Pine Island Paradox and Good Writing to Help Us Care for the Earth

I write this month’s column in solemn and joyful memory of my beloved mother-in-law, Helen Ott Gross, lover of God, family, creation. She, too, would have enjoyed this book.

For a few marvelous hours on a few late summer days in early September, I sat either on a small granite cliff overlooking the Susquehanna River or in a nearby woods with moss and mildew, bugs and bark at my side. I read one of the most nicely written, thoughtful and enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time.

The Pine Island Paradox ($20.00) is published by a classy nonprofit literary press, which creates lovely environmental books. The genre of nature writing has blossomed in recent decades, and MilkWeed Editions is in the forefront.

So is the author, Kathleen Dean Moore. She is a sturdy outdoorsperson, a bit of an environmental activist, a mom and mother and — get this — a philosophy professor at Oregon State University. Her beautiful Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water is a classic among smart paddlers; I read it alongside the more politically-charged My Life According to Water by David James Duncan. (Big aside: if you haven’t yet read Duncan ‘s hilarious novel The River Why, the first fiction published by Sierra Club Books, you should order it today. It does for fishing and Christian faith what Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance did for, well, Zen and motorcycles.)

Kathleen Dean Moore’s second book, Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World, is just now out in paperback, and I will save it until weather and leaves turn in a few weeks. Books this generous and luminous about creation need, for me, to be read out of doors. Or at least by a good window.

The Pine Island Paradox powerfully surprised me, not only by the superlative prose, but by how soon I came to care about the author. Some nature writers draw me to the glories of their subject; Moore invited me not only to nature but also into her joys, her fears, her family, her life. Interestingly (well, maybe not since the vicariousness of this is so obvious), I wouldn’t want to go on the rugged adventure — gently described as it is — to this remote island off the coast of Alaska. I would not want to paddle a kayak — well, just about anywhere, to be honest, but certainly not through bay fog so thick at early dawn that one cannot see the front of the boat. The midnight canoeing appeals to me a bit (I’ve done that on a local moonlit lake), but the prospect of being smashed into icy arctic water by a harbor seal, or worse, produced enough anxiety just reading about it. And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the b

Man, I think, this woman is brave. Or dumb. What kind of a vacation is it to sit coldly under a small tarp as a serious storm threatens your safety and sanity? Why would one want to risk such significant discomfort, lugging all sorts of supplies to this hard-to-get-to pined island? Ahhh, to read her ruminations is to answer the question. Even I, a lazy landlubber, had my breath taken, and I was a bit envious as I read of her sublime experiences in the wild.

Moore can write. She makes the skillful observations of a naturalist and has the philosopher’s eye for the deeper things and a kindly sense of the ways in which her family members react to their surroundings.

In fact, for all its unfriendly weather and indifferent algae, the island is a place all the members of my family are deeply attached to, a place where we embrace each other, coming from far away to rejoice at the chance to stand together in the rain. I’m trying to understand the oddity of this attraction. But the fact remains that when I remember images from all our trips to the island, they are — as often as not — images of love. Well, rain. But also love.

My attraction to The Pine Island Paradox initially was not that it was reviewed as a well-written collection of nature essays. It was the announced structure and intention of the book: as a philosopher and camper, Ms. Moore is asking — by way of lovely memoir — a question that haunts me, a matter elusive and yet central to my (our?) calling of promoting the development of a culturally-relevant Christian mind and worldview. She is trying to understand dualisms and dichotomies.
Anyone who has bought our favorite worldview books, like The Transforming Vision or Creation Regained or Heaven is a Place on Earth (which I generically related to race issues last month, and in the previous month’s column, to matters of citizenship and
faith-based politics), knows that they make much of how a false and unbiblical split-level view of things has debilitated faithful Christian living. Moore’s reflections, I thought, might help us think once again about overcoming these bad assumptions — those which are often named as a secular/sacred dualism or a nature/grace dichotomy. The resulting privatization of faith and secularization of perception is deadly for Christian spirituality, and especially problematic for a wise and passionate involvement in public life, the arts, sciences and such. When I hear of books that reflect on anything close to these kind of concerns, I perk up.

So here, a renowned nature memoirist and philosopher is trying to experience and write about her sense of place in order to understand three plaguing examples of dualism: human/nature, near/far and sacred/mundane. Moore does not approach these commonplace and influential construals as an evangelical (although she does take a stab at a few biblical discussions). Nor does she write as a philosopher. But her beautiful essays do cohere around these themes, giving them, without hardly noticing, a weightier import. It is as wonderful an exercise in philosophizing au natural as you will find.

For instance, those with ears to hear may plumb deeper meaning from a passage such as this:

“¦I push aside the rubber stems of bull kelp, searching at the edge of water for the place where the land ends and the sea begins. I can stand in the dark heart of the hemlock forest, feel planted firmly on duff, and say, “This is Pine Island,” or slosh knee-keep into the bay and say, “This is the Pacific Ocean.” But the distinction doesn’t hold up at the edges. The more closely I search, the more elusive the edge becomes. Diving cormorants roost in the crown of the red cedar by the bay, but barnacles grow on the roots that rake the water. Are these land or sea, and at what particular time of day or night? How should I classify my wading children, all water and laughter? And what do I make of the places between the high and low tides, these half-island, half-sea slopes of anemones and sea slugs — the grasping, wincing things?

Again and again, I face an island’s paradox: Not even an island is an island”¦any geographer will tell you that an island is in fact only a high point in the continuous skin of the planet, the small part we can see of hidden substance that connects everything on earth. It’s a sign — a beautiful, rock-solid, bird-spattered sign — of the wholeness of being, the intricate interdependencies that link people and places.

This may give you the impression that Island is only about her remarkable camping trips to the Pacific coast island and Southeast Alaska, and her vivid description of hemlocks and bears and seawater and rain. Actually, this is only the first third of the book, where she is insisting that we overcome the drastic split between that which is human and that which is nature. (And even the island is only one of the settings; my favorite chapter in the whole book is a precious piece about her beloved father near his death, who had been a scientist with a penchant for studying molds and fungus. Dare I say it moved me to tears?)

In the next portion of the book, she ruminates about the question of whether we can find a care for the wholeness of things, even far-away things, by learning to love a special, near place. Her ecological intuitions bear good fruit as she describes “an island in a river” (the name of this section). In a great chapter, she tells of dynamiting a little dam on a small river, which made life hard for cutthroat trout. When she and her husband bought the land that straddles the Marys River, they inherited this dam. They decided to blow it up.

Some essays are a bit more polemical and not all detailed description of flora and fauna and family. But they seem to revolve in some manner around this near vs. far formulation. One excellent piece is entitled, “Where should I live and what should I live for?” She insightfully revisits the question that I took from John Elder’s classic, Reading the Mountains of Home, when I reviewed it here several years ago — the question that Thoreau asked regarding loving a local place and what constitutes “wildness.”

Moore admittedly is a nature writer. She does not live in the wild. (As she puts it, “Day and night, I hear the pump on my neighbor’s artificial waterfall, drowning out even the sound of rain on my own roof. The neighbor’s bedroom window is ten feet from my own, and when she runs her clothes dryer, I breathe ClingFree fabric softener for hours.”) She struggles with questions of sustainability, both of the economy and environment, of what it means to care for wilderness and to yet pay attention to our own natural environment. And yet there is her own calling and vocation.

Nature writers ever since Thoreau have moved to the woods, deliberately, to learn what it has to teach. I know a writer who lives in a hemlock forest on the edge of Thimbleberry Bay, where humpback whales spout and the salt air is so thick it glistens in her hair. I know a nature writer who lives on a salmon stream in the Pacific coast range and looks out his window into the top of a Douglas-fir. Another lives on stilts on the tide”¦ Am I the only nature writer left in town? I’m ferociously jealous of writers who wake up to birdsong, and I’m nervous about the leg up I imagine they must have, living so close to the sources of their inspiration. When I read their essays about living in place, I get depressed and anxious, worried that when I come to die, I will discover that I have not lived — just what Thoreau predicted. Or worse, I will write dully or stupidly of wild places like a cave salamander describing a flight of crows”¦

She wonderfully explores this paradox, wondering “if town-dweller nature writers are oxymorons? Or worse, fakes?” And she wonders about the ethics of the time and money and environmental impact of her rather lavish expeditions. These are important questions and my citation doesn’t do the wonderful chapter justice. What do we live for? Not a bad question for any kind of a writer, or any kind of reader.

Lastly, in the third and final section of the book (“A Coastal Island”), she attempts to break down the classic dichotomy between the sacred and the mundane. Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, and other Christian writers (not to mention those from other faiths) have written widely and wonderfully about this. As a philosopher, Moore surely would have more to say than what is disclosed here. We here at the bookstore are grateful that there are many excellent books on these themes that have come out recently, about finding God’s presence amidst the world of stuff. The disastrous secularization of “nature” has been studied well in the important recent book by scientist/theologian Alister McGrath, The Reenchantment of Nature: The Denial of Religion and the Ecological Crisis. An evangelical alternative to piety disconnected to things of daily life is seen, for instance, in Presbyterian author, Eugene Peterson, and is written about sweetly, as we often point
out, by Richard Foster. We have often recommended Cindy Crosby’s nicely written memoir of planting midwestern wheat grass as a prayer exercise in By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer (a book with a subtitle using landscape that, in fact, means literal landscape). We love the award-winning Australian book by Michael Frost that we stock called Seeing God in the Ordinary, not only for its good content, but just for the clarity of the title. (For a few annotations of books more specifically on creation care, click on the button of our website marked “Books by Vocation” and search for the bibliography on environmental science.)

Kathleen Moore is not writing this kind of Christian spirituality. She is doing memoir, nature writing, family observations, public philosophy. Her concerns about finding deep meaning in creation, though, are so beautifully rendered and commensurate with a Christian worldview that I believe her work to be a major and very valuable contribution to our understanding. The Pine Island Paradox calls us to care, to be responsible, to live in gratitude. Although I find her prose style more vibrant and pleasurable than Wendell Berry or Bill McKibben (two wonderfully clear and powerful writers), readers familiar with their body of work will see the connection. This is rich, good reading.

Wilderness types will find much here to enjoy, even more to ponder. Philosophers who need a break from the scholarly minutia of academic texts will find refreshment here as Moore obliquely raises some of the central questions of our time. And armchair travelers like me, too busy, tired, timid or broke to take camping adventures, may at least be inspired to pay attention a bit more to the life that throbs around us, to care about birds and plants and weather and sky, to appreciate once again the essential glories of life in God’s good world. It will invite all of us to live responsibly, with a renewed conservationist ethic, against the tides of our times, even in hope.

After an exquisite few paragraphs describing the wonder of what she was observing on an island hike, she writes, “The wilderness is a witness, standing tall and terrible in the storm at the edge of the sea. A wild forest confronts us with what we have done. It reminds us of what we have lost. And it gives us a vision of what — in some way — might live again.”

* * *

Kathleen Dean Moore is a marvelous writer with a philosophical and political agenda, but her bias, while operative, lays low in her writing. Her splendid essays and glorious description of everyday beauties and concerns lead the way.

Orion magazine (or, online at is written often in a similar voice; lately, though, it has become increasingly urgent and assertive in its cultural criticism and environmental advocacy. They’ve released a handsome little set of hand-sized paperbacks that we’ve mentioned here before and which need to be mentioned again now that a fourth volume has been released. First was the now classic In the Presence of Fear by Wendell Berry, written after the tragedies of 9-11. Berry wrote for them again, along with an angry piece by David James Duncan, in Citizens Dissent. Both are excellent.

After being so taken with Moore’s Pine Island book, I took up the three essays in the third of the Orion series, Patriotism and the American Land, and was deeply moved.

The first piece there is by Richard Nelson, the Alaskan State Writer, who describes well a trip to the Tongass National Forest. He sees his work, most specifically against the Bush administration’s efforts to sell these public lands for oil development, as the truest sort of patriotism. He calls on all true American patriots to, as Native Indian elders know, “pledge allegiance to the soil.” It is a good and inspiring essay.

The second chapter in this little volume is by esteemed naturalist Barry Lopez. Lopez brilliantly traces the history of a few key thinkers in the history of conservation. From the 18th century writings of Gilbert White (and, yes, Darwin) on through Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, to newer generation activists, journalists and nature writers, Lopez tells of their inspiring contributions which are so needed for the current public policy debates. He, like Nelson, writes with a sense of urgency, knowing the real and irreversible danger our public lands and animal habitats are now under.

Hear, though, how he gives in a final page a passionate plea for paying attention to the life sciences:

What being a naturalist has come to mean to me, sitting mornings and evenings by the river, hearing the clack of herons through the creak of swallows over the screams of osprey under the purl of fox sparrows, so far removed from White and Darwin and Leopold and even Carson, is this: pay attention to the mystery. Apprentice to the best apprentices. Rediscover in nature your own biology. Write and speak with appreciation for all you have been gifted. Recognize that a politics with no biology, or a politics without field biology, or a political platform in which human biological requirements form but one plank, is a vision of the gates of Hell.

Perhaps that is worth considering in this election season.

The final chapter in this little Orion book is clear, to the point, and I found it exceptionally inspiring. It is Utah nature writer Terry Tempest Williams’ tribute to ecological pioneer Rachel Carson. Even as Carson was dying of cancer herself (ironic and hidden from the public), she, with great dignity, fought the chemical companies’ aggressive backlash against her. Carson, you should know, worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and lovingly wrote bestselling books about ocean and seashore life. And, as Williams puts it, “then came Silent Spring.”

Carson told the truth about DDT, about pesticides, about toxic chemicals in the watersheds and in the food chain. She predicted an epidemic of cancers. She gained the ear of John F. Kennedy. One U.S. Senator called Silent Spring equal to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its impact and predicted that it would change the course of history. A graduate of Pittsburgh’s Chatham College, Carson was a visionary and brave citizen and public servant.

Williams ends her tribute to Rachel Carson with this:

There are many forms of terrorism. Environmental degradation is one of them. We have an opportunity to shift the emphasis on American independence to American interdependence and redefine what acts of responsibility count as heroism. Protecting the lands we love and working on behalf of the safety of our communities from the poisoned residue of corporate and governmental neglect must surely be chief among them. Perhaps this is what the idea of “homeland security” is meant to be in times of terror.

The fourth, newest book in the Orion series is wonderfully provocative. It is called The Open Spaces of Democracy ($8.00) and is written by Terry Tempest Williams. Enhanced with paintings by progressive activist artist Mary Frank, Williams has written an extended reflection on the ways democracy needs open spaces of diverse opinion, fair and safe and wild dialogue. She opens the book with a description of a mildly anti-war commencement speech she gave, in which she made the case for a pluralism of views and independent thinking and applauded those who demonstrate for their views. She then told of the ways in which she was shouted down by some in the crowd and belittled by other dignitaries and her congressperson. (In a way, this is an open letter to him, after the angry congressman wrote to her, asking her what she was willing to die for.)

In a fascinating poetic move, Williams proposes that the metaphor of open civic debate so central (and rare, it seems) to flourishing democracy is actually rooted in literal open spaces of geography. In The Open Spaces , Williams powerfully challenges the corporate takeover of once-public lands, shows how citizens’ action groups can organize around resistance to the abuse of land, suburban sprawl and real estate speculation.

Williams’ story of her own local citizenry resisting a sinister sell-out of an important bit of Utah land was incredibly inspiring to me, even as we campaign against the expansion of a local Wal-Mart into a local farming region. (God bless these kinds of writers who help us do God’s will, even if they themselves don’t write books of a typically religious sort.) In prose lofty and inspiring, and with citations as diverse as Italian peace protestors with whom she dined at an exquisite all-night feast to lines from Lincoln and Whitman, she calls us again to protect democracy by forming community, caring for others, and protecting our natural places (which are so clearly now under attack). This is written in memoir style, poetically and with compassion, but transcends the “nature writing” genre. It is a call for good citizenship.

By organizing political engagement against those who would violate wilderness space, we not only act wisely for our future and for the planet’s future, but we recommit ourselves to the public good. (As Robert Redford puts it in an endorsing blurb on the back, this book “blends the symbolism of nature and democracy and draws readers down the road of personal engagement. It is both tough and thoughtful, harmonious and challenging. Her imaginative theory will inspire you to see more, feel more, do more.”)

As she writes eloquently about other species, wild lands and other natural wonders, Williams invites us to be attentive to our place on Earth. She writes, “To be in the service of something beyond ourselves — to be in the presence of something other than ourselves, together — this is where we can begin to craft a meaningful life where personal isolation and despair disappear through the shared engagement of a vibrant citizenry.”