Rural life has changed as the world has modernized, with more and more people vacating farms and ranches to head to urban areas for the promise of greater financial opportunities. But the recent book, “Ankle High and Knee Deep,” a collection of short stories edited by Gail L. Jenner, is a charming reminder that there are still plenty of people committed to a style of living that was once the backbone of this pioneering nation.
Poems, photos, and a variety of short stories, all by women, provide a unique perspective on the many variations of country living. The book begins gently, with nostalgia for a remembered family garden, with the unforgettable colors and smells that evoke a visceral longing; simple bird song, the fresh dew of morning are both notions that anyone can appreciate.
For the most part, throughout the book the locations of the individual stories hardly matters, as the rural setting could describe countless places across the American West, which is partly the goal of the book. Every voice is unique, and some are more eloquent than others, and a bit of the writing is cloyingly sweet, but all the stories read well and fit together along a common thread of family traditions and simple pleasures.
The pace of life described revolves around nature and its cyclical tendencies, with the nuanced macro changes crucial to life on a larger scale. For example, appreciating the methodical persistence of bees, monitoring the daily rate of the incremental growth of plants, and giving gentle nourishment with a watering can are all methods of approaching the natural world that honors the details of the process, and therein lies the value.
It is clear that the women selected, all of whom have spent lengths of time in nature, have a wealth of imagery with which to seed their words. Some of the contributors choose to be straight-forward and literal in their telling, while others opt for a more poetic and philosophical approach.
Pervasive in all the stories, many of which only run for a few pages, is a bittersweet tone, a longing for a lifestyle that is admittedly on the periphery of our modern fast-paced culture. More than one story serves as a lamentation on the encroachment of contemporary influences on natural lands. Several stories describe the dismantling of a family homestead, a relic from another era, neglected and forgotten.
Overlooking the broken and outdated aspects, ranch homesteads also offer a way forward, building on the strengths and wisdoms of the past. The methodical taking apart of a home, the ending of a life, begins the imaginings of the departed souls who once dwelled there. There are transitions with each modern improvement. Newspapers beneath wallpaper bring history alive, and wood floors are installed over dirt that has seen the passage of countless feet.
For the most part, it is the mundane that is highlighted, the subtle charms of daily routines and chores. Whether it is bottle feeding lambs in the frosty morning, painting a seemingly endless fence under the heat of a summer sun, or the countless stories where horses are the focal point, ranch life is dominant. There is joy and sorrow, often mingled in the same story, for a life shared with animals is very often tinged with melancholy.
Most evident, though, throughout “Ankle High and Knee Deep” is the unmistakable strength of each of the capable women who contributes her story. Though diverse in age and upbringing, a shared love for the rural life unifies their experiences into a charming literary diversion.