Chances are, Terry Osborne will read this book review one day. And waiting there with him will be The Voice - the vicious inner critic that has accompanied him not only through the 10 years of life he describes in Sightlines, but for all of his conscious life. A voice that has offered - almost incessantly - unsolicited, unwanted, and mostly unabashedly hostile commentary on his every move. How, then, does one write a critique - no matter how good - knowing that it will be but fodder for the harshest of all judges: the one within? What can you say, knowing that every word could be picked, twisted, and turned into a cruel missive against the one whose work you aim to appreciate?
I suppose, an answer to these questions might arise from a fuller understanding of the needs and fears from which such voices arise in the first place. I'd hazard to say that Terry Osborne's at least feeds on the fear of death, of utter and ultimate loneliness, on chafing questions about the meaning of a hard life, on doubts about his rightful place in the world. Not sure I'm even close, I reluctantly concede: Well, but such are The Ways of The Voice. It will spin these words - no matter how cleverly and carefully selected. Maybe, on a good day, it will respond only from a "yes, but" stance. On the more common days, it will stubbornly nag and dismiss this accomplishment. Yet on others, it will be more strategically hateful and undercutting. But at its worst, it will lead him, over and again - like a deer at dusk - to lick the sharp salt of disdain. Given that, given such persistent mockery, such torturous internal chatter, that this book exists at all is sheer miracle.
Sightlines - an improbable, but most needed testimony about life with enduring depression - is not an easy read, even though it reads well. Some 80 pages into it, I jotted down one word to capture not just what felt like the essence of the two main story lines but also the essence of my experience reading them: "befriending." A young man from Chicago and recent neophyte in north-central Vermont befriending the landscape around his home; a writer, professor, husband, and new father of two sons - befriending the harsh territory of his emotions; and this reader - eager yet wholly unprepared for such literary intimacy - befriending a frequently painful, pitilessly honest and disturbing, yet also surprisingly soothing telling of these two interwoven stories.
But Sightlines is more than two parallel stories. It is one - of multiple integrations. Technically, it is the integration of several previously published excerpts with new material into a coherent, albeit not chronologically told story. Structurally, it is the integration of nine chapters grouped around landscape elements (land, water, air - somewhat akin to another Vermonter's classic work: George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature) into the historically contingent, vivid picture of a place. More to the point, it is the integration of an outer and inner exploration where that of the upper Connecticut River landscape becomes metaphor for that of the author's inner world (and to some extent vice versa). However, to read these interlaced story lines merely as mirrors, as metaphors, would be too easy, and maybe even miss the deeper message of this book altogether. The point Terry makes is one of inescapable inter-relatedness, or - as Joanna Macy calls it - of radical interdependence of humans and non-human nature. "Like a butterfly that has opened its wings after holding them together on its back, the bridge [across the Connecticut River] with its reflection seems not doubled, but finally whole, a halved thing unfolded" (p.225).
Unfolded, Sightlines makes also whole of time, integrating past, present and future, merging them by way of the natural forces and lives that have shaped the valley. In the process, we view that valley from various angles - a balloon above, a ditch below, and across in all directions - drawing different sightlines, as it were, across space and eventually integrating them all into a three-dimensional mental map. Simultaneously, we witness the integration of a critical internal voice - necessarily and fortunately apart from the core of a man - into the more fluid if complex chorus that is Terry Osborne. Occasionally playing at the dangerous edge of anthropomorphism and environmental determinism, Sightlines even integrates material being and tangible artifact with spiritual essence. With rich metaphors and often ironic symbolism providing the glue, it is unquestionably due to Osborne's crafty ingenuity, baffling courage, and self-reflective humility that this multi-faceted integration succeeds.
To be sure though - it is the resulting oneness that makes Sightlines a nightmare for any bookseller. Not because it wouldn't sell, but because it isn't easily apparent from which shelf it should be sold. The most obvious shelf would be the one that had nature writing on one end and psychology on the other, placing it somewhere in the still little known middle ground of ecopsychology. But
Because for a geographer the book is of interest just as well - not as a scholarly work but as an exposé - falling somewhere between landscape ecology, historical cultural geography and humanist phenomenology. A psychologist could look for it among the individual-focused or the family-systems approaches, while a therapist or client scanning the self-help section (heaven forbid!) may look amongst the volumes on depression as well as in the "Challenges of Parenting" section. And even the professional writer or student of literary genres starting from the non-fiction end of the shelf would have to work her way toward fiction. For - of course, the material for this autobiographical account is rooted in lived reality, yet one of the lessons Sightlines teaches is that even the life told in unsparing honesty makes only for a partial story, for less than the whole truth.
We meet a depressed and unpredictably angry man who affects his family in painful and lasting ways through his illness; we witness a man swearing, hurting, shouting, withdrawing; we become intimate with a man whose public facade barely disguises awkwardness, rawness, embarrassment, ignorance, inconsistency. Not an easy, or easily likable character - albeit one that suspicion would tell us is more common than we might admit. This man may as well be your neighbor. Yet this same man is also steadfastly loved by his admirably resilient wife and their two children; that same man dedicates his first book not only to his Beloved, but also to his faithful companion present throughout the book - his dog; this man has friends enough to fill more than three pages of acknowledgments; he is a published writer, revered teacher and Senior Lecturer at Dartmouth College, a man - in short - who clearly has solid and solidly loveable traits, but we barely learn about those. Sure, we get glimpses of humor, of deep caring, of enduring commitment and an obviously intensely creative mind, but the man emerging from this non-fictional chronicle - while compelling and real - is still an invention-by-omission. Would, this insight made us all more compassionate witnesses of our own versions of ourselves and others!
So, make no mistake - it's unlikely that you will succeed reading Sightlines from the safe distance of an intellectual observer. Just as Terry Osborne has a need to impose geometrical order and symmetry on the terra incognita he explores, so you and I may feel a need to locate Sightlines in the cross-hair of intellectual disciplines. But the true experience of reading this book runs far deeper. Through his voice, his eyes, his feelings and observations, we enter into his outer and inner landscapes, this unpretentious, not-so-pretty life, and in the process are left deeply impacted. For those of us in need of a book of courage and hope, for those of us living similarly imperfect lives but who have only TV masks and magazine cover faces as models, this book offers not only a "promising outlook" but is required reading.
So, if I am even just half right about Osborne's Voice - the one that has been listening to this book review, commenting and editing - then I may as well speak directly to It and say this: "Listen! Back off! Terry has made his mark. He's made a difference, and not just to this reader. All of us who must listen to voices like you, should read this book, will want its gifts. At the very least, I know of two young men who will - in years to come - need this book, like their father needed the land, to better understand themselves, heal some, and open their wings, like butterflies, to finally become whole. And that will be more, more, more than enough."
© 2001 Susanne C. Moser, Ph.D. First Serial Rights. Susi is a geographer by training interested in the relationship between humans and their environment. She currently works as a staff scientist for climate change in the Global Environment Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists She is also trained in the body-oriented and spiritual healing practices used in the Opening the Heart workshops (formerly held at Spring Hill, Ashby, MA) and in ecopsychology. Ecopsychology views personal, mental, and global, environmental health as inextricably linked and offers healing approaches that aim -- by attending to the connection between the two -- to restore the self-world wholeness. Since 1998, Susi has been the Project Director of the Ecopsychology Study Group at the Center for Psychology and Social Change's Ecopsychology Institute in Cambridge, MA.