LETTERS FROM SIDE LAKE By Peter M. Leschak Harper & Row. 196 pp. $14.95
LITTLE THINGS upset Peter Leschak when he moves to Minneapolis-St. Paul to attend college in 1969. Like the blustery January night when he's waiting for a Wabasha Street bus in St. Paul, not far from the capitol, and a man hops off the bus wearing only pajamas and slippers and strolls off down the street nonchalantly carrying a newspaper under his arm.
Even more amazing to Leschak, then 19 and fresh from a small mining town on northern Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range, is the reaction of the urbanites at the bus stop. "No reaction, nary a titter nor a snort." Is this the way the city works? he wonders.
Later, when he's taking a Sunday afternoon stroll through Nicolet Mall in downtown Minneapolis he's accosted by "an older woman who exuded wealth." Never mind her stunning fur coat and jewels -- she hustles him for 35 cents for bus fare. Isn't it curious, Leschak thinks, "here was a rich woman begging for coins, and I was the one who was embarrassed. And disoriented."
Trivial incidents, Leschak realizes, but they punctuate his underlying discomfort at trying to make sense of urban life. He's come to the city for an education, because it's where "our generation would take up the mantle and march into the future." Yet for all its promises of power and success, the city remains incomprehensible.
Leschak quietly concludes, "I couldn't stay in the city . . . I didn't belong there." He endures for five years, then degree in hand and some obligatory wandering done, he heads back up country. He returns not as an urban refugee aflame with fantasies of self-sufficiency -- fevered visions of giant compost piles and spinning windchargers dancing in his brain -- but as a man who knows, as few of us do, where he belongs.
Letters from Side Lake is thus quite different from many books in this genre. Leschak's engaging essays are happily free of bile, evangelism and Thoreauvian moralizing on the evils of modern life. Without "begrudging anyone the promise of the Emerald City nor looking askance at any tree lover who hangs around in parks," Leschak instead revels in what he loves best: the beauty and adventure of the north woods; the sweep of Andromeda across a black sky; the sleek thrust of his canoe slicing across a mirror-flat lake; and the simplicity of small-town life.
His collection of anecdotes and stories begins in the mid-70s when he and Pam, his wife of one year, arrive in Side Lake, Minnesota. Leschak is dubious at first about coming home because he realizes urban life has made him idealize the land, "fondly recalling things as they never really were."
But it's all new for Louisiana-bred Pam, who's never seen a serious snowfall nor shocked her lungs with minus 20 degree air. The first blizzard gives her pause: Side Lake -- nestled 12 degrees south of the Arctic Circle -- has, as the saying goes, eight months of winter and four of hard sledding.
After living in a rented house (possibly haunted by old Leon, who shot himself under the cellar stairs), they buy 40 acres of forested land for $5,000. Bordered by an unspoiled 15-acre lake, the Leschaks' land is a half mile from the nearest neighbor and four from the nearest tavern (outpost and sanctuary in rural climes.) Bristling with pine, aspen, birch and fir, populated by deer, bear and timberwolves, the land puts Peter and Pam "on the frontier, at least in a personal sense, and we were powerful. I felt a sense of sovereignty, the rush of freedom that must have enticed settlers into the wildness."
NOW RIGHT ABOUT here you might expect things to start going wrong, as they often do in back-to-nature books, a slapstick Mr. Blandings Builds his Log Cabin. But Leschak, though possessed of an uncanny knack for falling into holes, crashing through the ice while skating, swamping canoes in frigid rapids and availing himself of other misadventures (all described with cheerful good humor), appears to be a capable woodsman and carpenter. He's also a fine writer with an eye both for natural wonder and for irony.
When he, Pam and friends build their log house from the ground up, felling the trees, stripping the bark and notching and wrestling the timbers into place, Leschak realizes that they've done more than build a house. They've transformed "a part of the forest, entire trees, into a personal creation . . . the cabin logs, now dead, retained a majestic composure and seem to fall comfortably into their new role . . . no longer vertical, but still beautiful and somehow vibrant."
Beauty is important to Leschak and he sees it in meteors and snowflakes and hears it in the wolves' primeval howling. Yet he has no illusions: "If you live in the woods for a while . . . nature will often drop her mask. She's beautiful, but basic to the fiber of the forest are death, terror, and misery as well."
Yet it's Leschak's great sense of humor that carries this lively book along. His stories are as numerous as the leaves in his forest, rambling tales of being a volunteer firefighter ("it's always depressing to see water freeze even as it leaves the hose"); raising chickens ("as bright and quick as axe handles . . . chickens are fleet of foot, nimble of feather, and hold strong opinions about decapitation"); and building the world's first 300-degree sauna, which nearly bursts into flame ("I wrote to the Finnish Embassy . . . to claim the world record . . . but it was clear the Finns thought they were dealing with pranksters or idiots -- maybe both.")
If Leschak can be faulted it's for making rural life seem so simple, free of tension and pettiness and boredom, which it isn't. But then, Letters from Side Lake is a celebration, not a guidebook for would-be pioneers convinced the grass is greener on the other hill -- even when it's under five feet of snow.
Vic Sussman, who lived for many years as a homesteader in northern Vermont, is the Personal Tech columnist for the Washington Post Magazine.