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'Bird Cloud' is a lovely, moving story of a quest for home

Annie Proulx soars in her memoir, "Bird Cloud."

It is that simple -- and that grand: With every word on the page, Proulx pays homage to a rugged and magnificent Wyoming place -- as well as to its surroundings, history, topography, geology and animals, most of them birds.

For it is here, by the North Platte River at the site she calls "Bird Cloud," that the brave "Brokeback Mountain" author will build "the final home" of which she has dreamed.

"On the north bank (of the river) rears a 400-foot cliff, the creamy caprock a crust of ancient coral," she writes. "This monolith has been tempered by thousands of years of polishing wind, blowtorch sun, flood and rattling hail, sluice of rain. After rain the cliff looks bruised, dark splotches and vertical channels like old scars.

"Two miles west the cliff shrinks into ziggurat stairs of dark, iron-colored stone. At the east end of the property the cliff shows a fault, a diagonal scar that a geologist friend says is likely related to the Rio Grande Rift, which is slowly tearing the North American continent apart. In no place that I've ever lived have I thought so often about the subterranean movements of continents."

It goes without saying that "Bird Cloud" is a memoir unlike other memoirs: It is not about its author and her unusual life -- it is about what matters to her now that she is in her 70s. What we glean of Proulx herself seems almost incidental -- except for the fact that, as a child, she "moved and moved and moved," and repeated this pattern as an adult.

"The American experience, the focus on individual achievement, the acquisition of goods and money to prove one's social value, is built on this sense of loss, this alienation from genetic bonds," she says. "This separation from one's tribe creates an inner loneliness that increases as one ages."

Specifically, Proulx's father was a French Canadian who had come to the United States to pursue the American promise, constantly moving his family to do so. (His "perpetual toast," she recalls, was "Here's to bigger and better jobs and more money.")

"And what did it do to us," she writes of herself and her siblings, "growing up as outsiders, as part of no place ... as part of no people except our mother's pale-eyed Yankee clan who subtly gave us the sense that we were different and somehow tainted?"

Clearly, building at Bird Cloud will be far more to Proulx than erecting a dream house -- it will be having, at last, a place she can truly call "home," a culmination not only of her best life experiences but a fulfillment of long-held yearnings for "the right place."

Plus, this home (once a sheep ranch) will have space for all that Proulx holds dear -- her work, her research, her maps, books, ideas, her cherished privacy and proximity to the elements...

It has taken 10 years to find the property -- and buying it is a lengthy process as well, one Proulx thinks several times "could not work out."

But, she tells us, while driving one windy Wyoming day "when the sky was filled with stretched-out laminar wave clouds I saw to the west, in the direction of the distant property, one cloud in the shape of an immense bird, the head and beak, the breast looming over the Rockies. I took it for a sign that I would get the property and thought Bird Cloud should be the name for the old sheep ranch."

Proulx mesmerizes as she takes us through the painstaking process of finding the right architect and builder -- and all the subcontractors who will bring "Bird Cloud" to fruition. It will take two years, with these creative and indefatigable individuals becoming a second family to Proulx.

Harry Teague, the reputed Aspen architect who designs Bird Cloud, will lock horns at times with "the James Gang" (as Proulx dubs the construction team led by Deryl James). There will be natural deterrents as well -- including the fact that, despite the seller's assurance that the road to Bird Cloud is maintained in the wintertime, it is not. Proulx considers aborting the mission.

"But I didn't do it," she writes. "The place was so beautiful, the great slab of cliff so vivid with birdlife, the plants and weeds so intriguing because unfamiliar... the night sky so full of constellations and meteors... The site of the house at the north end of a valley bordered by the Sierra Madre and the Medicine Bow made me think of the explorer H.W. Tilman's description of Kashgar, situated in 'a valley in which men might live a hard life and yet exult in living.'"

The process will also remind Proulx of author Jack London, who "ruined himself financially building and buying a house and ranch." But Proulx will persevere, giving us, along the way, rich slices of history -- her own forbears' as well as that of the area abutting Bird Cloud. With this, she supplies full footnotes -- and snatches of her irresistible wit.

Speaking of her father's maternal grandfather, Olivier "Levi" Brisson, she says, "His first wife, Clemence Benjamin, bore him six children, including one pair of twins. His second spouse, Mary Cyr, was the mother of 21, including two pairs of twins, and his third and pregnant wife, Maggie LeBarge, has borne him 11 ... If he had lived today he could have had his own television program."

Proulx, who holds both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for fiction for her novel "The Shipping News," obviously shares a part of her soul with the publication of "Bird Cloud."

That it is a memoir with a deeply affecting -- and unexpected -- ending only adds to its impact.

When, at one point, Proulx concludes that Bird Cloud, the house, will be "a kind of wooden poem," we see that "Bird Cloud," the book, is itself a kind of poem -- but not a wooden poem at all.

For the book is fluid, lush in landscape, breathtaking at the horizon while telling us, here and there, much about Proulx -- including why, in her dream house, she "really wanted ... a deep Japanese wooden soak tub."

All that is lacking in this beautiful and profound memoir are photographs of "Bird Cloud" -- the house and the land, including the spot where, archaeologist Dudley Gardner tells Proulx, there may have been, long ago, "a habituation in the dunes."

If you, too, yearn to see photographs of Proulx's dream home, there is a way. You have only to Google "Bird Cloud Ranch" -- and voila! But you must promise not to do so until you have come to the end of Proulx's stunning new memoir.

As she says herself in the book, "Long waits are part of building."

Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.

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Bird Cloud: A Memoir

By Annie Proulx

Scribner

234 pages, $26