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

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.


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
) 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.


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
, 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

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

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.