[Agate; 2023]

Early in Iliana Regan’s Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir she writes: “For many years, most of my life in fact and still to this day, in the dark or daylight, I looked out windows, up to the sky, under the water, or into the forest; I looked somewhere beyond where I was, waiting for the mothership to come and take me back home, but she never came. I turned to other things instead.”

Regan’s memoir spends much of its time looking out in two directions—backward to the pains and delights of childhood on a farm near Gary, Indiana, and forward to an inventory of fears, real and imagined: home invasions, death of the self, death of loved ones, financial ruin, late-stage capitalism, melting ice caps, permanent insomnia, cyberware, mass shootings, and generational trauma. As someone not much younger than Regan, I share many of her fears, which seem in this memoir driven by one subtextual (and sometimes plainly stated) anxiety: How much destruction as a species will we inflict on the planet and ourselves during the time that we have left?

But there is an active force propelling these two frontwards and backwards gazes, and that is Regan’s present life in the upper peninsula (UP) of Michigan. Right before the pandemic, she sold her Michelin-star Chicago restaurant, Elizabeth, bought a hunting cabin in the UP, and moved there with her wife Anna to open the Milkweed Inn, a remote destination in the Hiawatha National Forest. By Regan’s own admission, this off-the-grid project is designed to provide a luxurious fine-dining, glamping experience for well-paying customers. (As of this writing, the Deer Room is available June 9–11, 2023 for $3,500.) The Milkweed Inn boasts uninhibited views of the stars, hiking, fishing, and general outdoorsy opportunities for city-dwellers to enjoy; Regan describes it as “summer camp for adults.” Perhaps most importantly, Regan is a chef of the highest order, feeding her customers meals that are “stories of the land.”

For what it’s worth, Regan senses her own complicity. A transplant city-dweller herself, she describes her guilt over “all the power and resources needed to create a fancy meal for people.” Regan’s guilt is part of the impetus for moving to this beautiful middle-of-nowhere in 2019, just in time for no one to show up for summer 2020 reservations. This double-whammy isolation pushes Regan into a state of recollection and reverie. In leaving her cosmopolitan chef-life, we learn, Regan is really looking to return aboard the elusive mothership of childhood. The Michigan peninsula somehow evokes that old Indiana farm (one wonders why Regan didn’t simply move back to Indiana—however, as Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go home again, perhaps especially so when you are a queer woman and home is a deep red state passing restrictive abortion, transphobic, and homophobic laws with every passing week (disclosure: I live in Indiana)). Regan’s ache and nostalgia for the wild yeast-and-pollen propagating farmhouse, ruled by larger-than-life parents and much older siblings, is what drives her to build the Inn: “That in some way [the guests] get that magic of the farmhouse I grew up in.” In the UP she can create a more sustainable version of this world—yes, where the privileged elite are her clientele, but where she also feels she can be conscious of resources and “do it with a less heavy heart.”

Of course, the heavy heart remains; there are loggers and potential fires and dangerous wildlife up in northern Michigan. As Regan forages for plants, nuts, and fungi, she walks over the ancient tree growth razed by machines and men. These walks remind her of the times when food was collected both before and after her birth, like the black walnuts her grandfather Wayne and father cracked open by driving over them with the family Oldsmobile, sending rogue nuts through the windows of the farmhouse the night of Regan’s conception.

Mushrooms, dreams, grief—there is a lot swirling around inside Regan’s head as she lives off the land in near isolation during the spring and summer months in the Upper Peninsula. Mushrooms become an elaborate (if somewhat contrived) metaphor for Regan’s own personhood and sexuality; dreams summon nightmare scenarios of transitioning into manhood by literally becoming her father. Regan’s drive to open restaurants and the Milkweed Inn, as well as to write professionally (Fieldwork is her second published memoir) stems from her inability to deal with the untimely death of her sister Bunny. The narrative shuttles back and forth between the past, present, and future. Gender identity and lineage are two linchpins of the text: Regan has spent most of her life wishing for a penis, to finally become a man, but also desires to give birth. She is a living refutation of the gender binary.

Fieldwork is a swift and engaging read, but I often leave one scene feeling both over-satiated and hungry for something more. At its most frustrating, Regan’s prose leads into simultaneously trite and curiously unforaged territory. Consider this flashback to childhood:

Standing in that farmhouse yard, in my boy shorts packed with a sock rolled up into a ball, shirtless and staring up at the sky, I saw my whole life. I might’ve even known how it would end. I was only five, but I think I knew things because I was possessed by my ancestors, or by something else altogether, like the trees, the air, the earth. Mother Nature.

As Regan’s adult perspective overtakes this tender memory, I become suspicious. What exactly does it mean, for a white person who makes a living from the fine dining hospitality industry, to be possessed by her ‘ancestors’ (ancestors who never lived within Regan’s ecological muse, the Hiawatha National Forest)? Regan discusses family histories involving her Polish great-grandmother growing vegetables and harvesting borowiki (Polish for boletus) for czarnina (duck blood soup), mixed in with some Slavic folklore about the Leshy, a “shape-shifting god of the forest.” However, without even an attempt at analyzing her personal ancestry in connection (or disconnection) to those histories of the various Indigenous tribes of the Hiawatha territory, these family stories read as thin gruel. Regan’s indistinct nature worship, with references to “Mother Nature,” read as lazy, appropriated, vaguely Indigenous spirituality. Instead of bringing us closer to the sensitive, nature-tuned little girl who wishes to become a boy, or an eco-conscious chef wanting to pass down generational appreciation for the natural world, Regan inadvertently highlights the true unnamed tension in the book: that by “living off the grid,” Regan enacts the privileged, white settler lifestyle she so judiciously distances herself from.

Regan’s lack of perspective and reliance on platitudinous references are ultimately what irritate and distract me from her moving personal narrative. I find myself insisting that there are richer, more precise, even languorous ways to go about describing one’s fascination with the earth. Compare these two sections on the formative, complicated, perplexing relationship between humankind and nature. The first is Regan, the latter is Annie Dillard:

But 1984 was important because it was the year I fell in love with the forest, though sometimes it was scary. Seemed like I also liked things that made me afraid. Fear was the proof that we were living, or something like that. Somehow I knew I’d come to live in the forest someday. Maybe I willed it? Maybe it was my trips to the forest with Dad? Or it could have been the way Mom cooked mushrooms or how we collected hazelnuts and mulberries together. Or maybe I ended up out here because sometimes things like that are in your blood. It’s who you are. A lot of scientists do years of fieldwork to come to their conclusions. I started my fieldwork in 1984.

And here is Dillard’s fieldwork in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

At the time of Lewis and Clark, setting the prairies on fire was a well-known signal that meant, “Come down to the water.” It was an extravagant gesture, but we can’t do less. If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames. 

This is the language of life or death, nuance, minutiae, and Dillard herself; the former, of hedging one’s bets. Like Regan, Dillard is no scientist, but she allows herself to be swept up in the elements that make her eyes burn and her head spin. Rarely does she have answers to the confounding things she sees and records, but rather passionate observations that overtake her, and therefore her readers in a splendid display of illuminating words, thoughts, objections, points, and counterpoints. The nucleus, however, is an arrow sticking straight out of her own heart, and something like blood is spilt upon the page. Notice the declarative agency of her words: “‘Come down to the water’”; “we can’t do less”; “everywhere I look I see fire.” These are Dillard-facts, the accumulation of which creates a textual world that we wash up on the shore of, rubbing our amazed eyes to better see this landscape of certainty. Regan is not nearly so confident, stifling her prose with question marks and maybes: “Maybe I willed it? Maybe it was my trips . . . ? Or it could have been . . .” Both writers are describing their awe of nature, but only one bestows her reader with it. As if to divert any weighty criticism of this writing approach, Regan writes in her sources section, “I am not a mycologist, botanist, ecologist, or anthropologist. Much of the way I write about the world and nature in particular is how I have imagined it to function.” Privilege-laden and spooked by its privilege, this text lacks the panting devotion that suffuses Dillard’s memoiristic nature writing. With the unfortunate subtitle A Forager’s Memoir, the overall effect is that the book has not earned its own name.

Perhaps mistaking writing for professional cooking, Regan is waiting for a paying customer to show up on her doorstep before she shows us the goods she has. But this is not how writing, nor nature for that matter, works. You must be willing to pick up what nature is putting down. This memoir, after all, is about seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, foraging, is it not? In picking up a memoir, we deliver ourselves into the hands of an observer of the self, and the observed through that singular self.

For all its drawbacks, there is something planted in these pages, and I am rooting for Regan to nurture it. In one lovely moment near the end of the book, she seems to stumble upon something revealing:

I used a foldable, pocket-sized magnifying glass to watch the ant until the headlights from the Polaris became brighter than the natural light. She held a globe of honey dew in her mandibles. She pulled it to her mouth and the sticky juice ran down her nonexistent chin. She followed the aphids over and under the winding curves of the milkweed’s leaves. She was full of sugar, buzzed, stumble-swaying like a drunk person.   

Here I am, reading this section, scruffed, nose up against something. Watching Regan watch the ant, I feel the command of her voice, a notable point of view getting closer to its purpose of storytelling, and notice, this part isn’t even really about anything; just the illumination of the self through the eye of the beholder. This level of care is fleeting in the book, but it is occasionally there. I’m waiting for Regan to say, “Come down to the water.” If she had something to show me, I’d follow.

Jennifer Lynn Christie is a writer and user experience developer living in Bloomington, IN. Her reviews have appeared at Entropy, Denver Quarterly, Newfound, and Full Stop. Her stories have appeared in Best of the Net, Heavy Feather Review, Always Crashing, and elsewhere. 

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