Book review: How to Cuss in Western by Michael P. Branch

by Tammy Cloutier
Former Whole Terrain staff

Michael P. Branch’s latest release, How to Cuss in Western (and Other Missives from the High Desert) (Roost Books, 2018), offers readers a variety of short essays about the perils and entertaining moments of life in the high desert. Whole Terrain readers will be eager to read more of Branch’s work after enjoying his humorous and insightful articles in a number of our volumes, mostly recently volume 22, Trust. Lessons and thought provoking stories in How to Cuss in Western range from unspoken rules of communication that occur among rural neighbors (hint: hands never have to leave the steering wheel), to more pensive reflections on “closing” a mountain for the season, and to poignant human interactions along the Truckee River.

Readers immediately get a sense of this grumpy, desert dwelling writer’s love for his family, respect and admiration for the challenging environment he chooses to call home, and his penchant for cold beverages (of which various suggestions can be found throughout the book). Regardless of whether one is laughing about the extreme measures taken to win a fire competition or pondering one of the pressing environmental issues society is facing, Branch offers readers a moment to step away from current worries and obtain a different perspective. One such perspective is a perhaps surprising and somewhat unusual view of flatulence. Who knew it could be labeled as a “symbiotic, interspecies collaboration” (35)?

Although I read Branch’s How to Cuss in Western as I sat unceremoniously crammed between strangers on an overseas flight – while longing for a piece of the solitude and isolation that he repeatedly references – one does not have to be subjected to the discomfort of air travel to appreciate his stories. Branch’s description of how profitable cussing, in Western and other languages, can be, and his use of “humor as a shield” (xv) is a welcome respite in any setting.

Excerpt from “Sir Rantsalot in the Dead Tree Forest”:

Why am I, a confirmed desert rat, about to offer a paean to cutting trees – to cutting them first down and then up? The answer may be found in the intimate relationship between this desiccated, largely treeless arid landscape and the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains, whose eastern slope is carpeted with conifer forests comprised of a variety of lovely tree species, among them white, red, and Douglas fir, incense cedar and western juniper, and ponderosa, Jeffrey, lodgepole and sugar pine. One of the many advantages of our proximity to the Sierra is that it makes it possible for us to augment the warmth produced by our highly efficient passive-solar home with heat generated by burning beetle-killed, sun-dried trees.

I have always loved to fell, limb, buck, split, haul, and stack wood, and I have been heating with wood most of my adult life. There is something deeply satisfying about making a pilgrimage into the forest and returning with a fruit so precious that it flowers a year later in the gentle blossoming flames that warm my daughters as they play or read by the hearth. Think of it as the thermal equivalent of preparing and eating vegetables grown in your own garden. That may be a sentimental take on a backbreaking form of labor that is performed amid the roar of a chainsaw and the smell of diesel fuel and sawdust. But I truly love cutting, so much so that I do it not only to heat our home but also to avoid doing pretty much anything else I ought to be doing instead. The expansive woodpiles strewn along the half-mile-long driveway up to Ranting Hill make plain how wonderfully I have succeeded in using cutting to evade the pesky, endless round of adult responsibilities.

In addition to offering an escape from the scurrying of grown-up life, woodcutting also has the advantage of being ridiculously gear intensive. It isn’t just the pickup truck, dump trailer, chainsaws, bars, chains, gas, oil, screnches, wedges, field axes, and files, but also the stylish safety apparel. To begin with, there is the standard-issue, head-to-toe Carhartt in the classic, monkey-poop brown. I have graduated from ordinary work gloves to gel-palmed chainsaw gloves, with wraparound Velcro wrist straps; whenever I put them on, I feel like I am about to win the Indy 500. I have also traded in my steel-toed work boots for titanium-toed boots, which provide the same protection, but are lighter and, more important, sound cool…. In the area of eye protection, I have improved my look over time, from the boxy, safety goggles of a high-school chemistry student to the reflector shades of an undercover cop to the tinted wraparounds of the professional bass fisherman. My final step has been to go for the full headgear: a bright orange hard hat, with attached ear protection and stylish nylon mesh visor, which makes me look like a blaze orange medieval knight.

To read more, pre-order your copy of How to Cuss in Western, set to be released on August 28, 2018.


Bio: Michael P. Branch, whose doctorate is from the University of Virginia (1993), is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is a co-founder and past president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and he served for sixteen years as the Book Review Editor of the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. He is a co-founder and series co-editor of the University of Virginia Press book series Under the Sign of Nature: Explorations in Ecocriticism. His books include The Height of Our MountainsJohn Muir’s Last Journey, and Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing before Walden. Author of more than 200 articles, essays, and reviews in a variety of environmental and popular magazines, and the recipient of many awards and honorable mentions, Branch has given more than 250 invited lectures and readings. His essays are frequently comic and often focus on arid landscapes and on parenting. New additions to his widely read essay series, “Rants from the Hill,” were published monthly for a number of years at High Country News until April 2016. Mike lives with his wife and two young daughters at “Piedmont,” a passive solar home of their own design at 6,000 feet in the high desert north of Reno, where the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada meet. Mike’s newest books, Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness (2016) and Rants from the Hill: On Packrats, Bobcats, Wildfires, Curmudgeons, a Drunken Mary Kay Lady, and Other Encounters with the Wild in the High Desert (2017), include many of these High Country News essays.

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