Blanket of snow and sorrow

A poet uncovers the power of love

Dec 28, 2005 at 12:00 am

Poet Jonathan Johnson (author of Mastodon, 80% Complete) has written a love song and elegy about the power of place. In Hannah and the Mountain: Notes Toward a Wilderness Fatherhood, that place is a mountain homestead in northern Idaho. Johnson and his wife Amy give themselves over to building a bare-knuckle cabin on a piece of family land that Johnson laid claim to back when he was a boy of 12.

“Amy and I came to Idaho in part because we wanted ownership, and now that we’re here I’ve found myself questioning just what ownership means. I chose this spot for my home when I was twelve years old while out walking with my grandfather. When I told him it looked like a good sight for a house, he carved my name and the date into the quaking aspen that still stands, now right next to the cabin, and still bares the grown-in but readable scars: Jon’s sight. June 29, 1979.” Like that quaking aspen tree bearing Johnson’s desire, both he and Amy stand tall even though the world tries its very best to take them both out at the knees.

On the surface, Hannah and the Mountain is about not compromising your beliefs to the easy seductions of contemporary living. It would have been easy for the poet to take his Ph.D. and get a comfortable job teaching at a university somewhere in the suburbs of the Rust Belt (Johnson received his Ph.D. from Western Michigan University). Instead, he and Amy choose to build a cabin in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the mountains and the elk and the landscape that has always been home. They build the home of their dreams (made from trees felled by the woodsy, willful, self-reliant Johnson himself) and take up residence just as soon as there is a metal-gabled roof to shelter them from Idaho’s cold, wind, rain and snow. In a cabin with no running water or electricity, with plastic sheeting in the place of bona fide windows (until they can afford to buy, at least on credit, real glass windows) they hunker down to enjoy the winter wonderland.

The narrative seed that, in the beginning at least, begins to rise up and unfold out of this sacred back-to-the-land story is a portrait of young love at its very purest. But life for the couple veers off course, turning unfortunately and terribly tragic. In December of that inaugural winter when Amy and Jonathan dig in together in their unfinished cabin, they receive good news that Amy is pregnant. But soon after, in what is a most painful section of the book to get through because it is so powerfully written (painful, too, for Johnson to write, which is an issue that he addresses in the book: “I don’t know how to write what has happened to us, so I will start with the weather.”), baby Hannah is born, dead, at 22 weeks. It is in the aftermath of this grief that this story finds its finest hour, taking us inside a shipwrecked heart. And it is here that we learn the true lesson of Hannah and the Mountain: how to rebuild a life and a marriage, after so much has been taken away. This is a brave, true book that, like Tolstoy once said, issues forth from a wound — a hole in the heart — that is turned into an instrument of beauty and grace so that sorrow, in the end, is transformed into song.

Peter Markus is a poet and freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected].