I have come to believe that all essays walk in rivers.
Essays ask the philosophical question that flows through time -- How shall I live my life?
Mid-June, on a thinly populated island in southeast Alaska:
Seaweed polyps burst under my rubber boots -- boots that Kathleen Dean Moore and her husband, Frank, have lent me so I can explore the shoreline with them on this low-tide morning. Still, I slip a little with every step. Same for my wife, SueEllen, who's walking nearby with Kathy, their heads down, trolling for whatever wonders the icy water has left behind.
Everything's slimy, shiny, newly exposed. Steaming, almost. It could be that morning, long ago, when salty life first hauled itself onto land.
Sponges cling to dripping rocks like spatters of luminous-orange paint. Purple-black mussels cluster by the thousands. In the space of 10 feet, I see a slender blood star, the ziggurat bodies of whelks, jumbled curtains of kelp that resemble giant linguini ribbons.
Mosquitoes and gnats dive and buzz. I squat next to Kathy, who's examining a sea slug that looks like a melting piece of watermelon. This is just the kind of moment she writes about in her essays and books, the sound and movement of water and watery creatures swirling everywhere.
"God, so many kinds of life," I say.
"Exactly!" she says with a smile. And though the sky is turning to lead, her blue eyes sparkle.
Kathy and Frank may have forgotten the bug juice, but not the bear spray. Though we're within sight of their cabin, they each pack a black canister of protection. When I suggested to Kathy, weeks ago, that SueEllen and I could bring our tent and sleep outside, she replied, "No, you won't. Too many brown bears." On one forest trail, we've already run across tracks wider than my outstretched hand.
Now, poking in tide pools away from the dark trees, I keep looking up and off, while Kathy and Frank take turns shouting "Hey-YUP!" It occurs to me that times like this, which crackle at every step with the potential for real danger, have pushed me into the state of mind that our best nature writers bring to the world, all their senses on high alert, their souls open, vulnerable, waiting, waiting.
Writers, I mean, like Kathleen Dean Moore.
In clear and lyrical prose, she celebrates the incredible stories, human and more-than-human, unfolding all around us. In books of personal essays such as The Pine Island Paradox and Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World, she looks hard at our exuberant, troubled and fast-changing world, and our role in it. Then she does something that separates her from many other fine observers and aligns her with her hero, Rachel Carson. She challenges us to do something about it.
"The times call for ‘applied reverence,' " she said in a recent talk. "Reverence is not enough. Standing in witness to the beauty of the world, as it gets sucked down and bulldozed over and ground down and irradiated, poisoned, paved, is not enough.
"What if we really took seriously the idea that the world is sacred, really. Imagine that. If the world is sacred, what the hell are we doing, standing around while it vanishes before our eyes?"