- Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps
Ted Kooser lives in an area of rural Nebraska known, "with a wink," as the Bavarian Alps. Settled by German and Czech immigrants from Bohemia in the 1870s, it is the edge of Midwest flatland where "hills" of "silty clay and gravely till" no higher than "a hundred feet from bottom to top" dot the terrain. Kooser owns two of these hills and the woods between and lives there with his wife, Kathleen, on a small farm. There in a shack among his nearest neighbors—"coyotes, raccoons, opossums, badgers, field mice, fish, frogs, and birds"—Kooser writes poetry and essays. This is a place where the postmistress in the nearest town attaches sticky notes to the mail that say "Ted and Kathy, your newspaper did not come today, Iris." That, Kooser suggests, is a local wonder, and one "of the thousand reasons" he likes where he lives.
Reading his collection of essays called Local Wonders is a bit like running into Lao Tsu and Confucius in line at the hardware store. A Taoist love of country life permeates the book, which is divided into sections labeled for the seasons of the year. Kooser turns the attentive eye of the poet to a bobcat with "its arched back and its legs hunched up as if it were playing with something, springing upon it and dancing away in the manner of cats." In his barn he looks at old farm machinery and sees a "big bullsnake" hiding there, "bending itself around a big stone. Its spots like cogs." For Kooser, the snake's emergence from the machinery is a transfiguration—another wonder. "Old barns are big enough to hold a lot of miracles."
At the same time the book is filled with aphorisms—pithy sayings that he attributes to the "Bohemians," a name for the Czech immigrants in his [End Page 135] area. Unlike the words of the ancient Chinese master, though, these bon mots are more witty than wise. According to the Bohemians, it "is easy for the satiated man to fast." "'Where sheep are lacking,' say the Bohemians, 'the goats are honored.'" Or, "he who goes seeking other people's sausages often loses his own ham." The sayings are winning, disarming, and intended as a relief from Kooser's more solemn tone. Dropped in here and there throughout the book, they serve, like a joke in the dark, as a reminder of the power and limitations of words. As the Bohemians say, "You may christen a wolf, and he will ask 'which way to the woods.'"
What Kooser discovers in his shack by the woods—a discovery that sets him apart from Thoreau and many other writers on nature—is the nurturing and sustaining power of family in our lives. He puts on a cowboy shirt that his mother made for him when he was 14 and conjures up memories of a woman whose only defense against falling apart when Ted's dad died was her frugality. To "every amenity" that the funeral director proposed she said, "We won't be needing that," her lips trembling. Kooser's dad owned a store and during the press of Christmas—when the young Ted contributed by making bows in the furnace room—he realized that his father occasionally escaped customers by visiting with him in the back room, "his arms hanging as if to let his responsibilities drip from his fingertips." When Kooser gazes at a windfall apple, he sees the image of his grandmother, entering "her shadowy parlor, wearing a shawl against the cold" while his hands, cupping the apple, "are becoming the walls of that room."
Imagination and memory—released by the local wonders of nature—identify us and tell us where we belong in this world. The title appears in several parts of the book, but most memorably in the section on summer when Kooser watches the "very old news" from stars that are a "hundred million" years old. While he watches he sees a bat "like a small rag...