Reading the Mountains of Home: books about wilderness, place and solace

There is no doubt that one of the notable trends of recent years is an attraction to the outdoors. From the ubiquitous SUVs to the popularity of outfitter stores and wilderness sports, many, many folks desire greater connection with land, sea and sky. While many Americans are still drawn to traditional outdoor recreational activities--hunting, boating and the like--there is a large and growing interest in rock climbing, back country backpacking and mountaineering. Even a recent IMAX documentary portrayed the story of a fatal expedition to Mt. Everest, inspired by the extraordinary mega-seller, Into Thin Air. In the new millennium, wilderness, as they say, is huge.

The CCO has been on the crest of this wave for over 20 years. For many, wilderness trips, spelunking adventures, and day trips to the Yough for white-water rafting have been routine planks of our ministry plans. The CCO has developed a reputation for thinking seriously about the nature and meaning of outdoor experiential education, considered from a thoughtful Christian perspective. CCO staff have, in fact, presented papers and offered workshops on wilderness experiences at national education events.

I could list numerous books that these wild guys and gals have found helpful--from Parker Palmer's little booklet on experiential education (complete with his classic rappelling story) to Houghton poetry professor John Leaux's wonderful Out Walking to Christian views of creation-care like Remembering Creation by Scott Hoezee or An Earth-Careful Way of Life by the late Lionel Basney. (I've added a new brief biblio of some remarkable books I've recently discovered at the end of this review, all related to this month's topic.)

Now, however, I would like to tell you about one truly extraordinary book entitled Reading The Mountains of Home by John Elder (Harvard University Press, $14.95). It is a calm book about a series of hikes taken by an experienced outdoorsman and literature professor over the course of a year. Reading... could have appeal not only to those interested in the out-of-doors, but, because it is so deeply reflective about poetry, it will be treasured by lovers of literature. Indeed, this extraordinary work combines natural history and literary criticism in such a wondrous way that I think it is best read, as I did, under a New Hampshire pine grove, by a 200-foot-deep mountain lake. Or, at least, take it slowly on your back porch or in a good chair. (I often study in the fields of contemporary culture, so my habit of reading in coffee shops and noisy public places seems fitting. This book calls out to be enjoyed with the sky in view.)

Significantly, though, Mr. Elder's work pushes us not only to the woods, but to the communities in which we find ourselves. Not unlike recent authors like Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez or Scott Saunder (Staying Put: Making Home in a Restless World) Elder is an author developing a "sense of place."

Although in league with Annie Dillard, Bill McKibben, Aldo Leopald, Gary Snyder or any number of wonderful "nature writers," Elders talks about his Vermont town and family as much as nature itself. Here is his penultimate point, I think; it is important and nearing brilliance, and should generate tons of discussion among those who specialize in wilderness trip ministries. Less in Thoreau and more in the tradition of nature writers since Sierra Club founder and explorer of the American West, John Muir, on through the recent flurry of books about high adventure, there is a sense that they despise human culture. Extreme wilderness terrain is overestimated and sought out in contrast to less dramatic landscapes. Elder thinks it is because those writers and naturalists who helped shape our understanding and assumptions about wilderness cut their teeth on the truly extraordinary and spectacular landscapes of the American West. Also, from the earliest days of the modern environmental movement (growing, as it did, again, largely in the West), there has been an emphasis on awesome, pristine and far-removed regions of wilderness. The ecological crisis has been framed as a conflict between (bad) human culture and (pristine) nature. The context of the exceptionally rugged Western terrain caused the earliest environmental writers to see wilderness as spaces untouched-by-human hands, something wholly other than the places in which we normally live. (Notice, too, the echoes of the philosophy called Romanticism. Did this ideology so shape their worldview that it led them to disdain modern industrial culture and over-emphasize pure nature? Or did the geographic facts of their truly incredible terrain push them toward a sort of romanticism?) This vision of wilderness as Something Other shows up in John Muir's dismissal of Thoreau's claim to find wildness in Massachusetts' huckleberry patches, in the famously feisty disdain for fellow humans in Edward Abby and his macho trip down the Colorado River (Desert Solitaire) and in the militant Earth-first activists who see humans as always hurtful of and inevitably pitted against nature.

At any rate, Elder describes this tendency much better than I can, and in much more eloquent ways. Of course, he favors protected wilderness areas; the hikes he describes in the book are, in fact, mostly taken in a legally-protected wilderness area, for which he has been a political advocate. Still, he describes the "Western wilderness ethic" which was oriented--in contrast to the less remote East coast--to "sublime religious visions in mountains so much loftier and more monolithic than these rounded, tree-wrapped ridges." He explains, discussing his fondness for the approach of Robert Frost:

"Frost...values wildness at the edge and even in the midst of civilization; he sees it not as a factor of extent or separation, but rather as a quality of mindful attentiveness promoted by vivid, sensually impressive contrasts. Thoreau loved the wetlands and other 'unproductive' areas not apart from but in relation to the cultivated lands, as revitalizing elements for entire regions. Growing up in the Bay Area, I relished occasional car trips into the vastness and beauty of the Sierra Nevada. But as a householder in Vermont, I love even more the tattered, recovering wilderness just outside our back door, where in every season our family can ramble among the crags that overhang our roof and that frame the playing fields of the children's schools."

Thus, Professor Elder gives us an exciting question to consider as we think about wilderness: why do we tend to think of wilderness in such ways--taking lengthy, expensive and sometimes dangerous adventure trips, relishing close-to-the-breaking-point experiences, requiring that we traverse literally on some of the most stunning pieces of geography on God's earth? Reading the Mountains of Home is a story of enjoying and engaging the local woods, climbing on nearby ragged cliffs, caring for the nearby flora and fauna, studying regional roads, once logging routes, meandering on streams which flow through his own village. Elder's hikes are not done far away from home, but nearby, as he becomes increasingly familiar with his own bio-region. They are hikes, in fact, that his wife and children have either taken with him or on their own; gone is the machismo of a mountain man telling stories of far-off expeditions, but rather the observations of a wanderer drawing insights about places with which he and many of his neighbors are familiar.

I'm ahead of myself in describing this insight of this great book. I am not sure that Elder set out to write a book contrasting the Western pure wilderness paradigm versus the East coast model of human culture in the midst of nature. This is just where his attentive hiking and reading led him. And this--the journey to read his own local wilderness area in the Green Mountains of Vermont--is what this wise book is about. It is really an intimately personal memoir of a man and a year's worth of day hikes.

But there is more, much more. Elder's journeys are inspired by a particular Robert Frost poem, "Directive," a long and perplexing work, considered by some to be among the poet's best. Let me quote from the first pages:

"In my crisscross explorations of these broken and thickly wooded slopes, I've relied upon the parallel guidance of the Forest Service's topographic maps and Robert Frost's great poem.... 'Directive' does more than any other text to illuminate this particular stretch of New England countryside for me. It integrates the narratives of geology, human settlement, and forest succession into a single, ongoing story. Reflecting about this poem has helped me understand how the mountains around our home assumed their present form, as well as what it might mean to identify with such a place on earth. 'Directive' opens by inviting a reader up into the heights. This is an invitation I've accepted with gratitude.... The seasons, boulders, trees, and animals of the Green Mountains deepen its meaning, image by image, and line by line."

In biblical studies we sometimes refer to the hermeneutical circle--that is, our insight from the text illumines our lives as we do what it says. Our insight gleaned from reflecting on our lives gives us (re)newed insight into the text which, again, sends us into life with yet an even more (re)formed worldview. There is a playful and essential interpretive interaction between text and life, living and reading. This exactly what Elder does with Robert Frost and his hikes.

So, our man takes up the poem, laces up his boots, and goes where it sends him. And what he sees in the Bristol Cliffs Wilderness Area, Hogback Mountain and in the ledges above Bristol, informs his rereading of the poem. Through this remarkable pilgrimage--poem in hand, Peterson Field Guides ("to atone for my liberal arts education") in his backpack--he comes to deep and serious realizations not just about his bio-region, but about his community, his family, his life.

There are pages here (lots of pages) about geology, flowers, leaves, rocks. Lots about glaciers. More natural history than I might otherwise care to know. But right when I was growing tired of talk about soil horizons, botany or bedrock, Elder slides seamlessly into breath-taking prose and then profound reflections, such as this passage, as he writes in December:

"The August woods retained a memory of July. And now, as the earth undertakes its cold passage through December, orbiting back toward June, I return in writing to the scene of my reiterated hike. Memory compounds and thickens like the third-growth woods above my Bristol home."

And, oh, how he loves the poets. Professor Elder cites Wordsworth, Wendell Berry, T.S. Elliott, St. Mark. The literary criticism is fabulously rich---cross-referencing authors and books and titles, doing exegesis of one line in light of the Vermont woods and another in light of the literary influences of Frost and his times. What a joy to have such a capable teacher as a trustworthy guide to these poet's voices. This, it seems to me, is how literary studies can be done--down-to-Earth, rooted in the real world of place: community, bridges, farms and fields. The book has garnered rave reviews from environmentalists, writers and literary scholars like.

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Walter Brueggemann has categorized the Hebrew Psalms in three ways: Psalms of Orientation, Psalms of Disorientation and Psalms of Reorientation. I kept thinking of this as I reflected on my own recent year of losses and disorientation and new growth; Elder's father dies part-way through the writing of this book. His work (that is, reading and walking) with "Directive" helps him struggle with lostness and foundness, with disorientation and reorientation. (Some of the poem deals specifically with such themes.) It is not an overstatement to say that Elder's work with this poem--experienced in the regenerated Vermont wilderness--was healing for him. And to this reader as well.

There were other sorrows as well. After the death of his beloved dog, Elder was reluctant to hike much further. Again, through Frost, he copes with grief and redefined expectations. He writes:

"When I read about the life of Frost, I resist focusing too much on the troubled and troubling aspects of the person behind the extraordinary poetry. I read these matters in the opposite direction. What triumph it was for this grief-beset and difficult man to affirm in lucid verse the world's health and wholeness, while at the same time never scanting the confusions of our human condition. Frost could only accomplish such a personal alchemy because he ventured forth faithfully to encounter nature's news..."

There is, I think, a biblical realism that undergirds much of Elder's ruminations. He knows the goodness of created things, he also knows that things are broken and less than whole (not the least of which is our alienation from and mistreatment of the Earth itself). He trusts for some sense of redemptive hope. He finds deep solace in his attentiveness to creation and in his love of good words written well. It is pivotal that such human healing and renewal can be facilitated in East coast wilderness exactly because it has been so used. We simply do not see in virginal forests and untouched mountain peaks the sense of redemptive restoration that one sees in once de-forested, now nearly wild, third-growth forests, growing up once again even amidst signs of human culture.

And this, I think, is how he came across hope: in God's faithfulness to the creation itself there is hope for us all. No where do I see this theme (with resonance from Jeremiah 31:35-36) more clearly than in Brooks Williams' marvelous song "Seven Sisters" (from Dead Sea Cafe) which could be considered a five-minute summary of Elder's book. Brooks tells us that the New England mountain chain of the song title is coming back, being renewed. Although he does not say it precisely, the images suggest that creation is healed, not as pristine, virginal mountains but amidst old logging settlements, 300-year-old villages, long-abandoned homes, amidst the anguish of our history of Native displacement, amidst highways, factories, schools, and governments. We need not be Romanticist about pure wilderness; we can appreciate and commune with God's creation even as it is found intermingled with the (sustainable) development of human culture. We can, as Wendell Berry often reminds us, develop a sense of place. We can find a groundedness in contemporary life, bringing together culture and agriculture (to use the subtitle of Berry's classic The Unsettling of America). If we pay attention to language and landscape, texts and topography, we can develop a properly human and humane environmental ethic which can help heal our land and, perhaps, as in both Elder's book and Williams' song, our own hearts as well.

Reading the Mountains of Home is a unique memoir, a delightful bit of natural history and glorious nature writing. It is a helpful reminder of the power of poetry and a fruitful take, particularly, on Robert Frost. I found it generative for my own ruminations on my life's connections with the Earth and very provocative in its discussion of a philosophy of wilderness that is less grand, mythic and Romantic and more natural, mundane, Easterly. And, like that favorite BW song, it gave me hope as my life finds its place in God's grand promise of the restoration of creation. Without knowing it, perhaps, nature lover, father, husband, small-town citizen and literary critic, John Elders, has given us a down-to-Earth explication of biblical hope. As a Hebrew poet and nature-lover from ancient Israel declared so many centuries ago, "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof."

See below for more books about wilderness, place and solace.

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The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Desert & Mountain Spirituality by Belden Lane (Oxford University Press, $27.50). A seriously complex book about the hard places of this Earth and how such landscapes have given rise to certain sorts of spiritualities. A great storyteller, Lane describes his outer and inner journeys with stops in fierce back-country, early Christian monasteries and the wild terrain of the Holy Land. Accompanied (not unlike Elders, who carried Frost) by the likes of Job, St. John of the Cross and Gregory of Nyssa, this is a learned and important book. See also his helpful Landscape of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality.

Out Walking: Reflections on Our Place in the Natural World by John Leax (Baker, $14.99). This handsome hardback is a slim collection of essays by poet John Leax, a writing professor at Houghton College. Wonderfully-written reflections on his experiences in his woodlot and garden make wonderful reading for those hiking in their own locale as Leax's eye sees much that ordinary folk would miss; his writing helps us see our own places for what they are. His forays into wild places further away are similarly delightful, and yet seemingly commonplace. A profound sense of God's presence and our moral responsibility to care for creation undergirds his vision, but the essays never become preachy. Nice.

Ecotherapy: Healing Ourselves by Howard Clinebell (Fortress, $19.00). A fascinating and important book, written by a mainline denominational pastoral counselor, making the case that environmental activism, interpersonal reconciliation and inner healing are intertwined: our alienation from creation not only hurts the environment, but our very souls. Intriguing examples illustrate his point, combining with rigorous social science research. Particularly interesting is his call to educators and mental health workers to integrate a truly wholistic, green perspective with their routine work--he is passionately convinced that we must help people work through their eco-alienation, offering profound opportunities to experience God's handiwork firsthand. Evangelical readers will be disappointed that this good work so heavily draws upon neo-pagan scholars and theologians of the far left, like Rosemary Reuther, Sally McFague or Matthew Fox. One needn't presume a theologically odd or pantheist worldview to appreciate much about this valuable book. I commend it to those who do outdoor education, those who work with or mentor those who find themselves ill at ease, those who need guidance in helping others find true wholeness. For, if Clinebell's years of pastoral care have taught him anything, it is that true human health is linked to finding our place amongst the creatures of this Earth. After reading this book, perhaps we too will use an "ecotherapy" framework for understanding Christian healing and growth.

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams (Vintage, $13.00). The Kansas City Star writes, "Profoundly moving...brilliantly conceived...one of the most significant environmental essays of our time." As the author's mother was dying of cancer caused by radiation from the government's Nevada nuclear bomb tests, she discusses bizarre ecological occurrences which threaten her beloved Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (near Salt Lake, Utah). A poet, a nature writer, and a woman in grief, Williams has given us a heroic book showing connections between ecological damage and disease as well as how solace can be found in creation. (Given recent revelations about continued radiation exposure--the government is now burning large grassland areas around nuclear weapons manufacturing plants, like Rocky Flats, Colorado--this haunting book is all the more timely and helpful. For documentation about recent radiation problems, see the special Autumn 2001 issue of Earth Island Journal.)

Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World by Scott Russell Sanders (Beacon, $15.00). Although not about wilderness, per se, this remarkable memoir tells of a family occupying the same two-story home on the same tree-lined street for two decades. These essays seek a sense of place, a sense of community and connectedness with the locale while searching for a sense of meaning amidst our hunger for home. Along with the very special collection Finding Home: Writing on Nature & Culture From Orion Magazine (edited by Peter Sauer), this helps us integrate--as John Elder did in the book reviewed above--our homes and towns and our need for the experience of nature, our ordinary lives and our attentiveness to our local ecology. Sweet, insightful writing with remarkable insights.

My Story as Told By Water by David James Duncan (Sierra Club Books, $24.95). What to say in a brief paragraph about this spectacular, funny, hopeful book? Many friends know that Duncan's two novels (The River Why and The Brothers K) are amongst our all-time favorites! (For our purposes here, The River Why is especially appropo as it is a hilarious story of a guy searching for the meaning of life while fly fishing his way up a river.) Here, Duncan has given us a long-awaited collection of urgent essays about the glory and devastation of Earth, the impact of dams, our complicity in dishonorable ways of living. Listen to these blurbs:

"Duncan is a profound and necessary American writer, a true inheritor of the passion, rage and keen-eyed wisdom found in Thoreau and Whitman. His essays leap and bound through the natural world as dazzlingly as do his beloved trout, and as wildly."

"My Story... is the real McCoy, vivid and important, full of urgent news about living on earth. Often very funny, it might have been an outright rant but for the truths it tells."

"Duncan is less a writer of nature than a force of nature. He sees the natural world with a child's delighted eye, interprets it with a shaman's craggy wisdom, describe it with words that incandesce and leave you breathless.... For people who love wild rivers and what they represent, this is an essential book. For the corporations who shamelessly divert our wild rivers into their cash flow, this is a dangerous book."

Don't miss this one! Even--maybe especially--if you don't care about fishing.

A Language Older Than Words by Derrick Jensen (Context, $16.00). Rarely have I been so enthralled with a book which contains so much with which to disagree. And rarely has one with such a radical critique of religious faith had so much insight. This is a controversial memoir of a serious, radical ecological activist, his coming to grips with his childhood sexual abuse (linking his immense pain and our culture's acceptance of rape, starvation and genocide to the Western Cartesian worldview). It is a cry from the heart to break through our culture's denial. As Frances Moore Lappe says of it, "Jensen has achieved the impossible: a book that is simultaneously horrifying and uplifting, terrifying and beautiful." And--get this!--it is also his story of his experiences talking with animals. Most of our world's indigenous people seem to experience intra-species communication, and Jensen bravely, humorously and cautiously experiments with talking to non-human creatures. For instance, he tells the coyotes not to eat his chickens and they oblige him. He isn't sure what to make of all this, and it is a light-hearted (if serious) reprieve from the detailed horror of injustice he describe in other parts of the book.

Do I really want to advertise this book in public (what will our fair readers think of Hearts & Minds now??). Passionate, angry and hitting too close to home in telling the gruesome details of how the gospel as been used to violate women, kill native people and enslave millions, A Language Older Than Words is still an important read. Jensen's journey is admirable, his insights many, his struggles, honest (he is not, for instance, a vegetarian, despite his desire for a respectful relationship with animals). I couldn't help but wonder what the world would be like if people of Christian faith took their beliefs as seriously as does this writer, if they made connections between the public and the personal, between lifestyle and politics, between belief and behavior. Read this with discernment, but only if you are prepared to be shocked and provoked. Within a solid and orthodox Christian worldview, we might say about this story something similar as this one reviewer:

"...a map to personal healing through the larger historical, economic, cosmological--and mostly mysterious--processes that are source and balm for our traumas...this book shows that when we are fully engaged with the world around us, the universe is our greatest ally."

Of Earth and Sky: Spiritual Lessons From Nature, compiled by Thomas Becknell (Augsburg, $15.99). In less competent hands, a collection of this sort could be shallow or sentimental, but here, Becknell brings together a host of classic and contemporary selections from more than 80 of the world's finest poets,writers and essayists to illustrate various virtues as taught by creation. A wonderful combination of spirituality, nature writing and literary art.

For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care by Steven Bouma-Prediger (Baker, $21.99). I did not want this list to be about creation care or texts about Christian views of environmental science, but rather literary works about our sense of place, our natural appreciation for and experience of creation and the need to perceive outdoor experiences and wilderness in less dramatic terms, as a healing part of our daily lives. Still, this wonderful, new work is so good that it deserves special mention. Add Bouma-Prediger to your list of other titles about ecology; he is an old friend of the CCO, a graduate of Toronto's Institute for Christian Studies (where he studied with Walsh & Middleton) who has now given us a wonderful book of theological depth by one who obviously cares about creation, offering the good news that there is divine hope for the desecrated earth. Very, very good and highly recommended.