#33: Kathleen Dean Moore 2010
Spiritual Writers and Lovers of the World, January 16, 2019
Philosopher and nature writer Kathleen Dean Moore poses the question: “What is the World?” Moore finds that by immersing oneself in nature, an overwhelming feeling of gratitude will offer unending ideas for writing. Through language and stories, Moore’s writing becomes spiritual while pondering the existential questions of purpose in this world.
- Kathleen Dean Moore, Wild Comfort
- Annie Dillard
- Mary Oliver, "The Messenger"
Debra Rienstra (host): [00:00:01] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
When we look at nature—what do we see? How does the sublime and the mundane come together in the best nature writing? We explore these questions this week with writer Kathleen Dean Moore on Rewrite Radio.
I’m Debra Rienstra. I teach in the English department at Calvin College and serve on the advisory committee for the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
On today’s Rewrite Radio, Kathleen Dean Moore, a philosopher and nature writer, proposes that the art of spiritual nature writing is to explore unfathomable ideas—mystery, astonishment, sanctity, despair—in the plain language of ice and frogs, returning stars, bells, birdsong, and pawprints in snow. The work of the nature writer, Moore argues, is to see the world—really see it, leaves and bones—and by that seeing, to find a gratitude so full that it can’t be distinguished from joy.
Kathleen Dean Moore is an essayist, activist, and author of many books that explore cultural and spiritual connections to nature. Moore is best known for her award-winning books of personal essays, including Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water, Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World, and The Pine Island Paradox, for which she received the Oregon Book Award. Her first novel, Piano Tide, was published in 2016 by Counterpoint. She has written for numerous journals, including Orion, Discover, Audubon, and the New York Times Magazine. Moore is professor emerita of philosophy at Oregon State University, where she is also the founding director of the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word. She teaches courses in environmental ethics as well as a field course in the philosophy of nature.
And now, from the 2010 Festival of Faith & Writing, here’s Kathleen Dean Moore.
Kathleen Dean Moore: [00:02:50] Hello. I love being here at Calvin College. I have never been here before and this is a particular treat for me and I particularly like the fact that they have assigned us to undergraduate students to keep us in line [laughter] and I want to thank Emma Slager for being so kind to me in every way and for reminding me of how wonderful undergraduate students can be.
Well, yes, "Leaves and Bones: The Art of Spiritual Nature Writing." Given that subject, I think that it is necessary, as you will understand, and in fact completely inescapable that we will begin by talking about frogs. So, let me read you from Wild Comfort, my newest book, pieces of the essay that's called "The Time for the Singing of Birds."
[00:01:25] "This is a story a friend gave to me. I am giving it to you. There was a man who searched and searched for the sacred in nature, in the forest, at the beach. And sure enough, one day as he was walking along the coast, he heard a voice loud and clear. "Stand here," it said, "and God will speak to you." The man stood. What else could he do? What would you have done? He stood for a very long time, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. His back stiffened up. A flock of brants flew down the trough between the breakers. The wind came up and died back. The tide flowed in. He zipped his jacket and unzipped it. Zipped it again as the sun went down and gulls cried out and flew to their roosts. He shivered in fog that came with night, and finally he went home.
I'm not sure what he hoped to hear. The sound of wind bringing rain, the rattle of surf-driven stones: didn't these tell him what he needed to know? That he is alive in this place at this time, alive in the midst of all this life. That he is aware in the midst of all that is mysterious, every fact that might not have been and yet is, stinging sand, the storm-driven waves, the swirling gulls, they're all cause for surprise and celebration.
Instead of standing still and waiting for instructions, what if he had laid on his back in the midst of the mussels, laid there with barnacles poking his scalp, felt in the hollow echo chamber of his ribs the breakers pound against rock, listen to the shouts of faraway children and the pop of sand fleas next to his ear as all the while tide crept in around him and surf exploded closer and closer to his brain? Then, what would he have heard? To this day, I don't know if he would have heard the voice of God. But I think he would have heard, really heard, maybe for the first time, the squeak of mussels, the smash of surf, the peeping of sandpipers, maybe a fish crow calling or a chainsaw cutting cedar drifting in on storms.
And I want to say that this is enough, the extraordinary fact of the ticking, smashing, singing, whistling, peeping earth, to make me understand that I live in a sacred place and a sacred time. This is what I believe, that the natural world, the stuff of our lives, the world we plod through hardly hearing, this world that we poke and burn and stuff and conquer and irradiate, that this world is irreplaceable, astonishing, contingent, eternal, and changing, beautiful and fearsome, beyond human understanding, worthy of reverence and awe, worthy of celebration and protection.
And if the good English word for this combination of qualities, is "sacred," then so be it. We walk out the door on a sacred morning and lift our eyes to the sacred rain and are called to remember our sacred obligations of care and celebration. And what's more, if the natural world is sacred, and if sacred describes the natural world, and if it is as magnificent and mysterious enough to shake us to the core, if this is so, then we, you and I and the man on the beach, are called to live our lives gladly. Gladness lifts the natural world out of the merely mundane and makes it wonderful and reminds us that when we use the sacred stuff of our lives for human purposes, we must do so gratefully and responsibly, with full and caring hearts. That's what I want to say.
My mother and father were biologists. When I was growing up, there were sprouting beans tied to the hands of a clock, growing in circles as time revolved. Fairy shrimp flutter-kicked through jars of pond water on the sunlit window sills. Butterfly eggs hatched in the living room, a frozen woodpecker rested in the freezer, for reasons that escape me now. [laughter] Everything in the house gloried in the moment the fact of things. Everything focused on how things are and why, and how wonderful. All the joy-filled facts, all the astonishing connections, all the irresistible questions. We went to church on Sunday mornings, and in the afternoons we traipsed through bogs and creeks and buzzing meadows, tapping stones against dead trees to call in downy woodpeckers.
And now, I'm married to a biologist. You should see us in a canoe in the dark, philosopher in the bow, biologist in the stern. [laughter] I'm rejoicing in the sounds of the night, awash in metaphors, and Frank is explaining the biomechanics of frog song. [laughter] "Imagine blowing up a balloon," he says. "Now imagine blowing up a balloon made of your neck skin. [Kathleen laughs] Now imagine blowing it up twice your size. [laughter] Now, hold that and tremble all night. [laughter] The energetics of this music are so tough, so much energy expended that it could kill a frog. Some tree frogs have only enough energy to sing for three nights. Three trembling nights. Imagine that. Imagine," he say, "imagine the silence of the frogs on day four."
I sit quietly imagining. What else can I do? Then Frank says, "Now, imagine swallowing a moth so big that you have to push it down your throat with your eyeballs." [laughter] And then, [Kathleen laughs] and then we look across the lake where the path of the moon glitters on the discarded wings of a trillion flying ants. We look at the moon itself, bulging out between black mountains, and we note in passing that we ourselves are sailing at however many zillion miles per hour through the darkness, spinning in spiral galaxies, slung across space, slung with all the singing frogs, and the quiet ones, all of us up to our eyeballs in swamp. And if we even think about our own sparkling minds in that sparkling lake, if we think about the molecular structure of awareness, the biochemistry of celebration, the universe singing its own praises in the language of philosophy, worship and science, then we have to hold on to keep from falling out of the canoe, astonished, yes, and shaken.
If so, then this is our work in the world, to pull on rubber boots and stand in this lively, dangerous water, bracing against the slapping waves, one foot on stone, another on sand, when one foot slips and the other sinks, to hop awkwardly to keep from filling our boots. To laugh, to point, and sometimes to let this surging light-flecked mystery wash into us and knock us to our knees, while we sing songs of celebration through our own three short nights, our voices thin in the darkness."
[00:10:45] Thank you, you are so nice.
This is what I take to be the challenge of the nature essay: to use this language of leaves and bones and the skeletons of salmon, to use the language of wool hats and returning spring, which in fact is the only language I have, and to tell stories about kayaking on lakes or camping in the desert or sleeping with snakes or loving my children, which are the only stories I have, to use this language and to use these stories about the world that I live in to go directly towards the basic human bewilderments, to go directly towards the whispering center of our spirituality and the fundamental questions of human existence, which I take to be three:
What is the world?—What is real?—What is the world?
What is the place of a human being in that world?
And how, then, shall we live?
So that seems to me to be what a nature essay is doing, to use that language and stories to really probe hard existential questions. But the question of spiritual nature writing, I think, is a little bit trickier. Some people would say that spiritual nature anything is oxymoronic, right? Like huge shrimp. That the natural world and the spiritual world are two worlds, the spiritual and the material, the mystical or the mysterious and matters of fact, that these are two worlds and you can't get there from here. But I think that's not the case.
You know, there was a time that it really surprised me that anybody thought of my work as spiritual at all. So I went to my colleague who teaches these things, and I said, "Mark, what does spiritual mean?" And he said, "Well, what I say is that spirituality is to religion as love is to marriage." I think about that because I've known love, I know love of people and of places I know, that longing for physical nearness, that longing to be taken in by it, and I know that feeling of being lifted in the presence of the beloved, to be expansive and suddenly joyous, and I know the mystery of him, my beloved, and the gratitude for his love. And I've known marriage, I've known the comfort of that and the kind of community that that provides, and the warm bulk of him beside me.
So in my relationships, I've chosen marriage, but in my relation to the natural world, I have chosen lust, I have chosen promiscuity, I have chosen this unbounded loving of the natural world, avoiding any kind of institutional structures, avoiding even serial monogamy, and going straight to the world to love it in as many ways as I know how. So that's what I would take spiritual values of the world to be.
What is it in them that speaks so powerfully to the loving and imagining and feeling part of the human mind? What is it in wild places that explains their power to lift and enliven the human spirit? So I think that spiritual value in the natural world is what it is there that awakens a sense of wonder, that wakens a sense of awe and of celebration. That's what I say. My friend and colleague Scott Russell Sanders says, spiritual values are the impulse in ourselves that rises to meet the energy and the glory in creation.
So that's our challenge, isn't it? To use what we find in the natural world to speak to this lifting, to speak to this kind of general loving, to speak to this impulse to come to meet the energy and the glory that's in the natural world, that's in creation. Thank goodness we have the form of the essay to use. So let's talk a little bit about the essay, because I don't know how we would do this if we didn't have the essay.
On the way over here I was talking to a beautiful woman who teaches creative non-fiction. Her students are always asking her for the formula. You know, "What's the formula for an essay?" And I told her that I would give it, so here it is: [Kathleen laughs] The art of the essay is the art of the osprey. You've seen osprey, you have osprey here, right? the fish hawk, that beautiful bird that preys on fish. What does an osprey do? An osprey glides high over the lake watching, noticing, paying attention. Paying attention in a hungry, loving, sometimes ferocious, but always patient way. It notices surfaces, it notices the reflection on the water, it notices the glistening in the tule reeds and on the ponderosa pines. All surfaces.
And then something changes. Maybe it's the direction of the wind, maybe it's the direction of the light, but the osprey catches the glimpse of a shadow below the surface of the water. It folds its wings and it dives. That's an extraordinary dangerous time for an osprey because, apparently the musculature of the ospreys legs and claws are such that once its legs are extended, its talons can't release. So once the osprey engages this shadow, it has to bring that shadow into the light or die trying. [Kathleen laughs] You know where I'm going with this.
[00:16:41] Sometimes the shadow is light and it's a small thing that it engages. And you've seen osprey, have you?, lift off the water, shake the water droplets off into the sunlight and rise up and take the fish, the prey, to its nest. I have seen an osprey engage a shadow, a fish so heavy that it could never lift it off and it had to cup its wings and swim to shore, hopping and swimming and dragging this fish onto the land. And I have heard that there have been ospreys that engaged a shadow so big that they drowned before they could let it go. That's the work of the nature essayist.
First, to observe, carefully, gratefully, hungrily, patiently. Truly watch. Tell us what you see, tell us what you experience. And in this kind of close, grateful watching, there will be something revealed to you, there will be an opening. At that point, your obligation is to dive for it and engage it with every ounce of your musculature. There are essays that are beautiful essays where the essayist engages a small question, lifts it up, sails up into the light with it. And there are essays in which the essayist engages something heavier and has to really struggle, and you see the struggle. And that's part of the beautiful essay, too, is the beauty of the struggle and the way the light flashes off the droplets and the blood that emerges from this struggle.
And then there are essays, equally successful, when the question engaged by the essayist is just too big, and there is no way to lift it into the light. So that seems to me to be the thing an essayist does. And what marks an essayist successful is this movement from experience to an exploration of the meaning of that experience. From observation to an exploration of what is revealed in that observing. From experience to idea and back again.
You've read essays that are all one level. "And I walked down a trail and I saw a beautiful bird's nest and I walked around the corner and lo and behold in front of me was a whole pack of trillium and on I went down the trail." You know, where it's all one observing mind. You put that down after a while. And you've also read essays that are all explorations of the most abstract ideas, and those are tough going, too.
But I think that the beauty of an essay, and the real fun of an essay, is these dives, these up and down, these movements from what I am experiencing to what I am thinking about. From what I notice to what I question. Back and forth in these layers. And in fact, I ask my students to listen to some of them reading an essay aloud, and I ask my students on the other half of the classroom to make sound effects to illustrate the diving of the author as they go through the essay. So, here's Annie Dillard talking about the osprey. Then, remember where she takes this dive and she says, "I want to know how to live," and all my students are going [zeeoon, boom]. [laughter] There she is, she's taken the dive. She's letting this experience of contact with this weasel take her right through this crack in reality towards these questions of how then shall I live. And that's the pattern.
So there, you can tell your students. It's a very simple pattern. Up, and then down. Experience and then idea. And of course you'll find all sorts of entanglements in between. But that seems to me to be the metaphor that works pretty well.
So within that pattern of writing, what is our work as spiritual nature writers? Whenever I find myself bopping up against that question, I say to myself, "If the world is sacred, then what is my work as a writer in that world?" And I turn to Mary Oliver who tells the answer to that very beautifully. And if you know "The Messenger" by heart, which I bet many of you do, say it with me.
[00:20:57] Messenger, Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a heart and a mind
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
[00:20:52] What is my work? My work is loving the world, which is, and she just lists them right off. Number one: "mostly standing still and learning to be astonished." Number two: "mostly rejoicing." Number three: "gratitude." So let's do those one by one and see the ways in which loving the world, which is I think quite right, the moral response to the gift we are given of this extraordinary place, what it does ask of us.
"My work is loving the world, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished." Astonished, from the Latin word tonis, which means thunder. To be struck as by lightning. The sudden flash that startles us and just for a moment lights the world with an uncommon clarity. This is what we're looking for is the openness in our own hearts and minds that when we see the way the world works, when we see how it's functioning, we are stricken and laid out flat by the astonishment of it. Ospreys, I think about that, ospreys must be astonished all the time to enter so suddenly from one world to the next, imagine the force on your brain. That happens to us sometimes, too, that kind of astonishment. I think that some very wonderful essays and some Annie Dillard essays are astonishing, too, for that very same reason.
So to awaken that sense of wonder, to awaken that sense of astonishment, that seems to me to be one of the things that we should be trying to do as nature writers. To say, "Look." Look at this morning as if you've never seen a morning before. Listen to those marsh wrens as though you've never heard a bird call. Or, as Rachel Carson advised us, listen as if you would never hear that call again. Hold a piece of this world in your hands and turn it over and notice it so closely that it becomes sacred, even as you hold it. It becomes sacred even by the fact of your holding it and being astonished by it.
The late rabbi Abraham Heschel called that radical astonishment. He said, "Wonder is a state of mind in which nothing is taken for granted." And isn't this what we owe the world, to take nothing for granted? "Wonder is a state of mind in which nothing is taken for granted." Each thing is a surprise. Being is unbelievable. We are amazed at seeing anything at all. Amazed at the fact that there is being at all. Amazed beyond words. Souls that are focused and do not falter at first sight can behold the mountains as if they are gestures of exaltation. And not just the mountains, but the mice and the molds.
I want to read to you a piece that's from, actually it's from, I think this is from Holdfast. It's called "Refrigerator Fungus." [laughter] And I want to read this to you to illustrate the point that I'm trying to make about a sense of wonder and how it can awaken us, or might well awaken us to a new way of seeing the world and appreciating the world.
[00:25:20] "A botanist and a teacher. My father was fascinated by every living thing, but he had a special place in his heart for the agents of decay. He thought bread mold was gorgeous, the infinitely many shades of green and blue. By the way, I met a childhood friend in Denver last weekend and she said, 'You know what I remember about your house is your refrigerator is full of mold.' [laughter] All through my childhood, indeed, petri dishes sat stacked beside the leftover pot roast in the back of our refrigerator, growing bacteria cultures for my father's class. Once, he drew my initials with bacteria, dipping a stylus in a culture, then drawing it carefully across sterile augur in a petri dish. Honestly, it made me feel special, my initials appearing slowly, just a few specks of mold at first, then a line of brown spots, buzzling up—you can not say that—then a line of brown spots, bubbling up fuzzy and fetted. It didn't matter if he was in the wilderness, in town, or in the basement brushing away spiderwebs, he would discover some natural miracle to delight in.
Small things always caught his attention, things most of us would overlook. He lay in ditches for hours, photographing a cicada as it emerged from the earth, or a dung beetle. Passing cars would screech to a stop, and the occupants would pile out, sure they had discovered a corpse, [laughter] and before long, everybody would be on their stomachs, watching beetles mate tail to tail. Meanwhile, my sisters and I sat in the grass, dying of embarrassment. [laughter] Over time, my father accumulated boxes and boxes of color slides, all carefully organized by genus and special, all carefully identified by their correct Latin names.
When he was much older and retired from teaching, he started putting his slides together into shows. He chose a theme, selected slides, wrote a script, and then painstakingly choreographed the whole performance to music. He took the shows on the road, playing to retirement villages, schools, and church study groups. When he died, the slideshows went into my attic in boxes stacked five feet high, carefully labelled. Inside each box was a carousel of slides, a script, and an audiotape of my father, speaking over the music he had selected. For several years after he died, I didn't have the courage to listen.
But one day I dragged the boxes out of the attic, hooked up his old carousel projector and a tape player, and sat down to listen. The day was dark enough for color slides, even with the curtains open. A November storm threw rain like stones against the window and tossed around the branches of a Douglas-fir. I pointed the slide projector to the wall and dropped a cassette into the tape player. The first show featured the home life of the mourning dove. It peered in on a family of doves raising their babies to the tune of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the organ with its joyous right hand.
The next slideshow took me back in time to a darkened room. My father was an old man, a widower, so sick. But his voice is firm and rich. His audience is a group of people at the Elyria, Ohio senior center. Though the title of the program is "The Cycle of Life," there is no denying that the subject really is decay. Here's a soft-focused photo of small mushrooms, marasmius rotula, growing on a decomposing leaf. 'The old leaf surrenders the atoms that furnished the substance of its life,' he explains. 'Returning these atoms to the stream of living things from which they were borrowed. No living thing has a permanent claim upon its atoms.' His voice is deep, the preacher's voice, although he was a professor, and deeply respectful, as if he were reading the Bible. The pitch of his voice drops at the end of every phrase. I can't help but wonder what his audience is thinking about all this rot and decay, as music from a flute floats softly in the background.
'The cycle is pushed along by agents of decay that keep the cycle going. Like it or not, most life on earth would end without them, the ubiquitous molds.' And now it's the swelling sounds of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and full orchestra, [laughter] Bach's Cantata Number 208. 'And bacteria [laughter] that take nitrogen from the air and put it in the soil. The slime molds.' Trumpets join the soaring soprano voices. [laughter] 'All these keep our earth from being one great graveyard. And here is a picture of slime mold, tubifera ferruginosa, all lumpy and slimy on a decomposing stick. What a marvel. What a marvel that these simple atoms can be arraigned in so many ways, giving life to so many kinds of plants and animals.' Close focus on a hamster, a mandril, an iguana, and even a little girl.
I'm startled to be looking at a picture of myself, maybe five years old, sitting on my father's lap, with my head leaning against his shoulder. The music swells, his voice slows and deepens. 'What a wonder that these atoms, arranged so precisely, provide a body able to carry on all the functions of life, even to wonder and laugh and sing and cry—and die.' Mast choirs and orchestra, the singing brass, a glorious fullness of sound. The music fades away and the show is over. I punched off the tape player and rested my head on my arms.
On that stormy November afternoon, I had opened a box of my father's slides labelled "Wonder." The slides were there, tidy in their carousel, but the script was missing and there was no tape. I clicked the carousel into the slide projector. A polyphemus moth laying eggs on the blue velvet chair in our living room. My mother and her baby grandson, all cheeks and soft skin. Watermelon snow, the pink algae that grow on snowdrifts. I checked the box again for a script or tape I might have overlooked. Of all the things I could have lost, I had lost my father on the subject of wonder. That click and whir of each falling slide dropped into a silence that unsettled me. What is the meaning of snow that turns pink in the sun? What did it mean to him, his grandson in his wife's arms? And what music did he chose? What is the background music for wonder?
As color picture silently shifted and blinked on the wall, black walnuts dropped with a klunk from my neighbor's tree onto the pavement. Rainwater gurgled through the gutter by the window, rushed down the drainpipe, and rivered into the heaped-up walnut leaves. Through rain-slicked piles of leaves, cars whirred down the street, running over the nuts, the shells cracked open with a sharp report. Crows flapped and carred on the telephone line.
It suddenly occurred to me that maybe there never was an audiotape crammed with words and music. Maybe wonder falls silent. Maybe wonder is just this, the silence of a human being, come face-to-face at the end of his life with the world of unspeakable mystery and beauty. Astonishment beyond words. Gratitude beyond expression. And what could the music of wonder be to a man who was about to die, but the sound of this stream of living things? That's what my father called it, the stream of living things." [applause]
[00:32:56] I really do believe that the most loving—and it's possible that the most reverent thing that you can say to another person, which you say as an essayist again and again, is, "Look. Just look. Look at this world." And the most reverent stance isn't on your knees or leaning by the side of your bed with your eyes squeezed shut. It's standing at the rim of something astonishing, standing outside with your head thrown back, looking out into the night. Look. [Kathleen laughs] Look at this darkness. Look at infinite universe. Look at stars as if you would never see stars again and had never seen them before. This astonishing fact of the world is revealed to us then that there is something rather than nothing. And that it is so beautiful.
So, that's the first thing that Mary Oliver would have us do. "My work is loving the world, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished." The second thing, remember, what is my work in the world, "which is mostly rejoicing." I will say that as a writer, I think that it's harder to write well about joy than it is to write well about sorrow. And I think that's true because we have to worry about dishonesty in our voices, because we're never quite as happy as we might represent ourselves to be. And we fall victim them to tricolor sentimentality, or the kind of sweetness that isn't the truth. And I think the way as an essayist to make sure that your writing about joy does work is to write from an absolutely honest place. Every sentence you write, say, "Did I gasp for breath, or was I actually breathing, in fact, quite shallowly? Did I really fall on my knees, or did I just stand there like an idiot?" You know, what is the truth about my reaction to this scene? And I think that if we tell the truth, that we'll succeed in ways that we wouldn't otherwise.
Notice also that every single cliche is a lie. That the way to get rid of cliches in your writing, once again, is to be totally honest in what you're saying. Did the wind roar in like a lion? No. Lions go like this: [roars, laughs] And the wind was doing something quite different. Well, what exactly did it sound like? That's what I would urge people to do. The problem is, the challenge is that when we write the essay, we are making a new kind of truth. We are making a new kind of truth, and so the temptation is to shape it any way we want. But the fact is that we're making that new truth out of other truths. That's why it's non-fiction in the creative non-fiction.
So you might think of an essay as a mosaic where you live your life, you walk the beach, you wade through the water, and you pick up experiences the way you would pick up a piece of glass or a stone. And then you bring those back to your desk and you take all these experiences, as you might take a bunch of stones, and you make an essay as you might make a mosaic. So to make a
, you take these pieces that you've found, maybe a piece of stone, and you snap off a corner to make it fit just right. And you pick up a piece of glass and you round an edge that might have been a different shape and you put that together. So, in all these ways, you take experiences and you fit them together until the small truths of all those experiences make a picture of another truth. And what we have to be careful of is to be in absolute honest relationship with the small pieces, even as we are creating the larger piece so that we don't snap off corners in ways that destroy the truth of the stone or the truth of the glass piece we want to make. Our temptation, of course, is to do that, because we have in mind what we want to get to, but it won't work if our small pieces are dishonorably treated.
So let me read you two pieces. The first one that I want to read is a joy piece. This is one small piece of an essay that's called "Repeat the Sounding Joy," and it's the story of an experience that I had not far from here, in Bayfield County, Minnesota.
[00:37:25] "The road goes gently up a hill between two rows of white pines. Everything—the road, the hill, the pines—is blanketed in snow. The snow is blue this late at night, except where a flake catches some stray cosmic light and glistens white, and except for our tracks, which are white as well. The sky is black and almost too cold for stars. We have left the pickup at the gate and trudged up here at least a mile, three women who have only just met. We are going out to sing for wolves.
I have howled for wolves before, often standing at the edge of ice in the dark, alternately caterwauling and listening, trying to arouse a territorial response. But this is different. Locals already know that there is a family of wolves denning a few miles up the road. We don’t need to find them. Instead, our job is to count the pups. So here we are in our boots and mittens and mufflers, hiking through the dark toward a family of wolves, trying to make no sound at all, but our boots are squeaking like mice on the cold snow. I wouldn’t mind squeaking like a lumberjack. I wouldn’t mind squeaking like a hunter, but our sound is distinctly wee and succulent. If a wolf were to stalk us, we would never see it in the deep wells of darkness under the trees, and we'd never hear it over the rhythmic creak of our boots.
“Maybe,” I say, “we could hold hands,” and so we do, finding some comfort as our moist mittens freeze together at the edges.
We tromp along. Under the snow, the hill slopes smoothly away on both sides of the trail. Once we startle an owl from its perch. We stop to watch it sail over its star-shadow. We walk more slowly as we get closer to where Pam thinks the wolves will be, so we don’t disturb them. At last, she signals us to stop. We stand quietly until even the memory of the sound of our movement fades away. She mouths one, two, three, to remind us that we are to count small voices. Then Pam begins to sing.
She sings a soft sound, as if a mother were trying to put a baby to sleep. The song wanders up and down a minor scale, a tuneless lullaby. Then right at our feet, high-pitched cries—one, two, but I have no idea how many pups are yipping, and “oh my god, we’re too close,” and we are stumbling backward down the trail.
We run several hundred yards before Pam stops us, and we stand panting in a night gone still. The voices of the pups have fallen away. The trees open in front of us. The black night domes over our heads. Stars glimmer in the snow. In that deep quiet, I think I hear the sounding joy, belling across the snow-bound hills, and I don’t know if it’s the hills resounding or if it’s my own heart that is ringing for joy.
Night wind shakes the stars in the trees, snow sings off the slope of the hill, wolves hum to their pups, and the depth of the universe throbs like a gong. Somewhere in this same night, choirs raise their voices, Joy to the World, shivering the candle flames in the great cathedrals, and mothers sing the words softly to their children after they turn off the lights. While fields and floods / rocks, hills, and plains / Repeat the sounding joy.
Repeat the sounding joy. The more hollow a heart, the more resonant it can become. I would make of this body, this life, a sounding board, tuned to that sympathetic vibration, which is sympathy, which is feeling together, which is compassion for all the world.”
[00:41:01] As an essayist, your most precious words in your vocabulary are, "I don't know." I don't know if it's my own heart of if it's the universe throbbing for joy. Maybe, or maybe not. If, then. If this is the way the world is, then this is how we ought to act. All these kind of tentative words—"I once thought, but now I suspect"—all these words are your friends and they can keep you writing an essay as opposed to falling into writing an article, which is bombastic, which is no fun. [laughter]
So, this notion, Mary Oliver's advice to us, "My work is loving the world, which is mostly rejoicing," it gets harder and harder. Because the world that we write about as nature writers is more and more challenged. We have to be honest about that, too. So how can we do this honest rejoicing when our hearts are breaking? And once again, I think we have to come at that absolutely directly and absolutely honestly. And the person who says that better than anyone I've ever heard is Leonard Cohen, the singer/songwriter from Canada, who says in an interview, "We live in a broken world with broken hearts, but that's no alibi for anything. That's when we have to sing a cold and broken-hearted hallelujah." And I think that's right. That's our work in this harder time is to write the cold and broken-hearted hallelujah, to find reasons for rejoicing. To come into contact with this beautiful, comforting, mysterious world, that is vanishing at a rate that is hard to imagine and still find reason to rejoice and sing hallelujah.
So that's what I will read next. It's a piece that's from my new book called Moral Ground. [laughter] This is my cold and broken-hearted hallelujah. It's called "The Call to Forgiveness at the End of the Day." The dateline on this is May 25th, 2025. So in this essay, I'm imagining myself toward the end of my life, fifteen years older, and I'm looking back at all that has intervened between these days, now, and fifteen years, that's what I give it, fifteen years into the future. And this is how the essay goes: "The Call to Forgiveness at the End of the Day."
[00:43:39] "All those years, the Swainson’s thrushes were the first to call in the mornings. Their songs spiraled like mist from the swale to the pink sky. That’s when I would take a cup of tea and walk into the meadow. Swallows sat on the highest perches, whispering as they waited for light to stream onto the pond. Chipping sparrows buzzed like sewing machines as soon as the sun lit the Douglas firs. If I kissed the knuckle of my thumb, they came closer and trilled again.
For years there were flocks of goldfinches. After my husband and I poisoned the bull thistles on the far side of the pond, the goldfinches flew into the willows. Dew shook from the branches into the pond, throwing light into new leaves where chickadees chirped. The garbage truck backed down the lane, beeping its backup call, making the frogs sing, even in the day.
There was music in the mornings, all those years. In the overture to the day, each bird added its call until the morning was an ecstasy of music. It faded only when the diesel pumps kicked on to pull water from the stream to the neighbor’s bing cherry trees.
Evenings were glorious too. Just as the sun set, little brown bats began to fly. If a bat swooped close, I heard its tiny sonar chirps, just at the highest reach of my hearing. Each downward flitter of its wings squeezed its lungs and pumped out another chirp, the way a pumporgan exhales Bach. Frogs sang and sang, but not like bats or birds. Like violins, violin strings just touched by the bow, the bow touching and withdrawing. They sang all evening, thousands of violins, and into the night. They sang while crows flew into the oaks and settled their wings, while garter snakes, their stomachs extended with frogs, crawled finally under the fallen bark of the oaks and stretched their lengths against cold ground.
I don’t know how many frogs there were in the pond then. Thousands. Tens of thousands. Clumps of eggs like eyeballs in aspic. Neighborhood children poked them with sticks to watch their jelly shake. When the eggs hatched, there were tadpoles. I have seen the shallow edge of the pond black with wiggling tadpoles. There were that many, each with a song growing inside it and tiny black legs poking out behind. Just at dusk, a hooded merganser would sweep over the water, or a pair of geese, silencing the frogs. Then it was the violins again, and geese muttering.
In the years when the frog choruses began to fade, scientists said it was a fungus, or maybe bullfrogs were eating the tadpoles. No one knew what to do about the fungus, but people tried to stop the bullfrogs. Standing on the dike, my neighbor shot bullfrogs with a pellet gun, embedding silver BBs in their heads, a dozen holes, until she said, 'How many holes can I make in a frog’s face before it dies? Give me something more powerful.' So she took a shotgun and filled the bullfrogs with buckshot until, legs snapped, faces caved in, they slowly sank away. Ravens belled from the top of the oak.
When the bats stopped coming, they said that was a fungus too. When the goldfinches came in pairs, not flocks, we told each other the flocks must be feeding in a neighbor’s field. No one could guess where the thrushes had gone.
Two springs later, there were drifts of tiny white skins scattered in the shallows like dustrags. I scooped one up with a stick. It was a frog skin, a perfect empty sack, white, intact, but with no frog inside—cleaned, I supposed, by snails or winter—and not just one. Empty frogs scattered on the muddy bottom of the pond. They were as empty as the perfect emptiness of a bell, the perfectly shaped absence ringing the angelus, the evening song, the call for forgiveness at the end of the day.
As it happened, that was the spring when our granddaughter was born. I brought her to the pond so she could feel the comfort I had known there for so many years. Killdeer waddled in the mud by the shore, but even then, not so many as before. By then, the pond had sunk into its warm, weedy places, leaving an expanse of cracked earth. Ahead of the coming heat, butterflies fed in the mud between the cracks, unrolling their tongues to touch salty soil.
I held my granddaughter in my arms and sang to her then, an old lullaby that made her soften like wax in a flame, molding her little body to my bones. Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry. Go to sleep, you little baby. Birds and the butterflies, fly through the land. I held her close, weighing the chances of the birds and the butterflies. She fell asleep in my arms, unafraid.
I will tell you, I was so afraid.
Poets warned us, writing of the heartbreaking beauty that will remain when there is no heart to break for it. But what if it is worse than that? What if it’s the heartbroken children who remain in a world without beauty? How will they find solace in a world without wild music? How will they thrive without green hills edged with oaks? How will they forgive us for letting frog-song slip away? When my granddaughter looks back at me, I will be on my knees, begging her to say I did all I could.
I didn’t do all I could have done.
It isn’t enough to love a child and wish her well. It isn’t enough to open my heart to a bird-graced morning. Can I claim to love morning if I don’t protect what creates its beauty? Can I claim to love a child if I don’t use all the power of my beating heart to preserve a world that nourishes children’s joy? Loving is not a kind of la-de-da. Loving is a sacred trust. To love is to affirm the absolute worth of what you love and to pledge your life to its thriving—to protect it fiercely and faithfully, for all time.
Ring the angelus for the salmon and the swallows. Ring the bells for frogs floating in bent reeds. Ring the bells for all of us who did not save the songs. Ring the bells for every sacred emptiness. Let them echo in the silence at the end of the day. Forgiveness is too much to ask. I would pray for only this: that our granddaughter would hear again that little lick of music, that grace note toward the end of a meadowlark’s song.
Meadowlarks. There were meadowlarks. They sang like angels in the morning."
[00:50:02] "My work is loving the world, which is gratitude." The third. And, of course, we all know the ethics of gratitude. The gifts of this earth that we have been given have come to us unbidden. We didn't earn them. We may or may not deserve them. If they're taken away, there's nothing we can do to give them back. How then as writers and as lovers of the world, can we express our gratitude? How can we sing songs—again and again sing songs of gratitude for the gift of this earth? And how can we reciprocate for these extraordinary gifts, except by taking responsibility for honoring the beauty of the gift and for making sure that it will live forever?
Thank you so much. I certainly appreciate you're here now. [applause]
Debra: [00:50:51] Thank you to Kathleen Dean Moore—who we’re delighted to welcome back to Calvin in March 2019. Learn more by visiting our website at ccfw.calvin.edu. There you can find out how to subscribe to our newsletter.
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Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.
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