Jeri Parker once said that she built her summer cabin on family land in Idaho, but it never registered that she meant this literally: hammer in hand, from floorboards to ceiling joists. She even dug in the waterline. And in her captivating new memoir, My Seasons of Wilderness, the Salt Lake City writer and fine artist walks us through the process both of the construction (with some help from friends) of the cabin she returns to each June and her personal reawakening following a divorce and other miseries. Utah playwright David Kranes terms the book’s content “gorgeous, touching, funny, spirited.” It is all that, and replete with Parker’s elegant paintings and wildflower illustrations along with vintage photographs of area storefronts. I read it in a gulp.
Parker’s picture of what was going on in June 1969, “a different year from every perspective [not unlike 2020],” is a good reader aid: “The Beatles, the riots, Chappaquiddick, the moon – one small step.” Arriving at her grandmother’s home from her Ogden apartment bruised and world-weary, Parker, then a schoolteacher in her early 30s, is finally ready to build the retreat of her dreams. “Enjoy your life,” says her grandmother, a wise woman Parker describes as “still a celebrant,” and the role model we realize will guide the unsettled writer through the chapters that follow.
Adventure mixes with Emerson and Thoreau as Parker ponders the wonders of the forest and fish-filled rivers surrounding her and begins to take her brushes and easel seriously:
Whenever something involved creativity, I had an instinct not to let go of the element of surprise. I could see that life lived close to opposites, to paradox, to the ability to move back and forth from garden to wilderness, from solitude to society, from controlled to unknown broadened the game. Was it Rollo May who made note of the element of anxiety in creativity, the high price paid in terms of insecurity, sensitivity, defenselessness? I was familiar with those feelings. Picasso was more succinct. “Every act of creation is, first of all, an act of destruction.”
I understood you don’t have to look for something to destroy. It will be there in your path.
What turns out to be hundreds of sheep bleating sound mysteriously ghostlike during one eerie night while Parker and a teacher friend huddle in a tent that offers meager shelter from the elements let alone the elemental – they discover their error only at sunrise; the two young women accept proffered summer jobs at a posh tourist store while shopping for items manifestly way out of their price range; a bear enters Parker’s finished cabin, forcing her to retreat to the loft without the telephone she had just had installed the day prior – fear mixes with awe as she beholds the creature and ponders her own mortality and a way out of her plight; angry young men on very large motorcycles attempt to mow Parker down as an invading Utahn — she stands her ground as a native Idahoan and is nearly killed due to the out-of-state license plates on her Scout. I wish I could relate all this with Parker’s ready wit and nonchalance — not to mention an occasional huffiness, even rage, when she is feeling misunderstood.
Besides using great sentences that build enticing paragraphs, Parker pauses to marvel at unusual words, like “crimp” as she puts a piecrust into a tin. She gives the recipe for her grandmother’s piecrust and an apple filling famous with Salt Lake-area book groups as well as at Wildflowers, the author’s just-sold bed & breakfast near Fresh Market on 1700 South. She ran the B&B with her dear friend Cill Sparks, a retired nurse, who is called upon in the memoir at various significant moments. The author even provides a menu of offerings available at Boondocks, her favorite restaurant cum bookstore in Island Park (also recently named the Best Mom and Pop restaurant in Idaho – eat that Sun Valley!).
This is a tidy tome of just over 200 pages and, while words flow readily from Parker’s fingers on the keyboard, few are wasted. She has several books to her credit (including another memoir, A Thousand Voices, and a novel that resembles one, Unmoored) and this engrossing recollection that more-or-less precedes the others in sequence sparkles. Her shared knowledge of wildlife (deer and squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks come immediately to mind, not to mention the subject of fish) and of the trees that surround her singular cabin are as enriching as following the developing independence and feisty spirit of a woman who conquered the forest alone at a time when women just didn’t.
Winter Beach Press
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.