I am a biased reviewer. I’ve read and loved all of Nick Offerman’s previous books, and have laughed uproariously at his comedy shows. I’ve watched “Parks & Rec” all the way through several times, and think “Devs” is brilliant. I greatly admire the work Offerman and the rest of the crew do at the Offerman Woodshop. He is an altogether nice fellow. So, I was wholly prepared to enjoy his new book, “Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside.”
The book – a response to a challenge from one of Offerman’s heroes, writer Wendell Berry – is in three parts, each exploring a different type of relationship to the land, and our relationships to one another. Throughout, Offerman asks us to confront uncomfortable truths that have helped shape much of the land as we know it today – and he’s not shy with his opinions on racism, strident Christianity, agribusiness, Fox News and more. I sing in the same liberal choir, so I found myself nodding in agreement, but I expect some who are (still!) expecting Ron Swanson will be disgruntled. But perhaps Offerman’s sardonic and self-deprecating humor, and the genuine delight with the natural world that pervades every page, will be enough to keep them reading.
The first part shares a tourist’s relationship with nature – getting out in it through a “bromance brothers” trip to Glacier National Park with Offerman, singer Jeff Tweedy and writer George Saunders. While hiking, rafting, and navigating a couple of scary incidents that could have ended Wilco, the friends had serious and enlightening conversations ranging from food production to Aldo Leopold, and from race relations to how not to be an asswipe. By the end of the trip, writes Offerman, “We three middle- aged white guys, ever aware of our privilege, had taken pretty full advantage of the recreation available in the glorious acreage that some other white guys had set aside for just that purpose.”
In the second part, Offerman helps to shape nature in a small way as he works alongside Cumbrian sheep farmer and writer James Rebanks in a number of flying visits. In this section, Offerman focuses on labor, how agriculture has shaped the land, the ethics of farming and the necessity of ecological stewardship. “We must understand that we are not passive passengers on this mothership Earth, but instead we must participate in the journey, whether that means grabbing an oar and helping to row, or feeding the crew, or holystoning the decks. Only then will we be able to help steer this venerable vessel away from the shopping mall/ Amazon.com and toward the woods and the meadow and the beck.”
The first two sections took part prior to the pandemic, and while Offerman ambles metaphorically through many topics therein, both are (mostly) located in one physical place. Part three is more of a ramble of both place and political topic. With time on their hands due to Covid-19, Offerman and his wife, Megan Mullally (and their dog, Clover), spent the fall of 2020 traveling with an Airstream trailer through West, Midwest and Southwest, safely visiting friends and family, and hiking the trails in some gorgeous locations. (He would like you to know, however, that “Sedona blows” and you shouldn’t bother.) I couldn’t find one quotation I felt summed up the section, but the following is a decent distillation of the book as a whole: “Mother Nature is not an American, and she is not proud. She is all creation, so her vibe encompasses all experience, in every size, shape, and color, from the high to the low. Her economy and its successful evolution thrive on diversity, and her children never rest in their glorious participation, reproducing and adapting, so as to grow ever stronger.”
The above makes the “Where the Deer and the Antelope Play” sound altogether serious – and there is no doubt that Offerman cares passionately about nature and our role in it – but it’s also a funny and entertaining travelogue. And in case I haven’t made it clear: highly recommended.