There’s something oddly enticing about the second word of the subtitle of this memoir. A memoir of living off the grid is one thing; a poet’s memoir of the same is something entirely different. (See also: Eileen Myles’s “Inferno: A Poet’s Novel,” the subtitle of which promises a different reading experience from a standard-issue novel.) The subject matter of Baron Wormser’s memoir is the time he and his family spent living in a house in the woods of central Maine; even so, it’s a particularly poetic attention to detail that makes this book an especially memorable read.

As the author – who served as Maine’s Poet Laureate from 2000 to 2006 – explains in an introduction to this new edition, it’s now been 25 years since he and his wife left the house that’s at the center of “The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet’s Memoir of Living Off the Grid.” The memoir, first published in 2006, always had a retrospective cast to it; it’s not really a spoiler to say that both the creation of Wormser’s family’s house and the family’s eventual decision to move away from it both factor into its pages. And even readers unfamiliar with the Back-to-the-Land Movement that led to Wormser and his family living off the grid will likely recognize the appeal – the radical appeal, even – of taking control of nearly every aspect of their everyday lives.

While the book has moments of transcendence, it is suffused with a deep and profound sorrow. “What brought me to the woods was grief,” Wormser writes early in the book. Specifically, it’s the grief he feels over his mother’s death. Early on, he writes movingly of her ambitions in life — which went unrealized – and offers a few resonant details that give the reader a sense of her personality, such as her fondness for the works of Anthony Trollope.

Wormser is aware, as he writes, that the community in which he lived was at a unique place in its own history. “Our town’s population peaked around the time of the Civil War,” he writes in the introduction to this edition. Specific details on where in the state he and his family lived emerge later – a passing reference to Central Maine Power here, a mention of Somerset County there. And later in the book, more specific details, as when he sets one scene in Skowhegan.

The book has a loose temporal arc; early on, he details how he and his wife came to purchase the land on which they built their house, and he refers at spots to their children growing older. Much of the book alternates between isolated musings on rural life, sketches of the people in their community, and thoughts on the changes wrought in their region over the course of the 20th century. Some vignettes are more specifically rooted in a particular point in time, such as the building of the family’s house and the home birth of one of their children.

Wormser makes it clear why he and his wife opted for this unconventional approach, but remains candid about some of the more daunting aspects of living off the grid. There’s the matter of the family’s bathroom, which Wormser describes as “an outhouse that displayed a laminated invitation to a Paris Review cocktail party.” And at one point, in a casual aside, Wormser mentions that, over the years, multiple family cats died at the hands (or perhaps paws) of fishers.


“The Road Washes Out in Spring” also contains plenty of thoughts on literature, from contemporary Polish poets to 19th-century English writers. Sometimes the literary references veer into observations of daily life, as when Wormser cites the “dread that informed Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.” There are bleak moments recounted here, including Wormser’s discussion of murders that took place not far from his family’s home and a deeply sad account of one local man falling into despair after a cancer diagnosis prompted financial collapse.

There are also moments where Wormser’s observations about the people and landscape around him coalesce into an especially clarifying detail. Of one set of aging neighbors, he observes, “It was hard to believe there was a twentieth century when one entered their house.”  Wormser describes the man who built their house as “that bracing blend we were to come across in rural Maine of the upright and the anarchistic.” And there’s also this evocative line about autumn: “For a few weeks in October, transience created a moment-by-moment spectacle.”

“No one can count all the microcosms at work inside the macrocosms that are the living, breathing world,” Wormser writes late in the book. That could serve as an apt description of the task he’s set for himself here – this is a book that both evokes a life and is full of life. It’s a difficult book to read without longing for a home with a root cellar and a view of tall trees – power and plumbing optional.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: “Political Sign,” “Reel” and “Transitory.” He has reviewed books for the New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.

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