If I had to characterize Nick Offerman’s most recent book as a whole, I would say that reading it felt akin to being with Mr. Offerman in person – if not on the trails he traversed, or by his side as he froze his
ass hands while helping shepherd and author James Rebanks repair stone walls on his north-country farm, then at least at the end of the day, as he shared these experiences and his reflections on them over a fire.
As Offerman recounts the odysseys that bookend his sojourn on the Rebanks farm – the volume opens with a hike in the company of the author’s friends Jeff Tweedy and George Saunders and ends with a peripatetic trip from southern California to points east and north – he weaves some major historical events through these recreational adventures, reminding readers that in too many cases, rapacious acts perpetrated against those who inhabited this land prior to its “discovery” underlie much of what many Americans celebrate about this nation and its landscape.
My sense of being a dog loitering at the edge of a campfire was especially strong as I read his account of that Covid-era drive-about with his wife, Megan Mullally, and their pup, Clover, in an Airstream camper they christened the Nutmeg. You’ll find plenty of observations about RV-site culture, descriptions of flavorsome meals whipped up by the diversely-skilled Mullally in the tight confines of an actual galley kitchen, and bracing stories of hikes in varied terrains.
As with Offerman’s other written work, this book is more than a carefree romp. One of this man’s traits I most admire is his capacity for critical reflection guided by a dedication to honesty and basic human decency, even when it hurts. So you’ll find plenty of acknowledgement that not everyone is in the fortunate position of soothing their pandemic-induced funk by buying a comfortable camping vehicle and taking off for several weeks. Such self-awareness alone is rare; even more so, a willingness to call others’ attention to it. But that’s Nick in a nutshell, ever true to his modest Midwestern roots.
Offerman’s repeated calls for nuance (or as ethicists often put it, critical distinctions) and expositions thereof come as rain on parched ground. There are also some profoundly lucid observations scattered throughout that deserve to be amplified as bumper stickers, as well as through more respectable communication channels. My favorite is the quote from Aldo Leopold that ends the book: “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching – even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” Of course, people of good will may disagree about what constitutes “the right thing,” and why. But as with any dictum, we follow our basic agreement about “bad” or “good,” “wrong” or “right” from a prima facie level with how actions appear in particular applications. (And no, you should not read this as a glib endorsement of “situational ethics.”)
As you may expect, there’s also plenty of humor. I finally broke down and laughed aloud on reading the euphemism “Daddy’s Thunder Closet” and Offerman’s description of Mullally and himself as “a couple of softening old vaudeville hoofers looking to take their ease in the autumn of their years”; I mean, pandemic notwithstanding, Offerman seems sharper and busier than ever. All I have to do is close my eyes and open them again to find him featured in yet another film or series, from “Colin in Black and White” to “Devs” and now “Pam and Tommy,” and these are no doubt the mere tip of the iceberg (especially when you take into account the dizzying round of interviews he’s done on PBS and talk shows such as “The Late Night Show with Steven Colbert,” to cite just two). Also notable is his verbal sophistication, which represents a commitment to preserve the richness of the English language; it was a welcome surprise to run across the word “roborative” — and more than once!
Customary Offerman themes run throughout – not just the perennial question of what we should want (and just how much we Americans could afford to do without), but echoes of calls by Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and others for a return to genuine agriculture as an antidote to our prevailing system of agribusiness that mines the soil and uses living beings for monetary profit at the expense of all forms of life. That word “agriculture” comes from Latin; etymologically, “culture” means care — not just in the sense of “giving a shit,” but holding the object of your care in such reverence that caring for it is tantamount to worship* — in this case, worship of “the field,” a metonym for the soil.
But in my opinion, the book’s greatest gift in this moment is its forthright call for thinking and kindness specifically with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is stunning to me that so many among us refuse to see the connections between wearing a mask and getting vaccinated, on the one hand, and loving your neighbor in the Christian sense, on the other. Offerman brings attention to this observation as too few others have and elaborates his points powerfully. The apparent inability of us Americans to agree on a basic definition of everyday reality and grapple with whether our behavior matches up to the values we espouse is commentary on the parlous state of our ever-imperfect democracy. This dimension of the book is an especially welcome contribution to public discourse from a guy who routinely uses his platform to encourage serious thinking about pressing matters. Where the Deer and the Antelope Play has real potential to stiffen the spine of many a Covid protocol-observing reader concerned about being seen as a “sheep” (sorry, sheep; I’m not one of those who invoke your kind as an insult), a coward, or someone who wears “face diapers.” And the careful thinking Offerman employs to convey his message on this point is a nifty tool that readers can apply to other exigencies.
*From colere, the Latin word for “cultivate,” “worship,” etc., we also get the word “cult,” which I point out here to underscore this historical connotation.