I search the web for others' takes on nature writing, so why not offer my own? I hope you'll respond. Here's more on the blog philosophy.

November 12, 2007

A Comfort Reading List

Some might say this is no time to comfort ourselves reading about nature when nature is so severely threatened. Still, comfort we must have at times, whether we're in the throes of insomnia or overwhelmed by predictions of environmental apocalypse. I've published an Amazon list of books I turn to.

November 10, 2007

In Deep: Country Essays by Maxine Kumin

How many writers have led lives of sustained contentment? How many personal essays express happiness and fulfillment in almost every line? Wouldn't such consistency bore readers? Not necessarily. Maxine Kumin's In Deep: Country Essays draws us into a happiness as varied as beauty. She has married herself to her plot of New Hampshire woods, her immense garden, her horses, and her farmhouse. Her essays revel in the dignity of labor that follows the seasons, in curious and succulent language, and in the hard-earned bounty of a New England farm. In Deep has a loose, eclectic feel. It rambles between jubilant descriptions of the way horses move, journal entries, affectionate ruminations on Thoreau, and a disquisition on the parallels between poet and mule. Her affection for the homey and oldfashioned shows in the following passage:

On the opposite wall a framed poster advertises the virtues of the Andes stove, a porcelain monster foursquare on its black bowlegs. Makes poor cooks good and good cooks better, reads the unabashed slogan. Not an extravagant claim, its unvarnished declarations suits this country kitchen. Nothing fancy takes place here.
The same cannot be said for her prose, which is often fancy. Kumin has an elegant, precise, pedantic style. She addresses us warmly in the mode of the traditional familiar essay, a kind of Oxford parlor talk. When her parlor talk treats of muck and mules, she takes a mischeivous pleasure in the dissonance. She likes to juxtapose the rustic with the cultured within a sentence, like "My favorite kitchen artist is a cookstove artist with birch and poplar chunks in the maw of his old ironsides." "Maw" takes us back to Beowulf; "Old ironsides" is jaunty Mark Twain vernacular.

Kumin finds the most amusing dissonance, however, within her own person. In her bib overalls, she comments that her son "would prefer a mother who dressed in matching beige sweaters and skirts and a single strand of pearls." She has discovered her place in life as a born-again farm matron as well as a New England establishment poet. As a result, she can take play with the rhythms and precise diction of formal prose without taking the prose or herself seriously.

My father, an incorrigible fungophobe, did not want to hear my favorite chapter of the book, "Mushroom Hunting." Nevertheless, I read excerpts aloud on a recent plane ride to Los Angeles. As my father likes witty and peculiar language as much as he dislikes mushrooms, he did not stop me. I read, "Attractive, showy, as seductive as the jacket of a trashy novel and displaying to the uninitiate all desirable mushroom qualities, the amanita nods its cap throughout the growing season." I read, "Among mycophagists (mushroom eaters), toadstool is considered a cruel epithet to be disavowed along with various other racist and sexist expressions." I read, "Should you cut open the thick-skinned scleroderma, its purply black inner flesh will repel your appetite, but even this bitter old bird is not dangerous." My father grimaced and smiled.

Kumin refuses to preach, and she doesn't seek out mystery as much as other nature writers do. She is too busy melting the ice in her horses' drinking troughs and picking spaghetti squash. She is too busy marveling over the names and natures of funghi like "chicken-of-the-woods," the spiny-toothed "pig's trotter," and the "horn of plenty (otherwise known as the trumpet of death)." She relishes the particular, not for what it implies about the cosmos, but for itself. She writes, "Without religious faith and without the certitude such faith brings, I must take my only comfort from the natural order of things." Few of her readers find ourselves as rooted in the world as she is in her farm. We catch a glimpse, in her essays, of what physical contact with a place and its creatures over many years might feel like.

November 5, 2007

First Church of the Higher Elevations by Peter Anderson

It is a rare book that can speak both to earnest seekers and people who find religion annoying. Peter Anderson’s First Church of the Higher Elevations, a meditation on decades of wandering in the Rockies, manages. In a review in Mountain Gazette, Kurt Caswell testifies,
When I picked up Peter Anderson’s book, “First Church of the Higher Elevations,” I prayed that he would not preach to me. I didn’t want to hear that my sins condemned me and that seeking God was my one path to salvation. I just wanted to read good prose about mountain adventures. By the time I finished the book, my attitude had oriented itself in the opposite direction. Enough of these mountains, I thought. Tell me more about how to find God.
We never learn just what Anderson thinks God is. The point is not to resolve theological conundrums. The point is to search for a direct encounter. Anderson makes it easy for us to join him. He avoids false notes of dogmatism or self-righteousness even as he looks back on Quaker seminary and his two mountain-priest mentors, a Santa Fe padre, and a nineteenth-century Italian hermit. He doesn’t feel compelled to come up with grand-slam epiphanies. Far from stodgy, Anderson sings "Wild Thing" in a downpour among oak trees, quotes from Dharma Bums, and stays for another draft at the Lariat Saloon. He uses words like “schlepp,” worries about escaped convicts, and counts the days until he sees his wife. His descriptions of beauty are spare and unaffected. In one of my favorite passages, he sits near a ridgeline and watches.
A bumblebee zips by and rides the west wind into an updraft, headed for a vanishing point in flat-bottomed clouds reflecting the reds from the canyons below. For a few moments the air is still. Then another wind wave breaks across the crest of the ridge, carrying a swallowtail that has just taken off from a red clover blossom. It is gone a hundred feet before it moves a wing. Adios angelito.
Anderson makes his faith palpable without making it improbable. By faith, I mean an awareness, dim or acute, explicit or implicit, of what I want to call presence. This “presence” is no supernatural deity, but an essence that surrounds and inheres in us and in nature. It is inseparable from the quality of attention that Anderson brings. It is inseparable, too, from absence. This kind of faith is not the opposite of doubt. It includes uncertainty, loneliness, and disappointment. Most of Anderson's expeditions involve a lot of time wondering what he’s doing out there. Even his moments of joy are handled with a light touch, as if they implied lingering questions. He muses,
The tangible gifts I find on this mountain–the shade of an aspen tree, a clear-running creek, waves of blooming wildflowers–are reassuring when prayer invites me into an experience of Presence that often feels more like absence.
Anderson draws most heavily on the religious tradition of Quakerism. He quotes Quaker theologians, yet he mentions few Quaker associates or Quaker places of worship. In Quaker meeting on Sunday mornings, people sit together quietly and rise to speak if the spirit moves them. Like them, Anderson believes there is “that of God in every person,” and he seeks God’s presence in simplicity and silence. My own father is Quaker, and when I visit his meeting, I sometimes feel the silence as Yeats heard the lake water lapping at Innisfree--I hear it in the deep heart's core. I sense a similar stillness in the chapters of First Church of the Higher Elevations.

My father had a queer reaction when I told him about Anderson’s book. “I love the mountains, but I'm not someone who finds God there, at least not particularly there,” he said. “I find God in my relations with people. To me the mountains feel like escape.” He couldn’t imagine a Quaker spirituality outside communal worship and human dealings with other humans. Many religious people of all creeds, I imagine, would agree with him.

Most nature writing, on the other hand, finds spirituality in solitude. Thoreau and Emerson praised the individual’s communion with the divine through nature, and the genre still follows their lead. Yet a book like First Church of the Higher Elevations is not so solitary as it might seem. If I sense presence when I read it, I am sensing that presence only through Anderson. Anderson does not keep his experience of presence to himself. He wants, perhaps needs, to share it. Reader and writer do meet for worship in these pages, though they must both imagine the meeting.

Additional Links:
Peter Anderson is the editor of Pilgrimmage Magazine and the poetry editor of Mountain Gazette.
The April 2005 issue of Friends Bulletin contains "Father, in Fragments," a poem I wrote some time ago about my father and his Quaker spirituality.