Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Verlyn Klinkenborg

This is how to look at animal tracks in the snow:

"I never see a truly straight track. There is always a bend in it, as if curiosity was a kind of lateral gravity, always pulling the creature off course. But then I remember that “off course” is a human conceit. Judging by the tracks I see, there is no going so hard that one has to go straight. I can’t begin to guess what was gathered in the meander of a 'foxprint' along the river ice. The fox knows, and that’s enough."

That is Verlyn Klinkenborg at work in the New York Times today, in his periodic "The Rural Life" mini-column that always runs underneath the paper's unsigned lead editorials. Now isn't that a shapely piece of writing as well as a startling insight?

Klinkenborg is celebrated among his fellow writers not only for his singular prose but also his memorable name and enviable lifestyle. He may be a sophisticated Timesman (he's on the paper's editorial board) but he's also a farmer, commuting into Manhattan three times a week from his spread in upper New York State.

There is nothing cracker-barrel or gallus-snapping about his observations from the country. They are remarkably complex and sophisticated, the product of a gifted mind trained both to observe and to contemplate.

In many ways Klinkenborg's literate letters from the country remind me of E. B. White's humane "casuals" in the New Yorker all those years ago. They also remind me of two of Klinkenborg's literary equals, John McPhee at his most observant and Edward Hoagland at his most unsentimental.

I live in the country, too, five months out of the year, and write about it in my mystery novels. If those 300-pagers could show half the talent and skill Verlyn Klinkenborg displays in his 350-worders, I'd be a happy man.


  1. I have also enjoyed reading Klinkenborg's snippets from the countryside. While you mention McPhee and White, another writer of the country life that I have enjoyed is Noel Perrin. His First, Second, and Third Person Rural series include some wonderful writing and insights into rural life, still worth reading thirty years later.

  2. Thanks for mentioning Perrin. I was searching my mind for his name.

    I had not known that he died, in 2004. His most recent book, published posthumously, is Last Person Rural, and it's still available on Amazon.com.