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The Solace of Nature
Kathleen Dean Moore
by Scott F. Parker
Walt Whitman once wrote, “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on—have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear—what remains? Nature remains.” Nature, for Kathleen Dean Moore, is the refuge of last resort in times of grief as well as in times of meaninglessness. As she quotes from Rachel Carson in the epigraph to Wild Comfort, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
A reserve of strength is just what Moore needed in the wake of several loved ones dying in a short time, and it’s the search for that strength that drives her book. Instead of a through-narrative, though, Wild Comfort comprises twenty-eight short pieces linked by the theme Moore offers right up front: “I am trying to understand this, the power of water, air, earth, and time to bring gladness gradually from grief and to restore meaning to lives that seem empty or unmoored.” On the following page she offers her solution, which she develops throughout the book via careful attention and sustained reflection: “The Earth holds every possibility inside it, and the mystery of transformation, one thing into another. This is the wildest comfort. That’s what this book is about.”
With plenty of room for exceptions, the pieces tend to open with Moore exploring (hiking, camping, kayaking, and more) the wilderness (in Oregon, Alaska, Mexico, and elsewhere). As an experienced nature-goer, Moore knows to slow down amidst her explorations enough that she really notices and engages her surroundings, which allows her to reflect abstractly and insightfully on what she sees. For example, in “Winter Geese in a Green Field,” Moore is in Oregon watching flocks of geese. The geese refuse to move in a pattern she can recognize and she grows frustrated searching for the right analogy: a shaken rug—no; a shiver down a dog’s spine—no; children playing crack the whip—better, but no; commuters fleeing terrorists—no. Before long, the silliness of her frustration occurs to her: “How are we to make any sense out of anything? Is this what it means to be human—to search and search for meaning in a world that has none? To sit in damp grass day after day, waiting for geese to somehow organize themselves into one great true sentence written in the sky? It’s absurd.” And following close on the insight is the solace she finds again and again in nature: “Why am I looking for meaning instead of looking for geese?” Or, from another piece in the book: “My experience is that as soon as I write down the moral of a story about the natural world, something takes me by surprise.”
This is one of the lessons Moore takes again and again from nature:
We are not:
The purpose of the universe.
The universe does not:
Exist for our sakes.
The trick, Moore thinks, is learning to appreciate what’s here—the miracle of existence. And grief can remind us to be grateful. In “Things With Feathers,” she describes her friend Franz the last time she saw him before he was killed in a car accident:
Sitting in a camp chair in front of a U.S. Forest Service sign that read, “Do Not Feed the Animals,” he was feeding the birds, breaking bread into small pieces and tucking the pieces into his wool cap, into folds on his shoulders, putting pieces of bread on his knees, in the crook of his elbow, holding bread out in his hand . . . A jay landed on his knee. Another swooped across his face to take the offering from his shoulder. Jays gathered in the branches above him and dropped onto his head. With his eyes scrunched shut and his smile beatific, my friend was hidden behind a flurry of gray feathers, flaring tails, the swirling, crying birds. This did not keep him from dying, but for that moment, it seemed as if he could fly.
Moments like these resist sentimentality because of Moore’s awareness and description of nature. (“Rain that fell like dead weight all winter long defies gravity in the spring.” Do people not from Oregon know how accurate this is?) The prose, with its studied focus on beauty, mystery, and life, begs to be read slowly. The pace of the writing wonderfully mimics, and thereby evokes, the calming effect of meandering through a forest or watching waves crash over rocks, making Wild Comfort not a can’t-put-down but a must-put-down book. Moore’s thoughts are the kind that only come to one in times of calm, and to get them you must enter into their space. When reading, for example, “Every moment we are glad for the twilight of morning, we are not vexed,” it’s necessary to stop, picture the twilight of morning, and feel the absence of vexation. In slowing us down like this, on pretty much every page, Moore asks us to join her in being present—and in the comfort that ensues.
What Moore is offering here is a vision of what she calls the “secular sacred.” But what makes the book such a soul-soothing read is that we don't just learn what she means by “secular sacred” (“Secular: living in the world. Sacred: worthy of reverence and awe.”); we experience it with her. She points it out: “Is candlelight caught in a beer bottle any less the star-rimmed edge of an angel’s wing? The glass in the bottle is sand, fused by fire into something that still glitters. And what is sand?—black urchin spines, fallen stars, unimaginable time.” And then she invites us in: “If the universe is an unfolding bud, then I am a part of its creative surge, along with the flowing of water and the growing of pines. I can find a kind of camaraderie in the universe, once I recover from the astonishment of it. Or maybe not camaraderie exactly. What is the opposite of loneliness?” Because, when we take the time to notice, there’s so much to be thankful for: “We are called to live lives of gratitude, joy, and caring, profoundly moved by the bare fact that we live in the time of the singing birds.”
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010