Limberlost by Robbie Arnott


This book called to me because of its title. A limberlost is a swampy region and was best known to me as the title of a book both my mother and my daughter loved,  A Girl of the Limberlost, referring to a large swampy area in northeastern Indiana that has now been drained. After moving to Virginia, I was surprised to find there’s a trail near Skyline Drive called the Limberlost Trail which surely is not swampy, as it is not far from the top of the blue ridge.

Robbie Arnott quotes Gene Stratton-Porter, the woman who wrote The Girl of the Limberlost, at the beginning of his book:  “In the economy of Nature nothing is ever lost.” She was a popular author, nature photographer, and naturalist. This post in Brona’s Books tells about the Indiana limberlost.

The Australian Limberlost tells the story of a dramatic and formative summer of Ned, a boy of 16 during World War II. His brothers are soldiers and he works with his father in their apple orchard in Tasmania, which is named Limberlost. Because his long-dead mother loved the book, that name was chosen for the orchard.

Ned’s connection to the countryside of Tasmania ranges from confronting whales said to be monsters destroying fishing boats on their way to port, a frightening encounter underwater with a large leatherjacket fish described as a small aquatic unicorn, finding and recovering a boat made of Huon wood, a rare and special wood, trapping and rehabilitating a rare marsupial, a quoll, and as an adult, the foreman of a crew logging the beautiful and rare manna gum trees called White Knights for their beauty. The author shows us the otherworldliness and beauty of this wild countryside.

Along with his dramatic experiences, he lived the mundane life of the orchard. He trapped and shot countless rabbits to sell the pelts for slouch hats for soldiers to make money to buy a boat. In the heat of the summer he and his buddy Jackbird swim to the bottom of the river to have a moment of  relief from the heat. A few years later he found he was distracted by a young woman at all hours of the day, even when he wasn’t near her. We learn later the young woman is Jackbird’s sister and they marry and have children. Though his appreciation for the wildness and heart-stopping beauty of his countryside is evident, he suffers for failing to fully respect limitations the natural world imposes.

It is the unfolding of the life of this man whose world became enlarged that summer that is the beauty of this book. There are countless moments of revelation and great beauty like these two, the first when his sister gave him A Girl of the Limberlost that his mother had loved. “Ned wanted to read it. Wanted to find in its pages the images and sensations that his mother had. Wanted something to root him to the earth, now that the river was out of his reach.

And the other, when at the end of that summer, he sees his brother returning from the war:

In that moment Ned feels a swelling, a ripping expansion, a hugeness that rang through him for the length of his life, a feeling that was sometimes rivaled but never quite matched. Not at weddings, not at births not at funerals….Not in the shade of ancient trees, in whose canopies he imagined he could see the darting of cream-brown quolls. Not on Rocky Mountain roofs. Not in the presence of whales, not while viewing fine ships. Not at the scent of Huon pine.

What joy this book brought me.

Robbie Arnott, Limberlost, Text Publishing, 2022, 240 pages (I read the kindle version).

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