Bryson, Bill: I’m a Stranger Here Myself

I took the train from Albany to Boston yesterday, which reminded me of this passage from Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself (a.k.a. Notes from a Big Country), about fall in New England:

Forgive me if I seem a tad effusive, but it is impossible to describe a spectacle this grand without babbling. Even the great naturalist Donald Culross Peattie, a man whose prose is so dry you could use it to mop spills, totally lost his head when he tried to convey the wonder of a New England autumn.

. . . Peattie drones on . . . in language that can most generously be called workmanlike . . . but when he at last turns his attention to the New England sugar maple and its vivid autumnal regalia, it is as if someone has spiked his cocoa. In a tumble of breathless metaphors he described the maple’s colors as “like the shout of a great army . . . like tongues of flame . . . like the mighty, marching melody that rides upon the crest of some symphonic weltering sea and, with its crying song, gives meaning to all the calculated dissonance of the orchestra.”

“Yes, Donald,” you can just about hear his wife saying, “now take your medication, dear.”

Even though towards Albany most of the leaves were off the trees, it was still an astonishingly pretty trip. Further into Massachusetts, more of the trees had their foliage, turning the rolling hills of the Berkshires into beautiful tapestries. The oft-leisurely pace of the train gave me ample time to consider the scenery, while taking breaks from reading Criminal Procedure (hey, I read over 200 pages of my textbook yesterday, my eyes deserved some breaks). I particularly liked the red fire hydrant sitting by all itself in a small grassy clearing in the woods; as best I could tell, the closest house was a quarter-mile away—on a pond. And the rusted farm equipment was more than compensated for by the thirty or so buffalo peacefully grazing in a field . . .

(The train ride itself was surprisingly pleasant, even for me—I usually prefer trains because I can read on them, whereas it’s even odds that just looking at a map in a moving car will make me ill. Because, I think, it was continuing from Chicago, there was even more leg room than usual, plus little footrests attached to the back of the seat in front of you and leg rests that flipped up from the edge of the seat bottom; it was basically a reclining chair without the remote control. I particularly liked this because I’m shorter than average and, consequently, most seats are a little longer than is comfortable. There were even curtains on the windows—and free soda and sandwiches. Granted, we were two hours late, but one can’t have everything.)

I flipped through the rest of Bryson’s book while looking for that quote. There’s some good stuff there, but the thing about collections of a weekly newspaper column is, as Bryson notes in the introduction, the column has to be written every week. This often shows. In particular, a few columns have that forced, trying-to-give-Dave-Barry-a-run-for-his-money feel, which doesn’t really work for me. A Walk in the Woods remains his best work, which I recommend to everyone.

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