The author, Kathleen Dean Moore, is an outdoorswoman par excellance and obviously spends much time in the backcountry. She writes well---really, really well—and tells of her hikes, kayaking adventures, and natural observations so beautifully that I longed for the book not to be finished. In that review I said that I wanted to wait until fall to sit amidst changing leaves and read her earlier book, Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World (published by The Lyons Press; $14.95.) It has been a too-busy year, I have not spent nearly enough time out in God’s good creation, and I have not found time or emotional space to get to that book. (Am I the only one that wants the time and mood to be right before I read a certain book?) It has been sitting in my bedroom for a year.
The caring for Beth’s dad these past hard weeks has put me, as I’ve said before, in a melancholy mood, which has directed my reading towards only the most wondrous reflections, beautiful writing, deeply meaningful prose and, yes, nature writers. I am in the middle of a really deep and highly literary collection of intellectual essays entitled A Field Guide To Getting Lost by award-winning Rebecca Solnit (Viking; $ 21.95) which is actually more diverse than I thought when I picked it up—it is more than just about getting lost on hikes, which is what I heard it was about. (She wrote the acclaimed book Wanderlust: The History of Walking a few years ago.) Interestingly, it blazes through all sorts of reflections and memories---the blue of distance, as she explains---and includes everything from the glamorization of urban ruin in the punk aesthetic of the 80’s to how someone becomes a “new person” in classic captivity narratives (“losing themselves” in their new idenity in a new culture.) It is ponderous and artsy and serious and I read just a chapter a day. Man. But there isn’t much of a field guide there; more finely tuned cultural criticism, really.
For more about real fields, and real animals, I’ve turned to Holdfast. This, my friends, has suddenly become one of my favorite books of the year! What a read! What a great essayist, a fine botanist, a sentimental family mom, a thoughtful college professor. And what a joy to find someone who is truly able to appreciate the joy of creation, to see the very hand of God in all things, to know her place in the world and long for great connection. It is no accident or mere turn of a phrase that the subtitle mentions being “at home.” And I suppose that is what I am longing for most poignantly, lately. Connection.
The book takes its title from a rather mysterious plant—a kind of kelp called bullwhip kelp—that marine biologists can’t quit figure out. Moore is so much more eloquent than I, but she starts the book with a luminous bit of prose, telling of the swaying of the kelp with the moving tides, and how it yet holds fast with a rather odd pile of something-or-other affixed with some kind of gunk on the bottom, technically called a holdfast. And so, she is off and running with a metaphor in her pack that means the world. How do we hold fast in a fast moving world? How to we grow and change (and move locations in our mobile society) and yet stay rooted? How can we have progress and tradition, fluidity and stability? You get the point. She does it all with huge nuance, joyful stories, meaningful, meaningful essays, with such insight, I want to emblazon it somehow on my forehead. I wish I could just read out lout half the pieces in here. And have the time to reflect on ordinary stuff as deeply as she.
(One, a rather unusual piece for this collection, is about her dressing up in Halloween costume, pretending to be a child, and it is hilarious with renegade zest and yet offers a frustrating glimpse into the plight of women academics. I know one dear scholar friend who may pee her pants when we send it to her, and then will grit her teeth by the perturbing story near the end.)
This is not, for the record, an intentionally Christian book; the one chapter which most overtly addresses Christian faith is well written and touching, but sadly shallow, it seems to me; a philosophy prof ought to know better. Still, most chapters are mature and precious. If you know anybody who loves nature, who does the wilderness stuff, who enjoys that genre we’ve come to term “nature writing” this is truly one of the very, very best. It fits my mood of mourning and yet has been a delight. To see another enjoy her surroundings, holding fast to a high environmental ethic, nurturing in her words a sense of place and yet tell the tales so very nicely-- this is a grand treat. Like the hardback Pine Island Paradox that so captured me late last summer, this one has become an all time favorite. I think I am going to start some of it all over again. And this time, take it outside on a rock by the Susquehanna River. Or at least my backyard, under the big maples behind the store. Why not buy the book from us and then tell me where you’re going to read it? Click here for our order form. I think it would be good for your soul.
To see pictures of Moore, some of her outings and, best, to read some excerpts of her three books, click here for her website. I'll maybe do an excerpt myself from Holdfast tomorrow.