in 1995 but soon dis­cov­ered it was all wrong for her. Al­though she liked the town’s funky main drag and its ra­tio of five bars to few­erthan 100 peo­ple, the house it­self be­came a frus­tra­tion. The kitchen was cuss­edly small, the win­dows bizarrely sit­u­ated, the drive­way a for­bid­ding bar­rier of ice. She longed to buy an at­trac­tive prop­erty and build a house that was more in line with her de­sires. She found that prop­erty one windy day, when she was driv­ing west from Laramie and “ the sky was filled with stretched-out lam­i­nar wave clouds.” She was con­sid­er­ing 640 acres of land just west of Saratoga, be­tween Elk Moun­tain and the North Platte River. “I saw to the west, in the di­rec­tion of the dis­tant prop­erty, one cloud in the shape of an im­mense bird, the head and beak, the breast loom­ing over the Rock­ies. I took it as a sign that I would get the prop­erty and thought Bird Cloud should be the new name.”

And so it was. But Bird Cloud be­came a work of tough love: a war be­tween writer and sub­ject, be­tween cul­ture and na­ture

“The real Wy­oming has al­ways been a hard land for hard peo­ple. Too hard even, as it turns out, for the in­domitable An­nie Proulx.”

— be­tween hu­man com­forts and a re­lent­lessly windswept plain. The house, de­signed by big-hat Colorado ar­chi­tect Harry Teague, promised ev­ery­thing on paper, but once the phys­i­cal struc­ture be­gan to emerge, it was far more com­pli­cated than the “wooden poem” Proulx had imag­ined. As in any con­struc­tion, there were un­ex­pected ob­sta­cles: Lay­ing the con­crete foun­da­tion was de­layed be­cause the work­ers had to ad­dress a gap­ing hole in the Rawl­ins pen­i­ten­tiary; the kitchen floor, slated to be a hand­some ter­ra­cotta, took on the re­pel­lent color of raw liver; the win­dow frames snapped dur­ing the night with such sud­den, loud vi­o­lence that Proulx feared some­one was try­ing to break in. And al­ways — al­ways — there was the snow: so high, there was no budg­ing it.

The build­ing of Bird Cloud, in short, was an ar­du­ous un­der­tak­ing, and Proulx chron­i­cles it in de­tail. When the house was fi­nally com­pleted three years later, it had ev­ery amenity she could pos­si­bly want: so­lar pan­els, a Ja­panese soak tub, a win­dow that faced her fa­vorite tree, a veg­etable gar­den, a kitchen floor the color of the sea. The view alone was re­ward enough. There were spring days when “ the air was stitched with hun­dreds and hun­dreds of swal­lows.” There were sum­mers when golden ea­gles soared so high they dis­solved into the cav­ernous blue. There were win­ter sun­sets when the “ hero sun came out for a quar­ter hour, then fell as though wounded.” But by De­cem­ber, when the mer­cury fell to 15 de­grees be­low zero, snow squealed un­der­foot, and the Wy­oming roads grew im­pass­able, Proulx’s idyll be­came a prison. “I had to face the fact that no mat­ter how much I loved the place it was not, and never could be, the fi­nal home of which I had dreamed.”

Nev­er­the­less, as in so many of Proulx’s works, a reader will learn much along the way. There are painstak­ing de­scrip­tions — com­plete with sketches — of pine cones and ar­row­heads. With her, we learn how to read “ the snow-an­gel wing prints” of an at­tack­ing ea­gle. We find that even very large cows can leap like hares if they need to. We’re plied with eye-open­ing his­tor­i­cal facts: about bone­head rail­road com­pa­nies, about Na­tive Amer­i­can agri­cul­ture, about the Wy­oming wool trade, about the mean­ness of Amer­i­can pi­o­neers.

This can be as cir­cuitous as a trail through Elk Moun­tain. But for all the roam­ing a reader will do here, for all the tricks that will be pulled from this ran­dom bin, there is no mis­tak­ing the fi­nal mes­sage: The real Wy­oming has al­ways been a hard land for hard peo­ple. Too hard even, as it turns out, for the in­domitable An­nie Proulx.

Bird Cloud, a quick search on the In­ter­net will tell you, has been put up for sale. For $3.7 mil­lion, you, too, can sit in this sin­gu­lar cre­ation, gaze out at the mag­nif­i­cent sun­sets, watch ea­gles wheel against the bright blue empyrean, pit your­self against the bel­low­ing 74-mile-an-hour winds, the arc­tic snows, the un­for­giv­ing land­scape. You’d do well to con­sult Proulx’s home­owner’s man­ual be­fore you do. It’s a rare real es­tate tes­ti­mo­nial.


Bird Cloud Ranch

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