Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir
Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir rambles over rough terrain of food and family. Set during the recent pandemic and written as a non-linear sequel to chef Iliana Regan’s earlier book, Fieldwork’s chapters are linked by family stories of foraging, food, and cooking, but what’s found alongside mulberries and lobster mushrooms are inter-generational trauma, substance abuse, and pain.
Regan describes the daily life of living alongside bears and wolves, bats, migratory birds, and other wildlife surrounding her Milkweed Inn, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Regan’s writing is heartfelt and lyrical, especially when writing of the forests of her adopted home: “before the blueberries come, the strawberries ripen. The strawberries dangle under trifolate leaves and before the strawberries grow, the ferns curl like G clefs, eventually unfurling into long spindly leaves. Each fern is a fractal. One leaf looks like the entire thing and one fragment of the entire leaf looks like the entire leaf. It’s a phenomenon that is all over the universe: out bodies, our fingerprints, the trees, the mycorrhizal networks underground, the constellations.”
Occasionally, she references favorite meals she cooks at the Inn or elsewhere, providing not recipes as much as an overview of ingredients and ratios. While she describes her perceptions of logging’s impact on nearby forests, she recounts no scientific, historical, or management information to give a larger perspective.
And that is what makes Fieldwork a less than satisfying memoir. While her observations are sharp-eyed and her voice strong, Regan relies exclusively on a personal reporting that short-circuits the probing reflection and unexpected but illuminating conclusions that memoirs typically lead to. This is especially so when Regan recounts family stories of often traumatic events.
Regan’s remembrances of foraging with her mother for mulberries to make czarina soup, a recipe that’s also a family heirloom, leads to Regan’s mother recounting tapping maples with her alcoholic father, who initiates his preteen daughter into drinking. Multi-generational alcoholism and possibly incest fracture Regan’s maternal line, and Regan grows up as the youngest of four older, often substance-using sisters raised by a depressed, beer-drinking mother and an affectionate, protective, and patriarchal father.
Her stance as a narrator is especially disquieting regarding her father, whose family was close and more stable (except for the father’s brother, a terrifyingly dangerous man who stalks Regan). Her father “lied a lot. Not big lies but little ones, the kind that weren’t necessary.”
Regan, in turn, often expresses that she imagines what happened when recounting family experiences or other events. Early in Fieldwork, Regan details her chronic, tormenting anxiety, but what is anxiety if not an unreliable imagination?
Regan’s descriptions of her father’s violence show it largely directed to controlling his daughters’ sexuality or their (seemingly regular) use of serious drugs, or to hunting and fishing to feed his family and friends. Regan fishes regularly to feed her guests, and as a chef, knows better than most the blood-red business of death serving life. The wolves and bears she lives near, and whom she holds in high regard, kill for the same reasons she and her father do, namely to keep alive family, friends, and self. Yet Regan doesn’t challenge herself to reflect on these and other similarities between herself and her father.
Unfortunately, Fieldwork is riddled with lost opportunities for the nuanced, challenging self-reflection that should animate a memoir. Nonetheless, readers who seek out stories of family dysfunction written by an author with a strong voice and an impressive command of craft will find Fieldwork compelling reading.