Bird Cloud Annie Proulx

Fourth Estate, pp.234, 16.99

Annie Proulx (pronounced ‘Pru’) began her writing career — quite late, in her fifties — as E.A. Proulx, to baffle misogynist editors; then she was E. Annie Proulx, until she dropped the E and became simply Annie the Proulx.

Annie Proulx (pronounced ‘Pru’) began her writing career — quite late, in her fifties — as E.A. Proulx, to baffle misogynist editors; then she was E. Annie Proulx, until she dropped the E and became simply Annie the Proulx. (Her father’s ancestors, who left Anjou for Canada in the 17th century, were called Prou or Preault; her mother’s arrived in New England soon after the Mayflower.) Her fiction tends to be about hard times in rural America, and though her new book is a memoir it runs true to form.

It tells the story of the house she built, or had built, in the wilds of Wyoming, where she has set much of her fiction, most notably her gay cowboy romance, Brokeback Mountain. Just west of the Medicine Bow mountains, on the site of an old sheep ranch, the house is set on a 400-foot cliff, ‘the creamy cap-rock a crust of ancient coral’, on the North Platte river. She named it Bird Cloud because on her first visit there she saw a cloud that resembled a huge bird. It is evidently a beautiful place, but fiercely inhospitable, embattled by wind and snow: ‘In winter hurricane winds, loose snow loops sidewise in a grinding haze and the whole sky rolls like the ocean, hurling birds like rocks.’

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It is pleasant to read, from a comfortable distance, of Proulx’s hard times, which are familiar to anyone who has had the builders in, but on a scale most of us are spared. For three years, on a site that is ‘a combination gravel pit, mud slide, snow bowl and wind tunnel’, as delays lengthen and costs soar, she deals with ‘sanding, varnishing, prepping, priming, caulking, hanging, installing, mudding, trimming, drilling, assembling, capping…’

One shares her satisfaction as the house takes shape, and its elements — distressed heartwood pine, polished rusty metal sidings, sea-green tiles from Brazil — gradually come together, ready to receive her 56 bookcases. Bird Cloud was intended to be ‘a kind of poem, if a house can be that’, and it sounds — there are no pictures of it — as though her intentions have succeeded. In any event, property porn has never before risen to such literary heights.

Once the house is finished, Proulx considers the history of the place. She lives where the ’49ers crossed the North Platte on their westward trek through the Wyoming Territory, a place of ‘parching winds and hostile Indians’. They were followed by the robber barons of the railroads, by Finnish and Irish immigrants, by game hunters from ‘the elite class of wealthy landowners in the British Isles’ armed with ‘gold-plated bison guns’, and more recently by the heirs of such giant American corporations as Anschutz, Wal-Mart and Campbell’s Foods.

Before that, of course, there were the natives. Her 640 acres are well stocked with their relics — fire-pits, agate knives, obsidian arrowheads — most of them dating from the Late Archaic period, ‘4,600 to 2,000 years BP’ (which stands for ‘Before Present’, ie counting backwards from 1800 AD, which seems an unwieldy and perverse formulation), and she tells the splendid and tragic story of their civilisation with sympathetic rage.

The best thing in Bird Cloud is the last chapter, which she devotes to the local wildlife: porcupines, coyotes, deer, elk, mountain lions, and above all the birds — ducks, geese, ravens, hawks, falcons and eagles. Her neighbours include breeding pairs of both bald and golden eagles, and she writes marvellously about them hunting, fighting, or just playing in the terrible wind. Proulx is a most sensitive and observant pioneer.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

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