- Rants from the Hill: On Packrats, Bobcats, Wildfires, Curmudgeons, a Drunken Mary Kay Lady, and Other Encounters with the Wild in the High Desert by Michael P. Branch
Michael P. Branch’s new collection of essays, Rants from the Hill, is drawn from his regular column (with the same title) for High Country [End Page 137] News. Roost Books seems to be marketing the book as comic writing, and, while it’s indeed funny, to do so is to overlook some of what the book does best. Branch writes with a truly local sensibility. He admits to being a transplant—a former dweller of hills and swamps moved to the high desert. He does not completely fit in with the natives, as he reveals in “Customer Cranky,” in which some of his hifalutin literary magazines are, presumably in his best interest, kept from him by possibly well-meaning postal employees. But if he is an invasive species, he is certainly a well-established one. In what may be a perfect metaphor for his rootedness in Nevada, Branch writes in “Wild Christmas Pinyon” of his family’s tradition of finding their Christmas tree in the native scrub. A tradition that began far from the high desert is reinterpreted in a regionally appropriate manner. Instead of using a picture perfect tree imported from somewhere with rain or, worse, an artificial tree, the family bends their traditions to their current environment, rather than the other way around. (In fairness to Branch’s humility, see “Lawn Guilt” and “Balloons on the Moon” for moments in which he admits to not conforming to the land.)
At its best this book lends to Nevada the sort of sacred quality that good stories give to places. Reading it left me caring about a place I did not know and have never seen. In this sense, Branch’s work seems best positioned next to the work of authors like Roy Bedichek, Archie Carr, and John Graves—writers who tell good stories about specific places. The majority of the essays are not reaching for the stars; they’re simply amusing, thought-provoking explanations of life in Nevada. “Planting the Dog,” “Singing Mountain,” and “Out on Misfit Flats” all shine in this regard. Branch’s admiration for this particular place bleeds through. But there are moments of profundity, too. A description of one elder’s understanding of the world and his people in “After Ten Thousand Years” is beautiful and has played around in my mind ever since I read the book. And while “The Ghosts of Silver Hills” is a lightly written piece, it does a fine job of drawing connections between us and those who came before us.
In short, this book fits in well with the hyperlocal tradition of nature writing. Branch knows about something beautiful and [End Page 138] wants to share it. Given that it’s drawn from a collection of columns, it lends itself well to reading in snatches—something that can be enjoyed in brief bits of time, not a tome that demands to be dramatically processed. Rants from the Hill might fit well on a western nature writing syllabus, or selected essays might find a home in a broader course, but it’s mostly just a pleasure to read.