Rants from the HillPosted: December 22, 2021
Rants from the Hill: On Packrats, Bobcats, Wildfires, Curmudgeons, a Drunken Mary Kay Lady, and Other Encounters with the Wild in the High Desert
Michael P. Branch
Roost Books (June 6, 2017), 233 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $10.57
Jennifer Cognard-Black offers many examples of skilled essay writers in her Great Courses lecture series Becoming a Great Essayist. One example she provides is the work of Michael P. Branch. She states that Branch’s work originally appeared in a blog when, in fact, it appeared in the online edition of High Country News, so the work is more curated and edited than she suggested.
Rants from the Hill is one collection of those essays and the book proves Cognard-Black correct: Branch knows how to write an essay.
Branch and his wife built a house off the grid on a plot of land at the top of a hill in northwest Nevada, next to Bureau of Land Management territory. This collection centers on his experience in and around the property.
The author writes about finding a douser to help him decide where to drill their well. He writes about deciding to walk a thousand miles a year. Branch describes his wife insisting on his getting a cell phone because of those long walks. He points out that there was only one spot on his walks where there was cell coverage.
Branch describes the extremes in the weather in their part of Nevada and how in the spring their long driveway becomes impassable in the mud. He tells the story of an intoxicated Mary Kay representative coming up the driveway in her pink Cadillac, losing control and ending up on the side of the driveway on a tree stump. She calls someone (presumably her husband) who arrives on the horse and takes her home. The pink Cadillac stayed there until later in the spring when the driveway became passable. Branch doesn’t explain how she got cell phone reception there.
A different time of the year brings the Washoe Zephyr, Branch’s depiction of which exemplifies his skill at description and his ability to turn a phrase:
Calling our ripping Washoe wind a zephyr is a triumph of the sort of ironic understatement that is essential to the American tall-tale tradition. The droll implication of the Washoe Zephyr’s name is that out here in the desert West the landscape is so vast and intense that our version of a gentle breeze is a blast that carries off lumber yards, wheelbarrows, children, and vacant lots.
We read about Branch’s two daughters. They were so pleased with their first daughter, who was so calm and well-behaved, that they considered themselves exemplary parents. So much so that they decided to have another. This one turned out to be the rebellious wild child. Branch writes about having to put his faithful dog down and the sappy poem in the condolence card sent by the vet suggesting that pets would be in some sort of doggy purgatory until their owner arrived to be with them again. He recounts getting a new dog who turned out to be not at all what he expected. (That’s what happens when you pay a breeder rather than getting a rescue.)
Alcohol plays a big part in this book. Branch constantly mentions IPA and whiskey. He obviously assumes that his readers know what IPA is. I didn’t. I needed Google to tell me that he has a fondness for India Pale Ale. He refers to a specific kind of whiskey perhaps one time, so I presume he doesn’t share my fondness for Scotch. In one essay he admits to running his writing through a word cloud, which provides a visual depiction as to how frequently words are used (similar to the category map on your right). His daughters pointed out that their names appeared in much smaller type that “IPA” and “whiskey.” Branch writes that he attempted to remedy that for the version of the essays that appear in this book. Without running the book through a word cloud I will say that I believe he did.
In one essay, which Cognard-Black reads in her lecture series, Branch writes about the American lawn, which for all kinds of reasons is ecologically unfriendly (to say the least). He states that while sustainable native plants surround most of his house, he does have one small patch of lawn, mostly for his daughters.
If you enjoy a well-written essay or if you like reading about life in the deserts of the American West, take a look at Rants from the Hill.