It might not occur to you to buy 640 acres of land in a remote, windswept corner of Wyoming and build a commodious house on it. But for Annie Proulx, the idea was irresistible — and so was the prospect of capturing the experience in Bird Cloud, a kind of memoir that shares its name with the property.
An evocative writer with a strong sense of place, Proulx has set much of her recent fiction in the contemporary American West. Indeed, she is best known as the author of the dazzling cowboy romance on which the movie Brokeback Mountain was based. Her novel The Shipping News, which won a Pulitzer in 1994, displayed a similar depth of feeling for its Newfoundland setting.
The Bird Cloud land was the site of an old sheep ranch. At the time Proulx purchased it in 2003, it had been owned by The Nature Conservancy since the 1990s. The place was filled with natural wonders: steep sandstone cliffs, a rushing river, all manner of birds and other wildlife. “[It] was beautiful and unique, remote and powerful,” Proulx writes, “and I fell for it, hard. It was also unfenced, surrounded by cattle ranches, without electricity or phone lines anywhere near. But I was in love.”
Bird Cloud is a sort of Western version of the classic movie (and book) Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House — or perhaps its more recent remake, The Money Pit. Much of what could go wrong in the construction of Proulx’s dream house did. Granted, some of the problems faced by the author and her hardy band of builders — the James Gang, she calls them — resulted from the high winds and extreme isolation of the Bird Cloud site. Yet Proulx’s experience will resonate with anyone who has weathered even a minor home renovation.
At one point, Proulx drives to the property to view the newly completed, long-awaited downstairs concrete floor, which had been stained and sealed by a subcontractor. “My God! My God!” she writes. “What a terrible sight. The floor was the color of raw liver and shone greasily as though coated with Vaseline … great sweeping arcs of rough concrete … marred the surface. I did not cry but I felt like it.”
With delays and redos, Bird Cloud’s construction costs went way over budget, repeatedly tempting Proulx to scrap the entire project. “I thought of Jack London,” she confides, “who ruined himself financially, building a house and a ranch.” But she soldiered on, enduring trespassing cows, threatening forest fires, and a herd of deer that came to snack on the clover in her landscaped garden — and stayed on to make a meal of the expensive shrubs freshly planted near the house.
Cowboy-country weather — unpredictable, unforgiving — often plays a key role in Proulx’s short stories. And so it did at Bird Cloud, where the first frost can arrive in August and the wind whips the snow into towering drifts in winter. Proulx, who lives alone, had been assured by The Nature Conservancy real-estate agent that the county road leading to her property got plowed in winter. Turns out it didn’t. That was a major blow, eventually forcing Proulx to relinquish her dream of occupying the house year-round. (She now spends each winter in Santa Fe.)
Bird Cloud is only partly about the building of a house and the making of a home. A good chunk of the book is given over to semi-related topics such as the author’s family tree; Bird Cloud’s history, starting with its acquisition by the Union Pacific Rail Road in the 1860s; and archaeological findings related to the Utes and other peoples who once populated the area. Wherever the author’s fecund mind wanders, the reader willingly follows — up to a point. Beyond that point lie passages, even whole sections, that are drier than prairie dust.
Now 75, Proulx arrived on the literary scene only in her 50s. Until then she had worked as a freelance journalist and a writer of how-to books. She has four grown children — they all appear briefly in Bird Cloud — and three divorces in her past. Yet she guards her private life zealously. There are a few mini-revelations in this quasi-memoir, but fans hoping for big-ticket confessions from the author of the sexually charged Brokeback are in for a letdown.
Still, there’s lively, enlightening material throughout Bird Cloud on such heartland topics as land grants, sheep grazing, cattle ranching, and bird-watching. A closing section on the quirky habits of the resident birds is especially winning.
Then there’s the writing, which is lovely (if sporadically so). After Bird Cloud had been completed, Proulx watched from a picture window in the house as “one of those yellow thunderstorms swept in near sunset with gold light spilling onto the ground …. The cliff went saffron as a candle flame … In the east the towering bulk of the storm was a sulky purple-blue the shade of new denim, but in the west the sky was opening, showing a tender blue like the lining of an antique Chinese robe.”
By the close of Bird Cloud, you understand why, despite the many travails of building a home in the wild, Annie Proulx remains intoxicated by this landscape.
Evelyn Renold is an editorial consultant in New York who grew up on the West Coast.