“Watershed Days,” by Thorpe Moeckel

Thorpe Moeckel

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

One might be at a loss with this book absent some context, but even with context one might still be at a loss. Mr. Moeckel’s book covers some two years of occasional vignettes, an even dozen from 2005-2006 and another even dozen from 2006-2007: adventures of a sort. The vignettes, however, are not in a precise chronology since, like consciousness itself, time is subjective and relative.

The book opens with a narrative titled “With Cousin Alex in the Waves.” Since it’s narrative, it’s an introduction to a “narrator,” the self-consciousness at the center of things, the “I.”

I check the horizon again for humps, a set of waves. Nothing gives. I like the waiting, the watching. I like it as well as the wave riding. Two weeks ago, my wife, Kirsten, and I, we closed on that land, those eighteen acres and that barn and that drafty old house. But I’m not really thinking about that—see, the wind shifts now and then from offshore to side shore, creating a chop that wrinkles the faces, making them bumpy and wedged, harder to read.

Harder to read without lyricism.

One might assume that the flow of the prose is akin to the flow of some kind of transcendent energy which would suggest that our narrator is in search of an experience with a set of wild, chaotic waves, or with a powerful freedom. Call the source of that experience the “One,” if you so wish, as did Emerson, for whom the transcendent touched everything.

What would be the point?

Well, life is in motion, of course, but the point would be to infuse our experience of movement with, oh, some kind of spiritual pursuit. Such narratives, then, are “meditations,” books of spiritual exercise the intention of which is to bring shining awareness to readers, enlightening and enlivening us.

But only if metaphor is present and the metaphor is extended. Thus, apart from “watershed” understood as an area drained by a water system, it’s also understood as the “times” in which important changes occur, turning points, milestones, and so on. A reader should presume the existence of the double-meaning in the two-year narrative time-framed and recorded in seasonal order. Annie Dillard comes to mind for comparison, as does Barry Lopez, both of whom, however, never fail to grasp the irony of life unfolding, the contradiction and the paradox, or of life, as Lopez writes in Arctic Dreams, “a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

The narrator is thirty-four, or let’s say mid-way in the allegorical journey of life, more or less. One might expect insight into his human nature, especially since much the narrative concerns his “thinking,” which belies the quote above in which thinking occurs, what with the “waiting, the watching.” And then the interpolation about eighteen acres following by another interpolation “But I’m not really thinking about that.”

It is uncertain, as in the following paragraph from “My Skateboard, the Hills, and Other Enthusiasms”:

It didn’t feel real at first. It is never real, of course, any of it, but that’s not the point, except most of the time. It was like silk, like being with a woman who shaves her legs with kerosene or something.

I’ve struggled to “parse” these sentences, especially the first two, looking to string together a logical series of syntactic components. Perhaps, though, the series is meant to be context free, suggesting that certain “transcendental” experiences are beyond the requirements of language. Thus, one would have to accept the constraints and forget about parsing efficiently. I have yet, however, to meet a woman who shaves her legs “with kerosene or something.”

In a vignette titled “Hair of the Dog,” the following appears: “When dogs yell and bark in the night, we sense the whereabouts of his [sic] wanderings.” I suspect some editing should be at work: “When dogs bark in the night, we sense the whereabouts of their wanderings.” Or this on the following page: “… that trip we saw a dozen moose, and a black bear swum [sic] across the river in front of our lead canoe.” Forgive me for being “crabby,” but there are ways to conjugate verbs and there are ways not to conjugate verbs.

I’ve looked for moments in this book to admire, stylistic adventures, sentence gems; I find, rather, “So I walked down to the creek in old running shoes and socks and some light nylon pants. There was little graceful about the affair. If I felt like an intruder, I felt as much like a piece of driftwood. It was thrilling, calming, silly. I’d worn a button-down shirt in case I ran into anyone who cared that I was trespassing. Somewhere along the way, I realized that my pants, these geeky nylon numbers, still smelled like the Lexington Goodwill.”

A page or so later we read, “I felt the lean exuberance of a thief now. A kind of patriotic despair coursed through all of it; I was elated, though it was a muted, pathetic elation.” Feelings, and then more feelings and then beside one’s self with more feelings, followed then by the geeky nylon numbers: “My pants had zippers above the knees. I sat on the stone wall and messed with the zippers.
Very soon the pants were shorts.”

Throughout the book the reader is invited vexingly to share the narrator’s state of mind, including the sartorial moment when the pants become shorts, an emotive and affective moment the meaning of which is, well, is….

In “Yondering,” there’s this tidbit: “Every now and then, I had to imagine living there forever. Not to do so would have been irresponsible.” The “there” is likely the eighteen-acre homestead and the surroundings. Interesting, but not truly a pleasing scrap of information.

Here as elsewhere in the book, descriptions could be approached with more dexterity and grace. Ham-handed comes to mind, something more skillful. Then again, the epigram from Emerson comes to mind: “Nature does not like to be observed, and likes that we should be her fools and playmates.”

Emerson’s own writing, his own acute sentences, owned a crucial element of conscious movement, as did Thoreau’s everyday movement of simply walking. Both writers translated that consciousness into an awareness of a life full-mindful while inviting the reader along to perform that same actions. Pursuit of cosmic transcendental energy, all part of their romantic awareness, is also a move away from the center of one’s ego. In Watershed Days, however, the narrative “I,” omnipresent throughout the book, seldom departs from the closed form of his own pronoun. A better use of that pronoun may have been “Who am I?”

Click here to purchase this book:

Leave a Reply