Faith of cranes: finding hope and family in Alaska.
Review from the Fall 2011 issue of Discoveries
Some thoughts on Eastern & Western American manhood
I’ve recently read 2 books about modern-day Daniel Boones—guys who turned their backs on the American Dream and headed into the woods, to take their spiritual and bodily sustenance more directly from nature. Both are characters you’d want to have been hanging out with if fears of Y2K had proven better grounded. Both are in prime manhood: feral, supremely skilled, with charisma sometimes ironically bestowed upon those whose goals and lifestyles might seem in little need of it. One is Appalachian, salvaging ecological sanity in the land that Boone emasculated. The other is as Western as the continent gets, reveling in its last healthy old-growth.
Other divergences may stem partially from that geographic divide. Megalomania, and attraction to it, for example, seems more of an eastern preoccupation. A premise of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man, her biography of Eustace Conway, is that America’s Daniel Boones, in whatever century, seek wilderness for solace and refuge from dysfunctional fathers. Their drive for perfection in every endeavor is hounded deep into adulthood by a warped parent who withheld love and praise throughout childhood. The result: talent so unique and newsworthy that a famous Manhattan author (Eat, pray love) writes your life story; flocks of idealistic disciples follow you into the woods; and true to your patriarchal curse, your girlfriend cycle is more Hollywood than hillbilly.
A fascinating hypothesis, and masterfully told tale, non-fiction, no doubt, as far as it goes. But I’d urge Elizabeth Gilbert to expand her sample size beyond Boone, Crockett and Conway, and consider alternate motives for a life in nature. She might especially enjoy an evening of belly laughs with Alaska’s answer to Eustace, named Hank Lentfer, author of Faith of cranes: finding hope and family in Alaska. Full disclosure: I’m a longtime friend of Hank’s, thus unqualified to fairly compare him with an eastern celebrity woodsman I never met. I’m additionally handicapped by aversion to gurus, preferring to take my nature in company of normal, relaxed people who go there just because it’s so danged beautiful, so obviously, the place where we belong.
That said, it must be acknowledged that Hank Lentfer is not normal. His heart is probably too alpine for anything east of the Mississippi. He tracked that heart wherever it led, while others gradually grew up, letting the trail go cold. Hank is maybe the most un-warped person I’ve ever known. Unlike Eustace’s, Hank’s wolfskin-parka childhood was privileged and loving, and he fledged to cheers from Mary and Jack,“expressing pride with every oddball, unconventional choice I have made.”
Hank’s torment is not his personal past, but the wilderness-gobbling future his daughter will inherit. How do you joyfully face that future? Most of us lack the grounding to graphically appreciate how diminished and tragic our future could (will) be. Still, mere intuition of our fate requires for many a denial that mutes pure joy. Hank has seen the best and worst the planet can offer. He knows the cost of a Leopoldian education: to live in a world of wounds. But this rain-forest woodsman, constitutionally incapable of denial, nevertheless made a promise to his unborn child—that the future would not break him; he’d be the rock for her that his father was to him. There’d be laughter, lot, in Linnea’s childhood.
And after that, cheers for every choice. Hank Lentfer’s offering to the freight-train future is alert, comic happiness. Homegrown spuds, hospice work, practical jokes, communal saunas, land stewardship, cross-party friendships, size-14 high heels, and an annual rendezvous with Earth’s loveliest mammal, Sitka black-tailed deer; all are elements of Hankster’s robust survival plan. As for cranes, faith to Hank is more trajectory than doctrine, an anthem you just can’t help singing, even over cornfields, because a windpipe longer than your body will not be silenced, and you’re fat from Alaskan marshes, and it’s time to fly.
Perhaps most remarkably, as his flight took on the sharing of ideas about wild hearts, community, and right-livelihood, Hank Lentfer swiftly emerged as one of Alaska’s funniest and deepest writers. Maybe his can-do persona does resemble that of Eustace Conway, who belatedly mastered horsemanship to a degree life-long equiphiles must find exasperating. Conway’s biographer, the “bride-of-writing” Gilbert, says “I built my entire life around writing.” Hank Lentfer built his life around a woman, a girl, and the faith of cranes. The writing flows from that, sweet as water from a limestone spring.