“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth will find reserves of strength that endure as long as life lasts” -- Rachel Carson
In an effort to make sense of the deaths in quick succession of several loved ones, Kathleen Dean Moore turned to the comfort of the wild, making a series of excursions into ancient forests, wild rivers, remote deserts, and windswept islands to learn what the environment could teach her about loss and healing. This book is the record of her experience. It’s a stunning collection of carefully observed accounts of her life—tracking otters on the beach, cooking breakfast in the desert, canoeing in a snow squall, wading among migrating salmon in the dark—but it is also a profound meditation on the healing power of nature. In the wonder of the rush of water over rocks, in the joy over the sight of a cougar in a cow field, Moore finds the solace that comes from connection to the natural world, and from that astonishingly intimate connection arise hope and courage, healing and gratitude.
Moore is a respected and important figure among contemporary literary nature writers. Her precise and satisfying prose evokes the deeper meaning of nature in our lives. “The Earth holds every possibility inside it,” she writes, “and the mystery of transformation, one thing to another. This is the wildest comfort.”
“I don’t know what despair is, if it’s something or nothing, a kind of filling up or an emptying out. I don’t know what sorrow does to the world, what it adds or takes away. What I think I do know now is that sorrow is part of the Earth’s great cycles, flowing into the night like cool air sinking down a river course. To feel sorrow is to float on the pulse of the Earth, the surge from living to dying, from coming into being to ceasing to exist. Maybe this is why the Earth has the power over time to wash sorrow into a deeper pool, cold and shadowed. And maybe this is why, even though sorrow never disappears, it can make a deeper connection to the currents of life and so connect, somehow, to sources of wonder and solace.” – Wild Comfort, p. x.
Listen to the audio here.
Diane Ackerman, author of The Zookeeper’s Wife
—Diane Ackerman, author of The Zookeeper’s Wife
Scott Russell Sanders
– Scott Russell Sanders
– Sierra Club
My Old Friend, Sorrow
Hello old friend. You startled me, waiting there in fog and shadows underneath the bridge.
I remember your face.
I haven’t forgotten your name, although it’s been a long, long time.
Come sit in the bow of my boat. It’s beamy enough to hold the weight of both of us. We’ll ride the flood tide from the sand shingle through the woods and on beyond the tule reeds to the pastures where the black cows graze.
The tide will push us upstream, bending eelgrass to mark the current lines. Drowned arrow-weed will point to the broadest channels and warn us when a mud bank blocks a passage. So long past summer, the reeds will be bent and broken. The seed heads will be hollow, dipping in the stream.
I have floated with you before. I should not have been surprised to find you here.
See, there, beyond the log, a young deer turns its head to watch. It shudders tail to ears, tossing drops of light. We have paddled so near that I can see sky in the deer’s eyes. I look for the reflected shape of you and do not see you there.
The river doubles the world -- what it is, what it appears to be, two lichened firs, two spars, two storms that will blow through soon enough. I can see them coming some miles away and hear surf boom against the storm’s torn floor. Where our passing stirs the water, light splashes into overhanging limbs.
No need to paddle. We will float slowly, rotating upstream, keeping pace with what else floats -- small sticks, lichen blown from trees, a tongue of hemlock needles. There are marsh wrens chipping in the reeds. When the tide swings the boat around, you will see them there to starboard, streaked brown, almost hidden. I might have thought a fire had passed across the forest floor, shreds of smoke lifting behind the branches, separating each tree from the forest. But this is not smoke, rather mist on a saltwater swale, that same lifting. That haze.
Here are spiders, saving themselves on our hull. A wayward wind maybe, a reed suddenly released, and spiders find themselves tiptoeing across water. Let us paddle to shore and let them clamber from the boat to land. There will be no drowning of spiders seeking refuge on my boat.
No need to talk.
We know each other well enough.
A friend, so suddenly passed away. So quickly gone. Another. Another. Have you any words for this pain, my quiet passenger? Let us move carefully. This much weight can swamp a boat.
Single strands of spider silk drift above the tide. They catch on the deadfall. They catch on the bow, shine in the weak sun. I feel them land gently across my face. Here, in a narrow passage through reeds, the way is draped with a thousand silken threads. If I were to steer the boat through this passage, the glistening threads would collect across your form like blown scarves, and I would finally see the shape of Sorrow, outlined in silver light.
This cedar stump has been in the river so long, it has become an island. Angelica and hair-cap moss grow on its knees, lichen in its crown. Salt tide dampens its black flank. Cutthroat trout dapple the water in its shade. A merganser flies downstream, wincing to avoid us, but is it me or is it you who frightens her?
Let’s pull under the uprooted tree and snug the bow to the tall wall of roots and mud. What was life on its other side?--a tree reaching for light, a sudden wind, the torn roots, the deadened thud, and now a perch for the season’s last swallows. If you’re looking for life, you’ll find it in the upturned rootwad now, the dark, worm-carved mud, so suddenly thrown into storm light. Here are cinquefoil, bull-reed, red-stem, sprouting from the mud still clenched in the roots. And here, a mound of mud, patted smooth by black paws.
Is that a cormorant perched on the next stump-island? He snaps open his wings and leaves them outstretched, as if they were hung on the line, clipped by the elbows to dry in the dusk. When we get closer, he will pull in the laundry and lift his feet restlessly, one, then the other.
Too close: we’ve startled him. He runs across the water and flaps away.
Now the tide has slowed and stilled, swaying the grasses under a darkening sky. A smudge of violet in the south is all that’s left of the day. A white egret flaps downstream and jerks into a high perch. Tree frogs call. It’s so dark, I can barely make out the shore. Shadows blacken the Sitka spruce. And now the tide begins to run, the sinking sea drawing down the stream.
Time for you to paddle us home, old friend. In a flowing stream, it’s the bowsman who pulls the boat through the current. With this forward movement, the sternsman can steer the boat. Put your back to it, and I will steer us past the beaver-sharp smell of mud piles, through air heavy with cedars and marsh mint, the dank Sitka forest, into the smell of the salt sea, into the cooing of pigeons under the bridge.
Discussion and Activity Suggestions
In “Winter Prayer,” the author says she doesn’t know how to pray. Does she?
She speculates that prayer may be what happens when night falls over thought. What could that mean? Have you ever experienced such a night?
Is a child’s prayer a kind of prayer, or is it something else, as the author suspects? How is it prayer, how not?
The author writes blessings and sets them on fire. What is the burning intended to accomplish?
What is the relation between silence and prayer? Compare Mary Oliver, who writes that stillness creates a space in which another voice can be heard. Is there a difference between silence and quiet?
The essay ends as the branches of a fir tree lift, flinging off snow. Is that a prayerful motion? People around the world take various prayerful postures. What differences in belief do they signal?
Can a forest pray? Can a desert?
Do you know how to pray?
• Write a prayer, using only verbs.
• Lead people in prayer, using only your body.
• Go to a quiet place. Listen for a very long time. Later, remembering, draw a map of the sounds.
“Dog Salmon Moon” is partly a reflection on mortality and immortality. In what ways is a salmon immortal? One presumes that a human is at least as immortal as a salmon and in perhaps the same ways. Does that provide any comfort? How so or how not?
When a cabin is dismantled and the planks are used to build a boat, where is the cabin? When you die and your cells are dismantled into elements that become, say, an oak tree, where are you?
The author says nothing about the immortality of the soul, probably because she doesn’t know what to say. What would you tell her? When he was asked by his pastor whether he believed in life everlasting, the author’s father replied, “I am willing to be surprised.” Are you?
The essay ends with an image of the moon overwhelmed by the shadow of the earth. In fact, death is often represented as the passing of a shadow. What sense does that make?
• Imagine yourself five years after your death. Write down what you see and hear, smell, taste, in whatever circumstances you imagine you will be.
• Given what you believe about mortality and immortality, write a letter instructing your loved ones what to do with your body after you die. Assume no legal or cultural limits. Just let the disposal of your body be entirely true to what you believe.
• Catch a beautiful salmon. Kill it kindly. Broil it with butter and lemon and share it with friends. What is the grace you say before you eat?
In “Never Alone or Weary,” the author talks about “the one, beautiful, mysterious thing” that we (and the snow, and the bear, and the memory of birds) are part of. Some people might think that this is a ‘pretty good’ description of God. Do you? If so, say more. What is God? If not, say more: How is this description different from or similar to the God you know?
What difference does it make whether you do or do not call the “one, beautiful, mysterious thing” God? What do you gain from the label? What do you lose?
The author never says she believes in God. So does she or doesn’t she? But wait, there’s evidence: later, in the same essay, she says she feels alone without the God who supports her sister. So clearly, even if God exists, he is not present to the author. Right?
In “The Time for the Singing of Birds,” the author describes a friend who waited on the beach to hear the voice of God and went home disappointed. Did he hear the voice of God? Have you heard a seagull cry?—can that really be the voice of God? How so? Or, how of course not – that squawk!?
Landscape is deeply associated with the presence of the divine. What are the characteristics of the geographical places where God is said to have revealed himself to humans?
• Go to a place where you think God is likely to be. Spend the night there alone. Write a psalm in the morning.
• Create a space that you think is likely to welcome what is holy. Really: create it physically. Build it, plant it, dig it, or whatever you need to do as long as the place embodies your ideas, not traditional ideas or somebody else’s ideas of the divine.
• You get seventeen syllables – five on the first line, seven on the second, five on the third. In those syllables, describe the divine. No other rules, except there has to be an image of nature in there somewhere.
In “Repeat the Sounding Joy,” the author tells five stories about the natural world singing for joy. Have you ever heard the earth sing (with joy, or anger, and grief)? Tell that story.
Do you think the earth really does express any emotion, or is it simply, as the author speculates, resonating with human feelings?
It’s a struggle to celebrate the world, isn’t it, even as what we love is bulldozed, poisoned, slicked with oil. Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is no perfection. This is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives, but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary, it’s when you have to stand up and say halleluia.” Is he right? Then how do we sing and cry at the same time?
What are the traditional ways that religions celebrate? Is it time to invent new ones? What might they be? What would be reasons to create rituals of celebration outside of religious institutions, say in fish markets or cotton fields?
Can celebration be distinguished from gratitude?
• Assemble the choir in an imperiled place – beside a wetland about to be destroyed for a highway, on the road into the clearcut. With all your beautiful voices, sing halleluia, sing praises, sing joy to the world, even if it isn’t Christmas. Beckon people to join you; they will want to do this too.
• Take someone to a place that gives you joy. A child, an elder. Share the place. Share your feelings about it.
• Do a sound meditation in your group. One person begins by humming a tone. The others join in, responding in some way to that tone – creating harmony or dissonance, maybe a pulse. At some point the first person changes her pitch, and the others respond to this too. And so it goes. Sustain the chord, even as it changes. You have to listen and respond, to the whole and to the parts, and soon nothing exists but that chord, which is the world, which is hope, which is despair, which is halleluia.
In “The Recipe for Migas,” the author asks the purpose of pain. This, in different form, is one of the perennial questions of theology: If God is all powerful, and God is perfectly loving, why is there innocent suffering in the world? What is Frank’s answer? Might that biological answer be a theological answer as well?
Do you think that empathy, the ability to feel another person’s pain, is inherent, part of our genetic heritage, like the ability to feel our own pain? How could empathy have survival value?
Why do you think the teaching of compassion is part of all the world’s religions (as opposed, say, to all the world’s economics)? What is religious about compassion?
Do you believe there can be unfelt pain? Do you see symptoms around you?
How would you address the dilemma of the closed and open heart? That is, can you close your heart to some things and open it to others? Or is an open heart open to all suffering, all joy?
• Following the recipe in the essay, make migas together. Make them hot! Eat them at sunrise, some place outside where you can see the first shadows.
• Organize a story potluck. Each person brings a dish that has a story of a particular place. As they share the dish, passing it around the table, they share the story. You might choose a theme: Stories of compassion and friendship. Stories of ecological conservation and restoration. Stories of pain.
• Choose a group project to accomplish something tangible to reduce the amount of pain in the world. Don’t just raise money and send it off. Do the work yourself.
In a number of essays (“Wild Geese,” “A Joke My Father Used to Tell,” “If I Hadn’t Stopped,” “Possums”), the author struggles to answer existentialist questions of meaning. Why are we here? What is it all for? Why is there something rather than nothing? We see her calling “Help” to an empty sky. People of religious faith turn to God for answers to questions of ultimate meaning. But without God, where does the author turn?
What do you believe is the meaning of human life? Or do you think there is no meaning?
Or do you agree with Rachel Carson that “that truth” haunts and ever eludes us?
Or do you agree more fully with Dostoyevsky, who avoided the question, writing, “One must love life before loving its meaning. If love of life disappears, no meaning can console us.”
Or again, what do you think of the author’s answer, when she writes that meaning is in the experience of the geese, their sounds and smells, rather than in what they write in the sky?
People often argue that death robs life of meaning. Does it? Or is it death that gives meaning to life?
• Just for the heck of it, because no one knows where answers come from, go to a place out of earshot of other human beings, maybe at night, and try shouting these questions of ultimate meaning. Shout them to the sky, shout them into holes in the earth, shout them into maples boles or creek stones. Listen closely. What answers to you get? How does it all make you feel (besides sort of sheepish)?
• As a group, think about what you would you say to Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us, who asked, of what use are humans to the universe? Write him a letter to answer his question. Mail it.
• The “Joke” essay makes much of the qualities of a blue feather. The lesson drawn is this: “Maybe there is no meaning in the world itself . . . Maybe what there is, is the individual way each of us has of transforming the world, ways to refract it, to create of it something that shimmers from our spread wings. This is our work, creating these wings and giving them color.” If that is your work, what is your new to-do list? Write it and post it. Do number one.
7. SPIRITUALITY AND RELIGION
In “The Water and the Wave,” the author expresses envy for people in organized religious communities. Why? What do you think the values of church membership are?
While the author is not religious, she does call herself a spiritual person. Are you? What does that mean? Theologian Marcus Borg says that spirituality is to religion as love is to marriage. Do you agree?
Why are art and music so much a part of religion?
Chet Raymo, an astronomer, says that as a result of the schism between science and religion that manifested in the trial of Galileo, science lost the language of celebration, and religion passed up the chance to participate the greatest adventure of the human mind. What do you think science could learn from religion? What do you think religion could learn from science?
Consider the metaphor of the water and the wave. Waves can dash us down, but water can hold us up; make a vessel, the minister said. We know what waves are; we get bashed around all day. But what is the analogue of the water that holds us up? And what is this vessel of a church made of?
• Invite some scientists to join in a discussion of the role that a language of celebration might play in science. How might poets and scientists collaborate to convey a sense of wonder and celebration for the world the scientists describe – emotions that might translate into protective action?
• If there is a secular sacred, as the author suggests, then perhaps there can be secular rituals of honoring and celebrating. Invent some and take them into the community.
• Make your church a true sanctuary, a place of safety for all of God’s creation. Can that sloping, green (poisonous) lawn become a bird sanctuary, planted with native, nourishing wildflowers and trees? Could it be restored to marshland? Could your congregation call on all other congregations to celebrate and honor God’s creation by forswearing death-dealing landscaping, and transforming their land into places of renewed and vigorous life? And why should this new sanctuary movement be limited to church land? Call on all believers to make their land into places of safety for all life. Start with your own.
In “The Time for the Singing of Birds,” the author defines ‘sacred’ and argues that, even without any reference to the divine, the earth is sacred. First of all, what is at stake here? What difference does it make if the earth is sacred? What, in our culture, is the opposite of sacred? How do our labels change our actions?
Now, how would you define ‘sacred’? By that definition, is the earth sacred?
‘Sacred’ comes from the same etymological roots as ‘sacrifice.’ How are the two ideas connected, do you think?
Of all the things she could have chosen to illustrate the secular sacred, the author chooses birdsong and frogsong. Why, do you suppose? What would you have chosen? Why?
Aldo Leopold, a great conservationist, said that we cannot love what we cannot know. Do you think that is true? If so, does our love of the natural world increase as our knowledge increases?
A sense of wonder is central to a number of the Wild Comfort essays. Find some of the passages that celebrate the wonder of the universe. How is a sense of wonder related to a sense of the sacred, do you think, or to a sense of obligation to the earth?
If the earth and all its singing, swirling life are sacred, then we are called to radical change, are we not? – we will walk differently on earth, when we truly understand that we walk on sacred ground. This is going to be a long to-do list, but how does it start?
• First, examine the actions of your church as a place. In its choices of heating, cooling, landscaping, cleaning supplies, paper, building materials, even altar flowers -- does it embody (literally that) a reverence and gratitude for the sacred earth? If not, here’s a place to start.
• Second, examine the actions of the church as a moral institution. From abolition to the civil rights movement, churches have been the moral core of movements for social change. How can you use the powers of the church – the music, the poetry, the moral center, the strong community – to affirm and celebrate our obligations to the sacred earth and our obligations of compassion and justice to people whose lifeways are destroyed by the profligate and unrestrained actions of those who would mine and despoil the earth.
• The sacred is a call to sacrifice, (again, literally) to make sacred, a call to restraint. In a world where the possibilities of self-gratification seem without limit, here is a chance to renounce that way of life and, by linking our interests to the well-being of the sacred earth, find a different kind of fulfillment. We hear of books and seminars on Epicurean Simplicity and voluntary simplicity, but here is the chance for sacred simplicity. List all the categories of decision-making in which you live mindlessly and without gratitude, degrading and profaning the sacred earth – food, clothing, housing, travel. Choose one. Transform your life around it.