Summer Chronicles 2019 #5: The Wonder of the Wild World

by on July 22, 2019 · 0 comments

in Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

For me, memories of summer always start with the smell of a campfire in the deep woods. As a young boy, I found there was nothing more fun than my family’s camping trips up in the Redwoods where we’d park in our site, get the tear-drop trailer set up, and start the fire.

I remember pulling in late at night with a million stars out, the cold air biting my cheeks, and feeling like I was in some magical place as wonderfully far away from my Los Angeles home as I could imagine.

Engulfed by the darkness and the looming trees, the stars above shone like diamonds inviting me to see the reality of the heavens outside of my urban bubble with its light pollution that concealed the vast universe from me in my daily life.

It was a place commensurate with my capacity to dream.

But that smell of dense woodsmoke and hot dogs sizzling on sticks over the fire with the crack and pop of the building flames is the most primally resonant memory, so much so that it almost immediately pulls me back into the mind of my child self when I revisit it today.  Along with the smell of the fire and the simple food we cooked over it came the glorious worlds inside of worlds that rose and fell in the flames as they flitted before my eyes like Shiva’s dance.  Perhaps nothing took me deeper into myself as a child than staring at that red-hot phantasm with its seductive promise of constant becoming.

At night, I would lie listening for sounds in the woods, hoping that every rustle in the foliage surrounding our campsite was a bear prowling just outside the walls of the trailer.  With the morning came the ethereal first light filtering though the canopy of tree branches, making the forest glow.  And, after breakfast, my father and I would always hike for miles on trails that were roads of endless adventure.  We would see deer, racoons, chipmunks, elk, and even the occasional black bear in the distance.

A bear like a mythical god!

Just to see one was, for me, beyond anything in my experience until then.  It was the wonder of wonders, this beast full of mystery and menace.  The mixture of excitement and fear was pure exhilaration.  Of course, the bear would almost always make a quick retreat, teasing me with mere seconds of amazement—but still enough of a taste to whet my appetite for more.

When we weren’t hiking, my father would introduce me to things I’d never thought of doing in L.A.—fishing for dinner, using an axe to cut wood, whittling on sticks with his old hunting knife.  All of these things were rites of passage of sorts in my boyhood.  They are things I still remember quite fondly.

Sometimes my father would tell stories about his own boyhood in Michigan years before—about white birch trees, boating on the Great Lakes, and hunting for deer (which I’m glad we never did in California).  He told me these things with a sweet tinge of nostalgia that made me think of Michigan with its fireflies and thunderstorms, as a great ancestral homeland.  Later we would go on long family road trips back there before my grandfather died, and I would see the lakes and mow the half acre lawn on a tractor and feel the sticky, humid summer air on my skin.

I still recall the smell of the fresh cut grass and the muck from the lake by the side of the boathouse.

Not too long after those days, my grandfather died, the family sold the house off the lake in Michigan, and things went wrong for my father.  Once he lost his job, he bottomed out and died after years of alcoholism.  In the end, he didn’t have much to leave me but that old hunting knife.  I held it dearly until it disappeared on a camping trip to the same woods where I had stared into the fire as a young boy and lost myself in the wonder of the wild world.

I hope some other boy found it and learned how to whittle wood but not kill a deer.


In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil (The Brazilian News) not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil.  As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes.  The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”

What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.”  As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.”  It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.

More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less—I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with three novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe.  Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector.  So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”

Nonetheless the urge to narrate persists. Along with Lispector, I am cursed with it–for better or worse. So, for a few lazy weeks of summer I will, as I have for a few years now, try my hand at the form.


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