Bill Roorbach knows Maine. He knows the yellow birch and red maple, the kingfisher and red-eyed vireo. He knows the beaver, muskrat, mink, and fox. He is in his element hiking along rocky footpaths or canoeing in the streams and rivers in and around Farmington, where he and his wife, Juliet, live as blissfully as possible in a 130-year-old farmhouse, which has been slowly renovated over the years. Roorbach is ensconced in this rural place, western Maine, trying to live simply, burning wood, and trekking through the woods with his two lovable dogs, Wally and Desi.However, this calm, seemingly idyllic life is not without ripples: Roorbach and his wife are on a mission to procreate, something the author views with both trepidation and wonder, and which is made all the more complicated when the two are busy with out-of-state professional demands in different cities. To compound matters, Roorbach must contend with and learn to accept that to locals like Earl Pomeroy, the moose man, "an enormous figure . . . in outsized insulated coveralls, hunting cap, [and] ear protectors," he will always be an outsider, the educated, nature-loving college professor trying to put down roots in a community that doesn't always embrace folks from away. Like Thoreau before him, Roorbach's forays into the natural world are emblematic of a man in search of his place, of personal identity, and in Temple Stream (Dial Press, New York, New York; hardcover; 304 pages; $24) Roorbach chronicles that odyssey with honesty, insight, humor, and wisdom.
Roorbach's muse is nature and in particular the small stream — Temple Stream — that runs past his homestead and which becomes the focal point of his journey. Roorbach's curiosity lies with the uplifting splendor of nature and the irascibility of locals, an amalgam of misfits and oddballs who inhabit the small town, but his curiosity grows bigger and more urgent as he searches for the very source of Temple Stream.
Part memoir, part guidebook, at times part scientific journal, Temple Stream is a book of quiet, often poetic, beauty that captures precisely the author's unflinching love of the out-of-doors. What is particularly impressive is Roorbach's ability to create such excitement for the world around him that readers cannot help share in that exuberance. "Cherries!" he writes. "I love our little suffering Montmorency, which I planted the fall we moved in, absolutely the wrong spot, middle of the field, edge of the garden, windy, lonely. Its partner died in the first winter, chewed and girdled at the ground by starved subnivean mice, tiny beavers. The survivor is now a lovely, shapely tree, bent away from the wind, a spot of shade for summer lettuce. Two dozen cherries in its record year, sour as venom but when cooked in a pot with a little sugar, heavenly."
Roorbach's eye for the particular is formidable, whether he is capturing the hardworking nature of beavers or sloshing downstream in a canoe with his faithful dogs. But what captures your attention is Roorbach's skill at building upon the images he creates. Getting ready for a solo afternoon canoe excursion, hauling gear down an embankment, he remarks: "Down there, life was gorgeous. Water squirted between dam blocks. The sun caught the margins of the spray in a psychedelic aurora refracted along the edge of the sheet of falling water. The riverbed stone was sinuously carved, scooped, and pocked. Huge boulders stood where they had since the days of the glaciers. Atop the least of these, in the shadows, a great blue heron posed, October surprise."
At times the pace slows and the voice falls flat due to too much extraneous material on beavers and indigenous versus foreign plants. However, when Roorbach moves away from that kind of filler, he is able to draw readers in with his often breathtaking and poignant observations and by threading several memorable narratives throughout the book. Indeed, while nature is at the center of the book and his search for Temple Stream functions as a meaningful though predictable metaphor, Roorbach certainly knows the denizens of western Maine — the woodsmen and the back-to-nature intellectuals — all of whom are as much a part of the landscape as Mount Blue and the chickadee.
Some of the funniest and wisest moments of the book revolve around Ms. Bollocks, his long-term house sitter, "the only one [we] were able to find despite repeated attempts to replace her." Ms. Bollocks is a necessary if not friendly nemesis: for a reduced rent, she takes care of and watches over the house and property, though she habitually oversteps her boundaries and employs a strange brand of perhaps backwoods logic that can rankle the most tolerant of people, including the author. Falling behind on collecting the rent, Roorbach asks Ms. Bollocks via a long-distance call to please send eight hundred dollars for February and March, and in the hilarious interchange that transpires, Ms. Bollocks questions Roorbach's math. "How do you figure eight hundred?" she asks.
"February and March. Four hundred dollars a month, as agreed."
But Ms. Bollocks insists that since it is March, not February, she owes rent for March only, and despite Roorbach's insistence that Ms. Bollocks still owes February's rent even if the month has passed, Ms. Bollocks stays the course and proves to be every bit the professor's match, taunting, "But William . . . You are not a good listener. This is March!" Roorbach, hundreds of miles away in Columbus, Ohio, is left utterly powerless.
It is in moments like this one that you sense Roorbach's compassion for the human spirit. While he does not condone Ms. Bollocks' antics, he at least respects her tenacity, her misguided rebellion, and to a certain degree he also understands her: like he and his wife, who are uprooted from the place they love and at times from each other, Ms. Bollocks is trying to get along as best she can.
The book, comedic at times, never strays too far from the serious. As the book's subtitle reveals, Roorbach is driven to make sense of his rural odyssey, the journey of a perennial outsider, a college professor no less, trying to find his place in this rural Maine setting, a place he clearly loves — a place he calls home — and where his roots grow even deeper once he turns his back on tenure at Ohio State and Juliet becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl, Elysia, a Mainer by anyone's standard.
Still, to many of the locals, Roorbach will never truly belong no matter how hard he tries. In fact, according to Earl Pomeroy, the hulking Paul Bunyanesque figure, there are only two types of flatlanders: "Summer yups and year-round summer yups." To men like this, Roorbach doesn't stand a chance, but that doesn't mean the author gives up.
Roorbach's odyssey eventually takes him to the source of Temple Stream, and, tracing it homeward and onward, the author recognizes how connected everything is, how multifarious the possibilities, and it is at this moment that Roorbach knows he has found what he has been searching for, and he is content.
Kurtis Clements is a writer who has recently relocated to Naples, Maine, after spending the better part of the past decade in New Orleans, Louisiana. His fiction has appeared in Kansas Quarterly, The Nebraska Review, and other publications. He currently teaches writing and literature at Andover College.