A NATURE WRITER ON TRANSFORMATION
Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father by John T. Price. Boston & London: Shambala Publications, 2013. $14.95
I’d heard a lot about John Price before I met him because he was the much admired mentor of my friend and colleague, Jody Keisner, so I made a point of meeting him two years ago when he was a presenter at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. Our meeting was brief but warm, and I was moved by the beauty and sensitivity of the passages he read and how he talked about nature writing afterwards. Nature writing is Price’s primary oeuvre, but in Daddy Long Legs, he weaves nature and family together in a memoir that is funny, tender, candid, and profound.
The prairies and loess hills of Iowa, where John grew up constitute his particular place. He planned to leave this place until he fell in love with it as he drove across the state one summer during graduate school. It was then he decided he wanted to stay and make a difference by writing about and helping to restore the prairieland.
Price calls Daddy Long Legs “a conversion story,” not in the Evangelical sense of conversion, but in the sense of change and transformation, which is true of all the best stories. As the book opens, the author is floundering in a bog of malaise, feeling inadequate as a writer, a father, and a grandson. He wants words—words for the novel he is trying to write, words to comfort his son, words that will share meaning with his dying grandmother. The words stubbornly fail to grace him, and he seems to have lost his way.
From that inner landscape Price begins a journey of discovery in the physical world and in the world of memory and reflection. He visits small Iowa towns to learn heretofore hidden family stories. He takes his grandmother on a road trip to the villages that frame her life story. And he learns from his young sons about life and death in the natural world. Ben and Spencer are adamant that their home and the surrounding patch of wildlife (mainly insects, arachnids and nematodes) constitute a No-Kill Zone. The boys name every life form that comes their way—Wilma the Worm, Brownie the deadly Brown Recluse Spider, and they deliver poignancy and delightful humor that made me frequently laugh out loud.
At one point, Price’s younger son gives him a book, Father to Son, for Fathers Day. Still in the morass of inadequacy, the author reflects on his multiple failures to pass on to his children the wisdom suggested by the book. And then, true to his subtitle, and true to what so many of us parents understand, he recognizes the wisdom his sons have been trying to teach him. “Through their presence in my life,” he writes, “and our adventures in the No-Kill Zone, they had strengthened my conviction ‘not to hurt others,’ and encouraged me to see ‘every life as precious’ and ‘each day as holy.’ Even when I failed to do so.”
One of the things that I love about reading a good book is being a Title Detective—discovering why an author named the book as they did. I will not spoil that adventure for you. Nor will I tell you how conversion takes place, or what Price’s transformation is. Read this book for those pleasures and more—including laughing out loud and being deeply moved and inspired.
Other books by John T. Price: Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships; Not Just Any Land
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