Leslie T. Sharpe will drive across the Catskills from Delaware County Saturday, April 1, to read at the Golden Notebook, 29 Tinker Street, Woodstock, at 4 p.m. She’ll undoubtedly head up and over several mountain passes on her way, skirt several reservoirs, and spy the last evidence of old quarrying roads on local slopes, given prominence by the way such places hold snow this time of year. Once she arrives in Woodstock, she’ll likely sigh as she glimpses Overlook and thinks of the many critters she’s encountered there, and elsewhere in our eastern portion of the same mountains she inhabits on a wilder side.
Sharpe’s going to be reading from her new book, The Quarry Fox: And Other Critters of the Wild Catskills, from Overlook Press. She was previously known, as an author, for Editing Fact and Fiction, which I’ve heard about as a key resource for anyone who loves to write. And as both vice president for the New York City Audubon Society and editor of The Urban Audubon, that organization’s lively and smart newsletter.
The Quarry Fox is an amazing work, as much a clarion call announcing a quietly strong new voice in nonfiction writing and reflection as a key work about this unique region we call home. Sharpe is a methodical observer, a careful walker of woods, a strong memoirist of all she encounters. Moreover, she is a keen analyst of the world around her, mixing a steady, patient eye for how things are with both a scientist’s love for solid research and a theologian, or maybe an alchemist’s way of getting at often unseen truths.
“Being a true naturalist also means being objective. On the mountain I try (and at times even struggle) to balance my passion for the black bears, bluebirds, and bobcats, among all sorts of critters, with the dispassion necessary to record the drama of their everyday lives with objectivity,” she writes at the start of this dense but mesmerizingly enjoyable book. “I am the first to admit that I sometimes break my own first naturalist’s rule — ‘never fall in love with wild animals’ — not only to avoid sentimentality in writing about them but to escape the heartbreak of discovering a cottontail rabbit, the one with the nip in its ear, companion of my gardening days, dead in the driveway where a hunting red-tail hawk has dropped it. Nature, whose only mandate is species survival, does not play favorites and has no regard for our own particular affections.”
The Quarry Fox moves with its own sense of order. Stories unfold the way a forest does when walking through it. Or, as you get deeper into what Sharpe’s doing here, as a forest one has walked many times reveals itself in moments of recognition, moments of eternal bafflement and surprise, and an almost mystical sense of life unfurling its codes before you. There’s a chapter that captures this time of year, “Waiting for Spring,” perfectly. Another about the fright our floods bring periodically. A piece that keeps centering around to bobcats, another properly honoring, and celebrating, black bears. Plus the ways in which all Catskills seasons hold their own secrets, yet speak each to each.
At the center of it all sits “The Quarry Fox,” an essay that is in itself spectacular yet seemingly slow paced until it’s grabbed and transformed you, the way not only Sharpe, but other quarrying visitors to her woods, have gotten to know and be charmed by the animal.
“There is no human activity that goes unnoticed by many eyes, where critters are always watching for predators, and for prey. I am still disquieted by my encounter with the fox several days ago — not by its proximity, for I realized the fox wasn’t rabid. But by what I saw in its eyes — those amber eyes glittering with intelligence — that longing, that desire to comprehend, perhaps even to connect. Had I seen in the fox’s eyes anything other than what I wanted to see? Can we ever read the expressions of wild animals fairly, without attributing to them our own emotions?”
Ever fold over pages in a book, wanting to return to them, only to find you’ve folded everything (sort of like underlining things in college until there’s more underlined than not)? Those lines were in the middle of this chapter/essay. And it kept building — through Aesop’s fables, coyote science, a season’s passing, descriptions of whole worlds that flourish between night and day, and a moment when the fox seems to lead the author through a new part of her land to a shared discovery.
And to think, this bit of perfect writing sits perfectly placed like a jewel in the midst of a gentle, thoughtful book filled with much more of the same, all yielding different experiences, yet all as radiant as, well, a wild forest.
“Things I have learned living in the Catskills,” Leslie T. Sharpe writes at the end of that same story for which this book is named. “I have learned that nature will overcome. I have learned about the power of water. I have learned the wind is ceaseless. I have learned that cold can burn. I have learned that death is common; it is life that is extraordinary. I have learned to always wear denim and boots, a wide-brimmed hat and leather gloves when working — and hiking — on the mountain. I have learned it takes true courage to love wild critters.”++
Leslie T. Sharpe reads from The Quarry Fox: And Other Critters of the Wild Catskills at 4 p.m. Saturday, April 1, upstairs at Golden Notebook, 29 Tinker Street in Woodstock. For more information call 679-8000 or see www.goldennotebook.com.