Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days by Nina Shengold
By Nava Atlas | On June 30, 2020 | Updated August 29, 2022 | Comments (0)
Nina Shengold’s Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days takes its place in the tradition of deeply felt nature writing, the kind that heightens observation of the world while delving into questions of self.
Literary Ladies Guide rarely features books that aren’t by classic (that is, departed) women authors or directly related to them (fictional homages, biographies, etc.). But when I opened Reservoir Year (Syracuse University Press, 2020), I at once imagined it as a descendant of the works of several classic authors whose profound affinity to the natural world became central to their art.
But first, for those who’d like to participate in this book’s upcoming launch, mostly virtual, see the list of Nina Shengold’s upcoming 2020 events here.
For Emily Brontë, any sojourn away from her Yorkshire home of Northern England, no matter how brief — to attend school or work as a governess — would make her ill. As a veritable recluse, Emily thrived on great long walks on the moors surrounding the Brontë family home, her devoted dog Keeper at her side. It was the only way she could exist in the world.
Tragically, Emily succumbed to consumption (tuberculosis) at age 30, but not before producing her iconic novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), and a body of poetry considered some of the finest in the English language. Here’s a lovely essay on nature in the poetry of Emily Brontë, which affirms that “the image of Emily Brontë roaming the moors is one mythic element about her that is true.”
Mary Hunter Austin is no longer widely read, but in her time, she moved though vaunted American literary circles. Her first and best-known book, The Land of Little Rain (1903), was a loosely connected collection of short stories and essays paying tribute to the lands of American Southwest and its Native American inhabitants, as well as its animal and plant life.
In her essays and stories, Austin offers vivid descriptions of mountains, deserts, trails, and even weather phenomena. Her writings highlight the benefits of harmony between humans and nature, or the dire consequences of its opposite. Keenly observing the natural world in writing confirmed her life’s purpose — fighting for environmental and social justice, especially for the native people who so revered the land.
Gene Stratton-Porter was a hugely successful author in her time, as well as a self-taught naturalist. In A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), her best-known novel, teenaged Elnora Comstock is far more interested in moths than in men. Her rambles through the Limberlost swamp, lovingly detailed, lead to her becoming a teacher of natural history and a collector of scientific specimens — both unusual practices for women of the time.
Stratton-Porter was often called the “bird lady” in her Indiana home town thanks to her intricate, detailed, and passionate writings about the state’s natural habitats. Better yet, she wove not-so-subtle messages of female independence into her enjoyable tales.
A more contemporary cousin to Reservoir Year is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a 1974 memoir by Annie Dillard. Dillard records observations of her corner of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains through a year of journalistic entries, using them as a springboard for contemplations on life itself.
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Illustration by Carol Zaloom
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Nina Shengold arranges Reservoir Year by season and begins at a metaphorical place many of us come to in life: A crossroads. That’s what makes Reservoir Year so lovely and relatable. I can fully understand why Shengold set herself a seemingly impossible challenge as she came to what felt like a turning point in life. This upstate New Yorker begins with the book’s preamble:
I live in the foothills of the Catskills, four miles from the glorious Ashokan Reservoir. For a year, I walked by its side every day, in all kinds of weather, from predawn to starlight.
My usual path is a former roadbed on top of the reservoir’s main dam. There’s a small parking lot near the village of Olivebridge rimmed by wildflowers, hardwoods, and pines. You pass through a row of traffic barrier columns and take a few strides to the edge of the trees, and the world opens up: a panoramic vista of water, mountains, and sky. People stop in their tracks and gasp. I once heard an awestruck child cry out, “Is that the ocean? Mom! What is this place??”
It’s a good question. I spent a year trying to answer it, day after day after day. I was poised to turn sixty, a birthday that can’t help but rattle the ribcage. My daughter Maya was at college in Vermont and I missed her bright energy daily; my parents were dwindling into their nineties. And my dog had died.
Reservoir Year’s publisher, Syracuse University Press, introduces the book:
On the eve of her sixtieth birthday, Nina Shengold embarks on a challenge: to walk the path surrounding the Catskills’ glorious Ashokan Reservoir every day for a year, at all times of day and in all kinds of weather, trying to find something new every time. Armed with lively curiosity, infectious enthusiasm, and renewed stubbornness, she hits the path every day with all five senses wide open, searching for details that glint.
As Shengold explores the secrets of this spectacular place, she rediscovers the glories of solitude and an expanded community, both human and animal. Step by step, her reservoir walks rekindle connections with family, strangers, and friends, with a landscape she grows to revere, and with a new sense of self.
Like the writings of John Burroughs, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez, Shengold’s reflections on her personal journey will resonate with outdoor enthusiasts and armchair hikers alike. Quietly transformative, Reservoir Year encourages readers to find their own ways to unplug and slow down, reconnecting with nature, reviving old passions, and sparking some new ones along the path.
How will this yearlong journey to walk and observe the same path each day transform Nina Shengold? That is for the reader to discover. In troubled times, or simply when one is at a proverbial fork in the road, a personal challenge can reignite a passion for life.
Reservoir Year is a comforting yet thought-provoking meditation on the human relationship with the natural world and how a connection with nature can deepen our awareness and empathy, no matter where we are in life.
Illustrated with beautiful hand-colored linocuts by Carol Zaloom and line drawings by Will Lytle. Cover art by Kate McGloughlin.
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Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days
is available wherever books are sold
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About the author
Nina Shengold’s books include the novel Clearcut (Anchor Books), River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers (SUNY Press, with photographer Jennifer May), and fourteen theatre anthologies for Vintage Books and Viking Penguin, many coedited with Eric Lane. She won the Writers Guild Award for her teleplay Labor of Love and the ABC Playwright Award for Homesteaders. Her plays are published by Playscripts, Broadway Play Publishing, and Samuel French; War at Home: Students Respond to 9/11, written with Nicole Quinn and the Rondout Valley High School Drama Club, has been produced around the world. Shengold has profiled more than 150 writers for Chronogram, Poets & Writers, and Vassar Quarterly. She’s a founding member of the theatre company Actors & Writers, author series Word Café, and Hudson Valley Writers Resist. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Shengold has taught at Manhattanville College and the University of Maine, and currently teaches creative writing at Vassar College. She was born in Brooklyn, grew up in New Jersey, escaped to Alaska, and now lives and works in the foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains.
Praise for Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days
“Shengold’s beautifully calibrated rhythm of language conveys all the rhythm of walking—the quiet, graceful stride along with lively, animated steps, the contemplative solitary strolls and those shared with companions. But she offers us as well the rhythm of the infinitesimal and the grand; of the expected and the unexpected; of the abstract and the real.”
—Akiko Busch, author of How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency
“To walk with Shengold along the banks of the Ashokan Reservoir is to see the Catskills—its ever-changing sky, its magnificent wildlife, and even its ghosts—through the lens of a writer of rare and exquisite sensibility.”
—Leslie T. Sharpe, author of The Quarry Fox: And Other Critters of the Wild Catskills
“Accompanied by her elegant, unpretentious prose, the reader comes upon surprises: a bear, an eagle feather, a crimson forest. Filled to the brim with subtle revelations, of sunwashed illuminations but also the poignant history; a drowned town lies below the shimmering surface. Expect to be moved, and then overcome by the tenderness and variety of Shengold’s emotional literary palette.”
—Laura Shaine Cunningham, author of Sleeping Arrangements and A Place in the Country