Come on out into the Virginia countryside, past Falls Church and Fairfax to a spot in Loudoun County where the subdivisions finally subside and the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains brings the evenings early. Let's see -- an old farmhouse, woodpile, hedgerow and acre of pasture at the end of a rutted drive -- this must be the place.
It's hard to know exactly where to look for the man of the house, but we could start on the old veranda, which now serves as a large walk-in aviary with dozens of exotic finches and other birds desporting themselves amidst ferns, grapefruit trees and a section of artificial stream. Or perhaps he is down in the cellar contemplating the crippled universe of the house's heating system, or out back turning the chickens loose to bop "like street kids with Walkmans, gurgling and clucking as if to exclaim with pleasure over some tidbit they find in the grass."
Jake Page is the proprietor of this imaginative but nonetheless very real establishment, and "Pastorale" is the sort of tour of the premises that a friend might receive before dinner. The author of "Shoot the Moon," "Energy," "Vulnerability and War" (with Wilson Clark), "Hopi" (with his wife, Susanne Page) and "Arid Lands," Page displays a fine discursive wit in this, his seventh book. Aspects of his voice and posture are reminiscent of Robert Benchley's humorous writing for The New Yorker a half-century ago, but Page plays his suburban duffer character for a more sophisticated kind of humor than anything attempted by the man who gave us "How to Sleep."
Consider Page's riff on the biological rubric that ontogeny recapitules phylogeny, that is, that each developing fetus passes through the collective evolutionary stages (invertebrate, amphibian, mammalian, etc.) that preceded it. After noting in loving detail his teen-age daughters' inability to maintain or care for modern technological devices, Page has one of the flashes that make "Pastorale" so entertaining.
"I thought at the time," he notes wistfully, "children should go through cultural ontogeny that recapitulates the phylogeny of civilization. Let them get water from the pump until they are ten years old and only then use the plumbing system. Let them rise gradually from the primitive technique of the Stone Age, up through medieval times, reaching the 19th century in their teens, and at the age of 21 . . . arrive fully prepared and comfortably evolved for our postindustrial era."
Meanwhile, one of the ways that Page and his wife have found to cope with the current age (and their children) is to install what he half-ruefully describes as "a jungle in the house." This is of course the aviary, which started with one canary, and has since swelled with Pekin nightingales, Gouldian finches, turtles, frogs, a host of plants and even a section of artificial stream, calling to mind the stacked stream sections in the late Richard Brautigan's "Trout Fishing in America." A great deal of work and worry is involved in maintaining the aviary, but it more than repays the Pages with insights into the workings of the natural world, and intimate association with some of its creatures. "I have seen the female quail chase a baby mouse right out of the aviary into the living room," notes Page, "a cute sight, but the wrong destination."
My only complaint about "Pastorale" concerns the causal, almost rudimentary narratives commonly employed by Page. Several of the pieces, including the best of the lot, "The Bird House," end abruptly without apparent reason, and several more seem to be crudely cobbled combinations of two different pieces: They talk about one thing, e.g. dandelions, for a while, and then talk about another, e.g., insects, until it's time to say bye-bye. There is also some unevenness among "Pastorale's" 20 stories, most of which appeared previously in magazines,but these are really minor quibbles. Jake Page is not the only humorist to lean heavily on simple forms; nor is he the only one who doesn't always know when to stop. He is, however, the only person ever to make me laugh out loud about ontogeny, and I thank him for that.
Like any good trip to the country, Pastorale both relaxes and stimulates. Here are sunny vistas, good witty company, rural eccentricities, and some unexpected surprises. The book appropriately focuses on the natural world of Northern Virginia -- and specifically the natural world in one old Waterford farmhouse -- but this does not prevent Page from digressing widely in his humorous forays. Less trouble than a trip to the Berkshires, and funnier than the Rockies, I suspect that "Pastorale" will be entertaining literary visitors to the Blue Ridge for some time to come.