Utah Lit: Urban woman stakes a claim in the Wyoming woods
Utah Lit • In “Seven Summers,” Salt Lake professor recounts staking a claim in Wyoming woods.

By Ellen Fagg Weist

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: May 30, 2014 11:56AM
Updated: May 24, 2014 02:10PM
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Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune "After a period of land-baron exuberance, I had to ask myself, 'What on earth have I done?'," Julia Corbett writes in her memoir “Seven Summers: A Naturalist Homesteads in the Modern West.” “I knew how to hike and backpack and basically play in the woods, but not how to live there, let alone build there.”

First came Julia Corbett’s childhood dream to live in the woods. Some three decades later, the University of Utah professor started building on that dream when, in 2002, she bought 10.3 acres of high-elevation property in rural Wyoming.

Next came the remorse, perhaps a familiar feeling to any home or property owner. “After a period of land-baron exuberance, I had to ask myself, “What on earth have I done?” Corbett writes in her memoir “Seven Summers: A Naturalist Homesteads in the Modern West.” “I knew how to hike and backpack and basically play in the woods, but not how to live there, let alone build there.”

Corbett worried about money, she worried about water, and she worried about whether she had the moxie to supervise the construction of her cabin alone, without a husband or a partner.

What she didn’t question was her desire to live, at least part of the year, away from the city. Away, in Corbett’s case, translates to a wooded meadow a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City, 50 minutes from the nearest grocery store and, in the opposite direction, 30 minutes from her post-office box. “It was about me as a country mouse living as a city mouse, feeling suffocated in a city that was never quiet, never dark, that smelled of metal and oil and was packed with structures that blocked the sun and wind,” she writes. “It closed in on me; it created a busy, dizzy hum in my head.”

Friends and colleagues, even her retired chemistry professor father in Iowa, asked if she felt safe in the woods. “Getting into the wild for me is not hard,” Corbett says in an interview. “I feel more of my true self when I’m there than I ever do in the city. The cabin building part? That was harder than I anticipated, and that’s probably a good thing. I had just enough naïveté and enough passion to take the leap.”

Inspired by Thoreau’s sister • “Seven Summers” tracks one women’s quietly fierce journey to stake a claim for herself in the woods. It weaves together a naturalist’s careful notes about the land and its wildlife, as well as sharper observations about rural Cowboy State residents and workmen, and the conventional thinking of her nature-challenged students back in Salt Lake City.

With a scholar’s love of context, Corbett draws insight from the experiences of an earlier century of female homesteaders and imagines being inspired not by Thoreau, but by his sister.

The book is informed by a childhood spent roaming the woods near her family’s home in Ames, Iowa, as well as her earlier work as a reporter, park ranger and naturalist. She writes about her crushes on animals, from sandhill cranes and great gray owls to the companionship offered by her pets.

Perhaps more unusual for an academic is Corbett’s exploration of her interior journey as she’s learning to wield her own chainsaw, embrace her contradictions and overcome the grief of coming into midlife as a single woman.

It’s the melding of those contrasting voices — the clinical, detached observations of nature with gut-wrenching interior honesty — that’s the real accomplishment of the book, says Debora Threedy, Corbett’s writing colleague.

“This book is brave on so many levels,” says Threedy, a U. law professor and playwright who read multiple drafts as part of Corbett’s writing group. “It’s brave in taking on the building of the cabin. It’s brave in putting her personal stuff out there. And it’s brave as it’s part of her transformation as a scholar.”

It’s also an important addition to the genre of New West writing, in “the way it models strong women doing hard things in wild places,” writes Jeffrey Mathes McCarthy in a review to be published in the Western Literature Association journal.

Catching the light • In the beginning, Corbett bought an old mobile home so she could camp on her land. She spent her first days observing the sun, listening to birds, noting breezes and the shadows throughout the day.

That’s how she determined where she would site the cabin on the meadow: “Southwest of the knoll, tucked down by the aspens, where the sweet light clattering of their leaves was such music. Big windows would face the wide-open west and catch the last light of the day.”

Later that summer, she hired a well-recommended well driller who first wanted to come out and water-witch the site, which the communication professor wasn’t really sure she believed in.

During those first summers, she lived without electricity or cell or wireless connections. Once a week, she would drive into town for provisions, where she would regale friends via email with stories of her Wyoming adventures. Their responses helped her realize she had struck a chord, even with people who didn’t have the desire to build their own cabins.

Eventually, she wrote a chapter called “Blackwater Run,” about making runs to dump the mobile home’s smelly holding tanks, which led to her installing a porta-potty under a fir tree for “elimination al fresco.” That was the first section of what eventually became the memoir “Seven Summers,” published last year by University of Utah Press.

The chapter ends with the party she threw in her third summer, where neighbors helped her celebrate the first flush in the throne in her cabin. “When I flush, I still think sometimes about the journey of my waste down the pipes, into the big yellow septic tank, then spilling down the hill and out into the drain field at the bottom of the meadow,” she writes, adding that she is comforted by knowing where her waste rests.

Through the seven summers it took to build her cabin, one of Corbett’s personal mottos changed from “How hard can it be?” to “It takes as long as it takes.”

“It’s humorous that the learning curve for things like caulk and tar are so steep,” she says. “But in a roundabout way it has enriched me, whether I ever do those things again. The process teaches you not just about caulk, but about how things unfold, and how you approach a task, how you problem solve.”

Beyond a writer’s personal journey, the book sounds universal notes in calling readers to pay attention to nature around them, not just for university professors who migrate to the woods, but also for city dwellers.

Corbett’s book also challenges our long-held myths of what it means to live in the West. “I think it’s important to focus on what the West is becoming, but crucially not to lose sight of those pieces and elements of the West we cherish and need to take care of,” she says.

ellenf@sltrib.com

facebook.com/ellen.weist

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