- How to Cuss in Western (And Other Missives from the High Desert) by Michael P. Branch
These deft essays remind me of Patrick McManus, a former novelist and humorist for Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, and other such monthlies. He collected his writings in books that began with A Fine and Pleasant Misery in 1978. Not that Mike Branch sounds like McManus; rather, he’s part of an enduring procession of outdoor journalists. From 2010 to 2016, for High Country News, Branch wrote an online column he dubbed “Rants from the Hill.” There he described life with his wife and daughters on six-thousand-foot-high “Ranting Hill.” The family came down from the hilltop to reside again in Reno in 2018, the same year Patrick McManus passed away.
Ordeals of biblical proportions afflicted the Branch family during its hilltop sojourn. Roads washed out, wildfires forced retreats, gophers and packrats pestered, snowstorms hurled down. Their solar abode caught fire. Such accounts blur and blend with those in the sister volumes Raising Wild (2016) and Rants from the Hill (2017). The family underwent a fine and pleasant misery in the high Nevada desert.
Branch is a friend and sometime editor who cofounded the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. He brings great erudition to the granite and sage where this book took root. [End Page 94] One essay in How to Cuss in Western casts his aesthetic into high relief. “Pleistocene Rewilding” argues that Ice Age animals ought to be brought back to the intermountain West. “I hold no truck with the argument that we should not introduce these megafauna because they are dangerous,” he quips (164). The sentence presents an apt equation for Branch himself, who mixes highbrow diction and lowbrow commotion in his offhand explorations of arid Nevada.
Just as the ancients chased acclaim on that mountain named Parnassus, Branch sought inspiration in the Silver Hills that serve as the setting for most of these short essays. The locale will invite comparisons to Mark Twain, who lit out early for the Nevada Territory with his brother Orion and peppered Roughing It (1872) with tall tales. Twain gave an angry bison the ability to climb a tree and a coyote the speed to activate a sonic boom. He poured on self-deprecation when he tried to quit smoking. Branch pours IPA, rye whisky, and a frequent “tumbler of sour mash” (168) while enjoying the domestic life.
His gift for humor arises in well-turned phrases and ironic scenes. In “Shit Happens,” a rowdy account of digging for a lost and forgotten septic tank, he likens the tank’s four-year pump-out cycle to our presidential elections (97). Elsewhere he confesses grudging and curmudgeonly affection for his daughter’s hedgehog, after dubbing the prickly critter “that most precious of Christmas miracles: an unwanted pet” (168). He tunes a golden ear to language sounds in the meditative essay “Lone Tree,” where he writes, “I zigzag stealthily through the sage maze toward its welcoming shade” (77).
Like Antaeus in Greek mythology, Branch is best when he’s in close contact with planet Earth. Indoor settings—a Department of Motor Vehicles office, for instance, or a Reno casino—slow the pace and blunt the wit. His outdoor scenes, though, writhe with life. One of the most tender and accomplished among them is “Desert River Music.” With a guitarist friend in downtown Reno, he blows harmonica in an impromptu concert for homeless folks. Another essay, a broad satire in the tradition of Twain, takes as its title “Will the Real Fake John Muir Please Stand Up?” The narrative transports readers to a Chautauqua whose outdoor entertainers impersonate the immigrant Scotsman Muir by sporting beards and brogues with [End Page 95] varying degrees of authenticity. Branch makes his narrator a strict inquisitor who flushes out the phoniest of the fake John Muirs.
If you do not know which to prefer, the erudite storyteller with the massive vocabulary, or the good old boy who confesses he...