Most folks know the Cottonwood as the official state tree of Wyoming. In his collection of essays, “Craven Creek," Wyoming author Walt Gasson makes a strong argument that it is, in reality, the Family Tree that shades us and roots us deep in the thin Wyoming soil.
Gasson traces his family’s history in the sheep country near Opal, in the lower west quadrant of Wyoming. Opal, on the extreme edge of the Greater Diamondville metroplex, was once a gathering place for early stockmen.
It is today a natural gas collection hub of global importance due to 20th century energy development.
Gasson has a discerning eye toward the triumphs and tragedies of human families trying to eke out a living in a stingy country that will try to kill you if you aren’t paying attention. He has a caring pen when he writes about the family bonds that sustain life in a place where wild critters vastly outnumber people.
The backdrop of these essays is always the often indescribable beauty and ruggedness of the Wyoming landscape which is every bit as important a character in Gasson’s writing as his kinfolk.
The author, to his credit, avoids the pitfalls common to writers of “sense of place” works set in The West. His descriptions of our landscape are not attempts at the florid, purple prose most commonly found in glossy Sotheby’s catalogs of Wyoming ranches for sale to uber-rich outsiders.
Rather, Gasson’s writing is direct and clear, and he allows the countryside itself to speak to the reader through wind, sagebrush, snow, emptiness and the wild critters that are its natural citizens.
Two themes emerge in “Craven Creek." The first is family, and how the landscape affects families in rural Wyoming differently than it does families in say...Detroit or Chicago.
For example, Gasson includes a short passage from his grandfathers ranch journal and sheep tally book, dated October 1, 1913, the day after Walt’s father was born. It reads, “Baby boy born yesterday. 3,543 in the herd. 81 black sheep.”
A spare and eloquent passage about how work and family life are intertwined in the Big Empty.
The second theme is hunting. And this is to be expected from a man who spent his professional life in the red-shirt-wearin’, green-pickup-drivin’ culture of the august Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
And again, Gasson avoids the trap of most hunting writers who crank out hook & bullet, happiness is a warm gut pile pieces for Outdoor Life. Instead, he writes with a reverence for the dynamic of the hunt, that timeless dance between man and quarry that has gone on here since the first human footprint.
And he writes about the pursuit of game as another tether that binds together generations of family. Under that lens, a hunt is just as successful when the hunter is skunked but has a great time with his kinfolks, returning with stories rather than meat.
A poignant example is Walt’s description of a desert elk hunt with his grandson out in the Red Desert. That country has a stark and brooding beauty all its own, and on this blustery, cold day with scant elk sign and God’s natural splendor surrounding them...”We just stopped hunting for a moment and looked.” Walt’s grandson will cherish that lesson when he hunts with his own grandkids.
The country that Gasson hunted and fished in his youth has changed. No longer are the sage chicken thick as horseflies nor will you catch a trout on the first cast every time in the tributaries of the Green River.
But that truth is not wept over in “Craven Creek," nor is the past spoken about in maudlin terms. Rather, the essays celebrate the constants. Constants like the forces that the natural world exerts on us here in Wyoming.
Constants like the bonds of family, and how we must rely on each other to survive and to understand our wild world here where the blacktop ends.
“Craven Creek” will feel right at home on your bookshelf alongside your Stegner, Abbey, Leopold and your Galvin and Budd. When you read “Craven Creek," you’ll feel right at home, too. “Craven Creek” is available from the publisher here.
Rod Miller can be reached at: email@example.com