Claiming Ground

A minister’s daughter seeks peace and meaning in a hardscrabble corner of Wyoming.

Claiming Ground: A Memoir By Laura Bell Alfred A Knopf 256 pp., $24.95

Ever since the age of Ovid and Homer, the popular idea that humans can become transformed merely by changing the physical terrain around them has been a standard in literature.

In her new memoir Claiming Ground, native Kentuckian Laura Bell tests the premise by uprooting herself and resettling into a hardscrabble corner of northern Wyoming between the wilds of Yellowstone National Park and the Bighorn Mountains that lord over the lonesome high plains.

There, among sheepherders, pioneer cattle-ranching families, forest rangers, and environmentalists, a real-life cast of solitude-seeking characters help her to discover a universal truth that hasn’t changed in a few millenniums: Personal meaning IS NOT bestowed by a landscape. Instead, the sense of being connected to something larger than oneself is found only when the explorer subjects himself or herself to honest self-examination. In Bell’s case, that means asking herself why she felt compelled to leave home at all.

The chief question that Bell, a minister’s daughter, confronts over the course of several decades is whether she’s fleeing something by running away or being pulled toward a higher calling. Her poetic ruminations on landscape, loss, and heartache provide all the answers we need.

For the past few decades, the American West has asserted itself as a powerful muse for contemporary, place-based memoirs, giving voice to a group of remarkable women writers that includes Annie Proulx, Terry Tempest Williams, Mary Clearman Blew, Judy Blunt, Linda Hasselstrom, Gretel Ehrlich, and Annick Smith, among others. “Claiming Ground,” Bell’s debut, marks her elevation into that group.

Bell’s metamorphosis slowly unfolds in prose that is both rustically piquant and lyrical. She begins her journey as a wet-behind-the-ears college-age idealist, smitten with the dream of finding a real cowboy. But what she learns over time is that wisdom is hard earned and marked by humbling indifference from the natural world.

Perhaps the sweetest revelations are that, amid all her searching and setbacks – which include a failed marriage and death of a loved one – Bell’s parents never judge or abandon her. She realizes that next to family, the only thing resolutely permanent and undeceiving is the land.

Her theologian father validates her eventual decision to work as a professional environmentalist during a chat about redemption: “The idea of redemption has meaning in terms of the work you do, in terms of conservation,” he says. “You pay the price and redeem the land for future generations; the land is freed, saved.”

In both “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad,” Homer teaches us that the secret to enlightenment does not necessarily reside on the other side of the world. Rather, it is revealed through introspection, the kind distilled by Bell. Such introspection brings the simple, invisible elements – the important ones ready to be discovered at our feet – into focus.

Todd Wilkinson lives in Bozeman, Mont., and is writing a book about Ted Turner.

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