Wilderness, Memoir and the Outdoors Life

A few years ago I did a book review column that really meant a lot to me.  (Then, in the pre-blog era, I did them every month and they are still archived in the “reviews” section here at the website.)  I told about a new nature writer that Iholdfast.jpg discovered, a woman who occasionally writes for Orion, and whose work I really, really loved.  Her name is Kathleen Dean Moore and one of her wonderful books is called Pine Island Paradox.  Another is called Holdfast, another is Riverwalking and they are truly among some of the best essays I’ve read, drawing out themes of philosophy and religion, marriage and family and commitment, caring for home and caring for nature.  And, lots of good ol’ adventure, outdoorsy stuff.  You can read that review here, and I would be pleased if you did, as I still hold her work in utmost respect. 

I’ve rarely found anyone who can write like she does, but the nature writing genre continues to grow and there are authors who take my breath away.  My wife Beth and I have both recently finished the stunning and haunting book trespass.jpgTrespass: Living on the Edge of the Promised Land (North Point Press; $15.00) by Amy Irvine, and we continue to talk about it as it haunts us so.  Set in the Redland canyons and deserts of Utah, it evokes a very strong sense of the place making for a memorable reading journey;  I was  holding those last few chapters, reading slowly, so I could savor them, when I heard that it had been chosen as the Orion magazine Book of the Year.  Orion is a remarkably literate environmentalist journal, with contributors like and Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry and Terry Tempest Williams.  I have to say I’m a little proud for choosing Trespass before they did.   I may write more about it eventually, as it is a serious study of belonging amidst hostility (the redneck locals hate “tree huggers and the upright, Mormon locals hate anybody who isn’t like them, it seems) of competing visions of progress, a story, finally, of loss and hope.  Irvine and her husband work to protect wilderness land, even as in the Bush years, land was being sold off for drilling and desecration.  She tells of her time in the desert, recovering from a dysfunctional family of origin, coping with her own inner turmoil as she bonds with her passionate new husband, recalling ancient Pueblo culture and not-so-ancient Mormon history.  It is a heavy and beautifully written book, insightful and lovely and troubling and unforgettable.  And so keenly aware of place: colors, smells, experience of light and soil, temperature, sensations of God’s extraordinary creation near the famous four corners region of South Eastern Utah.  Like Terry Tempest Williams’ famous Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, this is quintessential nature writing woven together with a woman’s own memoir full of politics and faith and love.  It is a wonderful sort of literature that I truly love.

Other similiar “nature” books are also memoiristic, but with less inner turmoil, less back-story.  These kind of books narrate a journey into the woods, into the wilderness, tell about adventure or hi-jinx, hard living or joyous contemplation of beauty, farming or gardening, but they are, well, just that.  Shorter on biography or politics, they tell the tale of what happened when, and show you around the place.  Think of the great Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods which is his beloved tale of hiking the Appalachian trail.  Often the ones I like may not even be about a canoe trip or wilderness climb, but are just reflections on a ordinary life with a particularly clear sense of place; that is, they are the memoir of what Russell Scott Saunder’s called, in a lovely book by this name, “staying put.”  For those who love the great out of doors, or enjoy the slower life, these make nice reminders of the beauty of nature, and are perfect for a day off, Sabbath reading, or a book to take along on a day hike or vacation. 

Here are a few you might like:

One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World Gordon Hempton (Free Press) $26.00  This new book is written as a road trip story, a guy in his Vee Dub, and a bunch of high tech recording equipment, trying to find places of utter quiet.  Hempton is the world’s leading recording of environmental sounds, and his “one square inch of silence” project (which includes trying to chance jet patterns and resist tourist helicopter rides above National Parks) is incredibly important.  Here, he tells of what he sees, who he meets up with, the places he goes and, mostly, what he hears.  Documentarian Ken Burns calls it “a gem of a book.”  Includes an enhanced CD with sound recordings and photos from his historic trek. 

We Took to the Woods  Louise Dickinson Rich  (Down East Books) $16.95  The New York Times wrote in 1942 that this was “uncommonly good reading…” and to this day, it stands as a classic study of a cherished dream awakened into full life.  She and her husband lived in the back-country of Maine and wrote these reflections after her morning chores each day.  She continued to write for magazines (from Outdoor Life to the Saturday Evening Post to Good Housekeeping, even.)  Very nice.

Reading the Lanugage of Home  John Elder (Harvard University Press) $20.50   I have written atreading the mountains.jpg length about this mavelously literate book, one of my all time favorites,  I read it at a time that it moved me very, very deeply and have found myself telling folks about it ever since.  Elder is known in the environmental/nature writing world, and here he spends a year (as a lit prof) reading–and doing—a late and relatively unknown Robert Frost poem.  It is mostly about paying attention to the woods around your place, which Elder does in a series of hikes, culminating in a dangerous maiden voyage of a canoe he and his son made.  The book is thrilling for it’s attentiveness to place, for the descriptions of New England landscapes, for the joys of a day hiker.  And, it is very, very important for how it frames the history of thinking about landscape and wilderness in the United States, blaming some key figures for macho disinterest in Eastern landscapes in favor of the more rugged Western terrain.  This is really, really brilliant—natural history, philosophy, ecology, poetry, and family drama, in one exquiste work.  Here is my older review of this and some others… 

This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm  Scott Chaskey (Penguin) $14.00  Travel writer Peter Matthiessen write
s “An almanac and handbook for the community organic gardener, with hard-earned practical lessons in counterpoint with fine touches of insight, poetry, and the earthy lyricism of weather and the seasons.”  Another reviews says, “Chaskey’s book is so well-rooted that one can almost shake the fine Amagansett silt from its binding.”  A great reminder about our connection to the land, and a lovely meditation on life lived in harmony with nature, in service to a purposeful cause.

A Northern Front: New & Selected Essays  John Kildebrand (Borealis Books) $22.95  It may be that handsome collections of smart essays published by the Minnesota Historical Society don’t often show up on lists provided by theological booksellers, but this rare treat is, indeed, a treat.  I suspect if first learned of it through our favorite rural memoirist, Michael Perry, or perhaps by poet/undertaker Thomas Lynch, who has called Hildebrand “one of our most reliable and essential witnesses—as essayist of that most daring sort that sets forth on a sea of words, relying on language to keep afloat his searches in the natural and interior worlds.”  Liked to Aldo Leopold or Edward Hoagland, he writes brilliantly and “leads without pushing, emotes without gushing, chums readers with scraps of information yet leaves them sated.”  Mostly set in the northern climes, it says this on the back cover: “both as a place, and an idea of that place—and reveals the passionate ways Americans define a given land as home.”

Bone Deep in Landscape: Writing, Reading, and Place  Mary Clearman Blew (Oklahoma University Press) $12.95  This is mostly one woman’s life in the Rocky Mountains West, and excellent writing about prairies and blizzards and scorching sun, set in Montana and Idaho.  Very enjoyable, this is part of the on-going Literature of the American West” series.

The Wild Places  Robert Macfarlane (Penguin) $15.00  This celebrated and passionate author writes of genuinely wild places in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales as he embarks on a series of breathtaking and beautifully described treks. From climbing to swimming, in all kinds of weather, he gets to snowy woods and ancient meadows and rugged cliffs and phoshporescent seas…well, his prose is stunning, his travels amazing.  As one reviewer notes “Prose as precise as this is not just evocative.  It is a manifesto in itself.  Macfarlane’s language urges us to gaze more closely at the wonders around us, to take notice, to remind ourselves how thrillingly alive a spell in the wild can make us feel.”  Vivid and joyful.

Desert Solitaire Edward Abby (Touchstone) $14.95  One simply cannot avoid the presence of this book on the landscape of nature writers and desert ecological activists.  Considered a masterpiece of the genre, it inspires and informs Williams and Irving and Moore and others, and is cited by folks as diverse as farmer Wendell Berry and Al Gore.  Of course he was a curmudgeon, didn’t like the fancy day trippers who came to his canyon-land and his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang inspired militant folk trying to protect the earth from irreparable harm.  I loved this lonely, beautiful work and hope some might take it to heart.

Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape: Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks  Bill McKibben (Crown) $16.95  McKibben is beloved as an essayist, social critic, and environmentalist.  Here, he writes in straightforward prose the story of this grand, classic trail. Great for anyone who likes hiking.

Out There: In the Wild in a Wired Age  Ted Kerasote (Voyageur Press) $16.95  This little hardback is about paddling a wilderness river, from the vastness of Canada’s Northwest Territories to the Arctic Ocean, and is a reflection on (one would think) “getting away from it all.”  Yet, with the advent of satellite phones, this is about his paddling partner’s decisions to stay in touch with others.  Adventure travel.  Wired world.  Remoteness and solitude.  Cell phones and cyberwires.  This is a thoughtful bit of nature writing with some good musings on the meaning of the nature of our times.  Highly recommended.  He also wrote When The Wild Calls: Wilderness Reflections from a Sportsman’s Notebook  (Taylor Trade; $24.95.)

The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature
  Gerald May
Wisdom of Wilderness 2.jpg         (Harper) $13.95  My goodness, how I loved this book.  I suppose it isn’t fair to list it as a category of pure nature writing, since May is very eager to share his spiritual journey, the healing he experiences, even as he was dying of cancer.  Who knew that his eminent psychologist cum spiritual director was such an outdoorsman?  With a lovely introduction by Parker Palmer, this narrates his hikes and treks, some exciting encounters (with a bear) and some rather mundane insights, exquisitely told.  As Tilden Edwards notes, “Anyone reading this precious gem can’t help but be left closer to their own true nature, the nature of the earth’s wilderness that we share, and the wild loving wisdom that mysteriously animates and guides our steps.”  Mysterious and touching.

A Leaky Tent is a Piece of Paradise: 20 Young Writers on Finding a Place in the Natural World  edited by Bonnie Tsui  (Sierra Club Books) $19.99  This is not your “fathers” nature writing or sportsman’s guide.  Here are edgy young writers doing essays about integrating nature into their lives, and how they struggle to balance travel and home, branching out and having roots, going far and eating local.  Some are pretty outrageous, some inspiring, a couple pretty amazing.  These short pieces are all by serious, under 30 writers, kicking back and telling it straight.  Actually, it is pretty remarkable and a lot of fun.

Two in the Wild
edited by Susan Fox Rogers (Vintage) $13.00  Women’s outdoors adventure writing is nearly its own genre, and this is representative of some of the great stories, writing and insights offered by gutsy women who lace up their boots and head out to climb, hike, bike or travel all over the globe—together.  Some of these are pretty fun, a few quite tender, all are well written. 

Living on Wilderness Time: 200 Days Alone in America’s Wild Places
  Melissa Walker (University of Virginia Press) $24.95  This heavy hardback is made well, rugged, I suppose, like the content.  Here the author is one the road, on the loose, in the wilderness (as one reviewer noted.)  She thinks and lives outside the boundaries, and has been likened to the glorious and influential writer Rick Bass.  What an odyssey, this mid-life woman, setting out to discover adventure in order to discover life.  Risky, solid,  rare.

Soul Survivor: A Spiritual Quest Through 40 Days and 40 Nights of Mountain Solitude
Paul Hawker (Northstone) $15.95.  I chuckled when the little “category” tag on the back of this paperback reads “spiritual adventure.”  Yep, that is it;  Hawker felt  “restless and rudderless” in his mid-40s and he set off to reclaim his spiritual self by going solo to the treacherous Tararua Mountain Range in New Zealand.  The author is a well respected TV documentary producer and here he bares his own soul, even as he explores
the snowy peaks.

Temple Stream: A Rural Odyssey  Bill Roorbach (Dial) $14.00  I am not sure where I first discovered Roorbach’s prose, but he is renowned as a writer—” a marvel in a genre that’s tough to master” says National Geographic.  One reviewer said, “You’ll be homesick for a place you’ve never visited.”  This chronicles Roorbach’s determination to explore a stream from its mouth to its elusive source.  What fun.

Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees Nalini M. Nadkarni (Universitybetween earth and sky.jpg of California Press) $24.95  This handsome hardback is a delight to hold, and a book like few others.  Nadkami is a scientist and a poet, a scholar and activist.  Here is what it says in the flyleaf: “World-renowned canopy biologist Nadkarni has climbed trees on four continents with scientists, students, artists, clergymen, musicians, activists, loggers, legislators, and Inuits, gathering diverse perspective on our affinities with trees.”  Between Earth and Sky is a rich tapestry of personal stories, information, and illustrations, from science to symbol, culture, and religion.  Fascinating, learned, and altogether satisfying.

American Earth: Environmental Writings Since Thoreau  Edited by Bill McKibben (Library of America) $40.00  I cannot tell you how solid this sturdy hardback is, with ribbon marker and solid pages full of the best nature writing of our recent centuries.  Essential writings from Walt Whitman to John Muir, Frederick Law Olmsted to Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot; Aldo Leopold, John McPhee and Paul Hawkens and Buckminister Fuller.  There are those who we ought to have on our shelves: E.B. White, John Steinbeck, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and a few surprises (P.T. Barnum, Woody Guthrie, Lyndon Johnson, Philip K. Dick) and some contemporary classics such as Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver and Barbara Kingsolver.  Happily, a few important theologians are included such as Cal DeWitt The introduction to each writer’s excerpt is exceptionally useful and are themselves an education in literature, science, ecology, and beauty.  We cannot recommend this enough.  The best book of its kind.

For those who may want an overtly spiritual approach to relating faith and the outdoors, of course we might recommend any number of books on God’s care for creation, our task as human stewards, and titles on Biblically-inspired books on Earth-keeping. (Just for instance, how ’bout the recent and great Green Revolution: Coming Together for Creation Care by Ben Lowe (IVP; $15.00) or   Some, though, are more specifically about recreation, enjoying wilderness experiences, finding God while in nature,  even devotions in the wilderness.  Here are some that fit that bill.  There really are some interesting ones, that’s for sure. 

A Spiritual Field Guide: Meditations for the Outdoors compiled by Bernard Brady & Mark Neuzil (Brazos) $12.99  A handy collection of very thoughtful meditations from the likes of Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, Francis Schaeffer, and more.  The most thoughtful collection of its kind, with an outlined plan good for day hikes, or can be used on longer treks following another suggested cycle of readings. Once again, kudos to Brazos.
devotions for outdoors adventures.jpgDevotions for Outdoor Adventures  Larry Wiggins, Jack Harris & Amy Garascia  $10.95  Created by friends of Hearts & Minds, we are proud to promote this lovely paperback full of devotional thoughts from and for (as the subtitle puts it) Backpackers, Hikers, Climbers, Canoeists, and Other Outdoor Enthusiasts.  These are solid evangelical reflections on the Word and the world, inspiring, insightful and perfect for the outdoors.  Handsome pen and ink drawings of cliffs, crags, birds, and such are themselves worth meditation upon.  Nothing quite like it in print!

Earth’s Echoes: Sacred Encounters with Nature  Robert Hamma (Sorin) $12.95  An inter-faith perspective by a Catholic author invites seekers of all kind to find God in nature by way of a series of lyric exercises and experience.  From the seashore to the forest, mountaintops, or meadows, these brief meditations are jumping off places for learning to pray by experiences God in creation.  A very attractive little book!

When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature Thomas Merton (Sorin) $16.95  This compact hardback collects some of the most extraordinary nature writings, and some of the more mundane observations, by the beloved monk and mystic.  Merton’s love of nature is well known; these wise ruminations were prescient in foreshadowing a faith-based appreciation for creation and an ethic of stewardship.

Sacred Earth: Writers on Nature & Spirit compiled by Jason Gardner (New World Library) $12.95  This is a splendid, compact sized collection of some of the great nature writers of our time, from Edward Abbey to Chet Raymo, Diane Ackerman to Sue Hubbell.  Most are not overtly religious, fewer are obviously Christian.  Still, taking the likes of Wallace Stegner or Barry Lopez into the woods can be a marvelous experience.

Earth Gospel.jpgEarth Gospel: A Guide to Prayer for God’s Creation  Sam Hamilton-Poore (Upper Room) $18.00  This is truly a full-on prayer book, a green one, with Biblical prayers, litanies and written prayers and meditations.  Nothing like it in print!

Renewal in the Wilderness: A Spiritual Guide to Connecting
renewal in the wilderness.jpg with God in the Natural World  John Lionberger (Skylight Paths) $16.99  The opening story of this guys coming to experience God for the first time on a wilderness trek with Outward Bound mid-life trip is itself worth the price of the book.  This guy, who had been thoroughly unchurched, found himself drawn to Christ and eventually became ordained, commissioned to help others experience God’s presence in the outdoors.  He brings an interfaith approach, from a mainline church setting, leading trips of various sorts.  Clear, inspiring, fun, helpful.

A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism  Rabbi Mike Comins (Jewish Lights) $16.99  It may sound a bit corny, but Torah Trek is a specifically Jewish outdoor education ministry, and these stories which explore the connections between God, wilderness and Judaism and fabulous for anyone to read.  Mindfulness exercises for the trail, meditative walking practices, Four-Winds wisdom from the Jewish tradition and m
ore.  Grounded and practical.  Who knew?

God in the Wilderness: Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Great Outdoors with the Adventure
Rabbi  Rabbi Jamie Korngold (Doubleday) $11.95  It has to take some chutzpah to use a moniker like “Adventure Rabbi” but this Reform Jewish woman rabbi has it.  And, here, she wisely weave ancient teachings with personal narrative of her time in the outdoors, her leading trips, and doing remarkable Scripture study in the grandeur of creation’s wilds.  Despite our hectic pace, she maintains, people of any or no faiths can find renewal in the wilderness, and appreciate nature as God’s good gift.  Very nicely done.

landscape as sacred space.jpgLandscape as Sacred Space: Metaphors for the Spiritual Journey  Steven Lewis (Cascade) $16.00  This brief work is a significant contribution to spirituality and theology that is exceptional and important.  Nearly brilliant, reflective, insightful and very compelling, this study draws on the serious work of Beldan Lane and articulates how land and place can help in spiritual formation.  Physical spaces are named in the Bible–mountaintops, valleys, deserts, rivers–and these clearly serve as symbols on our journey, apt metaphors for moments in everyone’s life.  Anyone interested in the outdoors and who enters into wilderness experiences will surely find this a helpful companion for thinking about what can be learned in creation, not so much about creation itself, but about our inner landscapes.

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountaintop Spirituality
Solace of Fierce Landscapes.jpg Beldan Lane (Oxford University Press) $17.95  This is a classic and beloved narration of this thoughtful theologian and spiritual director doing both mountain and desert hikes, drawing deeply on the Biblical material and the legacy of “desert” or “mountain” spirituality writers.  Part hiking guide, travel narrative and theological study, this is spirituality at it’s finest, interacting with creation, journey, wilderness and Scripture.  Serious, hefty and very rewarding.  Highly recommended for serious students and well loved by many.

Landscape of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality  Beldan Lane (Johns Hopkins University Press) $25.00   An innovative and scholarly study that broke new ground (no pun intended) this historical survey traces how geography and place shapes spirituality writing.  This is an under-appreciated text, significant and serious.

The Fragrance of God  Vigen Guroian (Eerdmans) $13.00  This is a wonderful and wondrous little book by a mature and elegant writer, an Orthodox scholar and ethicist, writing here lovely prose about, well, gardening and his own journey through life.  Great stories, great illustrations, homilies, even.  As Frederica Mathewes-Green says of it, “Earthy in all the best senses.  (It) recalls us to the beauty of creation.  Guroian is expert at demolishing the kind of spirituality that gets overly spiritualized; he reminds us that God fills and blesses this blooming, growing, changing world.”  Equally rewarding is his lovely little similiar volume Inheriting the Garden: Meditations on Gardening  (Eerdmans) $ 12.00.  Gotta love a guy who plants keeping in mind the colors of the liturgical calander.

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