Review by Tim Woods
As the years tot up and increasingly fill with the staples of life – work, two young children, that sort of stuff – it’s no longer quite so straightforward to scoot off to one of the long list of places I always assumed I would see. These places are mostly high, mountain-filled ones, and the USA’s great national parks are firmly on that list. To date, though, they remain – for me – unvisited; all I know of them has been gleaned from nature documentaries and mountaineering articles. Fortunately, Campfire Stories is an excellent way to fill out the picture a little.
The book’s concept is an intriguing one. A young American couple, keen to explore the natural beauty that their country has to offer, set off on a road trip to explore six national parks (Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone). But this is not a personal account of their trip, or even a reflection of what they saw. Instead, they talked to the people who live and work in each park, researched its past – and gathered together their favourite stories and poems. They also recommend reading them aloud around a campfire, which is where their own love of these nature-based stories flourished.
This pick’n’mix approach works because it provides the reader with a range of perspectives on each place. At its best, nature writing and mountain literature can be wonderfully uplifting, but some books in the genre get tangled up, the author perhaps feeling a need to describe their connection to every last element of their surroundings. By contrast, the variety in Campfire Stories – both in terms of the writers and the places – prevents the book from becoming too entwined with one person’s thoughts, or the style being too repetitive.
In the section on the Great Smoky Mountains, for example, there are contributions from park rangers, tourists, local people and Native Americans, each group experiencing the place in a very different way: from reflections on the Appalachian people forced to leave their homes to allow for the park’s creation, to a poem rejoicing in the joys of “mountain dew”.
Collectively, the writers bring these places to life. And not just their visual splendour; they share the sounds, smells and feel of the American outdoors. In ‘The Great White Throne’ by Angus M. Woodbury, the texture of the rock comes alive as he helps to search for a missing climber in Zion National Park. In ‘horse heaven’, Shelton Johnson, concentrates on what Yosemite sounds like. This sensual exploration reminds the reader of just how much the natural world has to offer. As Freeman Owle notes in ‘The Removed Townhouses’, “Go listen to the stream. He’ll talk to you and will not charge you a penny.”
It may be that I don’t get to see these great national parks for myself. I am trying (not completely successfully) to reduce my flights – and it seems like the kids intend to hang about, and work expects me to turn up once in a while. But if I never do, Campfire Stories has given me a fuller picture of just how wonderful these places are.
Tim Woods is the author of Twisted Mountains, a collection of short stories set among the hills of England, Scotland and Wales. Each story tells of someone who has their own reasons to be in the mountains. From a vengeful student to obsessive hostel owner, the wannabe biker to the Wainwright expert with a secret. Varied in their subjects, all have mountains at their heart, dark humour and surprises.
Twisted Mountains has a foreword by award-winning poet and writer Helen Mort. You can order it from our online bookshop.