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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.


Anonymous said...

I found your blog through google.

Your review of this book makes me want to read it.

An amateur naturalist I hiked with once is a pathologist. As we walked through the forest together he saw pathology everywhere. He saw disease and parasites killing the trees. He saw the effects of drought. It was his habit to look for such things.

Like Peter Anderson I tend to see God in the forest, in the desert and in the mountains where the pathologist saw disease. It is my habit.

I have been reading Darwin lately and after reading Darwin it is hard to see anything other than natural selection.

Maybe that means we see whatever it is that we read.

I noticed that you have not been posting reviews lately. I have saved your RSS page in case you do.

Anonymous said...

Very Interesting!
Thank You!