Not long before Christmas, I needed a new notebook. On a whim, I bought one without lines. I’ve started drafting my blog posts using unnecessary squiggly arrows and doodles. In reality, this is just an ingenious procrastination method, but it also makes me feel like an old fashioned natural philosopher. I like to think that my sketches compare favorably to those of Lewis and Clark (check out Lewis’ version of a condor).
I just learned that in the hands of somebody with talent, this is an actual style of memoir/art called “illuminated journaling.” I learned this because I picked up a 2004 book by Hannah Hinchman called Little Things in a Big Country. In Little Things, Hinchman uses sketches, watercolors, and unassuming prose to describe a year in her life on the Rocky Mountain Front.
Hinchman is a staple of small-town Montana: a token “unrepentant hippie-environmentalist” lured to Augusta by the landscape. Henchman spends as much time as she can wandering around her neighbor’s ranches (with permission, obviously) and the nearby Sun River Game Range. She spends the majority of the book describing in loving detail each of her favorite rambling grounds, dedicating a chapter to each. She approaches each place with an artist’s eye for detail. Her sketches and watercolors range from dramatic landscapes of the Front to detailed renderings of water bugs skimming the surface of a stream. Her prose ranges widely too, touching at times on the environmental, geologic, and human history of the area, but more often focusing on her personal encounter with the land. The prose and art work combine to create a gorgeously rendered account of one woman’s love for the starkly beautiful Rocky Mountain Front.
My biggest problem with Little Things is that it is almost, but not quite, a book I would write. The love of Montana, the use of pictures and prose, the use of hiking as a way to enter into a meditation about the land, these are all things that I would love to incorporate into a book. So I kept getting distracted by thinking of things I would do differently (for starters, my pictures would not be nearly so beautiful). In her role of “unrepentant hippie-environmentalist” Hinchman clashes with many of her neighbors on a diversity of points, especially “land, wildlife and wilderness.” She writes, “There’s no bridge across this gulf that I can find. But we manage to talk across it, flirt across it, even dance across it.” Ultimately she and her friends simply avoid discussing these divisive issues. This is a good plan, and a beautiful picture of friendship across disagreement, but I wish she would have pushed just a little bit harder in the book. She touches obliquely on issues like land management, wildlife, property, the environment, and water use, but she never really explores the complexity of these issues. I wouldn’t expect her to defend her opinions, but just to delve a little deeper into why these issues are so complex. Of course, doing so would have made the book a bit less personal, a bit longer, and a bit duller. A bit more, in short, like a book I would have written.
Little Things is a book whose simple prose, glossy pages and colorful pictures fully merits the adjective “gorgeous.” It is an excellent story of one woman’s experience living in Montana, and it the process, I think that it can challenge the way we think about tell the story of our state.
Little Things in a Big Country: An Artist & Her Dog on the Rocky Mountain Front
W.W. Norton & Co., New York.