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Quick Reads for May 2018

May 24, 2018 by

five book covers for our may capsule reviews

Several years ago, in an Adirondack cabin, I found on the bookshelf a volume titled The Wild Muir:Twenty-Two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures. It was just the thing I needed to get myself and my children through a chilly late spring weekend when the lake trout weren’t quite biting and it wasn’t warm enough to swim yet. And as another summer looms, this collection of the naturalist’s wildest exploits (curated by Lee Stetson, who works as a Muir impersonator at Yosemite National Park) could become a family favorite of yours too, around a fire, inside or out.

It’s no exaggeration to say that most of these adventures were life-threatening, whether in the Florida swamps, the California peaks, or the Alaskan ice fields, and we should all be glad that Muir survived them and went on to become essentially the godfather of our national park system – indeed, the progenitor of the whole idea that wild spaces are worth protecting on their own merits.

So imagine my glee when I discovered that the Yosemite Conservancy had outdone themselves last year and published a second volume, appropriately titled The Wilder Muir. They’ve hired a different editor, but the black-and-white illustrations are the same, as is the heart-stopping quality of the tales. If you have sons or grandsons or godsons in your life, anywhere from ages five to fifteen, get both these books – but be ready to have them fought over if there are more boys than books.

John Muir was the prototypical American naturalist, and wrote voluminously, but his disciples have written some pretty good reads too. In that vein, this summer might be a good time to visit your dusty local public library or a used book sale and track down Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and Aldo Leopold. (I know, Amazon is easier, but there’s something adventuresome about finding the book yourself – and who knows what else you might find? But I digress.) In different ways, all three pay homage to God’s creation and how it must move us; all three also warn of the dangers of forming it too much to meet our human needs. To whet your appetite, I’ll share a favorite selection from each, and leave you to explore the rest.

Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is very 1960s: he’s irascible, ornery, profane, and non-religious, yet his account of his sojourn as a park ranger among the red rock arches of Utah is imbued with a spiritual sense of awe and a reverence for God’s handiwork, even if he might not acknowledge it as such. “Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless,” is a sentiment any lover of wild spaces and Joshua 1:9 can surely agree with.

Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek takes a more contemplative route to nature’s spirituality, putting it somewhat in opposition to Abbey’s rawhide toughness and occasional cynicism. But a close read of both reveals that they are cut from the same cloth, twin meditations on awe: “…it could be that our faithlessness is a cowering cowardice born of our very smallness, a massive failure of imagination. Certainly nature seems to exult in abounding radicality, extremism, anarchy. If we were to judge nature by its common sense or likelihood, we wouldn’t believe the world existed. In nature, improbabilities are the one stock in trade. The whole creation is one lunatic fringe. If creation had been left up to me, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the imagination or courage to do more than shape a single, reasonably sized atom, smooth as a snowball, and let it go at that.”

These writers pay homage to God’s creation but also warn of the dangers of forming it too much to meet our human needs. 

Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac predates Dillard and Abbey by several decades, and is focused on a small corner of Wisconsin, completing, with Abbey’s Utah canyons and Dillard’s Virginia valley, a triumvirate of disparate ecosystems. It is perhaps more down-to-earth than Dillard’s often-soaring prose, and certainly more elegant than Abbey’s bluster, although like both it contains astute observations of flora and fauna. At times elegiac and at times celebratory, Leopold loves his small corner of the world, and suggests we do the same, sometimes by simply watching it, and sometimes with more vigor: “Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree – and there will be one.”

Read any of these four authors – particularly outside, in a tent, up a tree, or at least at a picnic table – and I think you’ll find yourself agreeing with Brian Draper who recently said on the BBC’s Thought for the Day, “For me, as a Christian, any human disconnection we have with God’s creation, on the micro and macro level, can only truly start to heal as we allow ourselves that kind of joyful, loving connection – let’s call it communion – within it. I felt deeply moved to see my own first butterfly of the year yesterday . . . it filled me with great joy. How could it not? But it’s a powerful reminder, to me, too, that such joy is a weapon of love . . . with which to fight, not just for the greater happiness of those without, but for the well-being of our world.”

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Red Zimmerman

Red Zimmerman

Red Zimmerman lives at the Woodcrest Bruderhof and is the editor of Bruderhof.com.

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