When reverence isn't enough
A visit with philosopher and writer Kathleen Dean Moore
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?"
Moore teaches at Oregon State University, where she's distinguished professor of philosophy and university writing laureate. She's also founding director of the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word, a kind of eco-think-tank that, among other activities, brings writers, scientists and activists together in the field to mull over compelling environmental questions.
Moore's first book grew out of her philosophy training -- and a scolding she received from her graduate school advisor, who told her that her first choice for a dissertation, about rethinking our legal and moral relationships with water, was just not the kind of thing that philosophers did. So she turned her attention to the nature of forgiveness and reconciliation, and published Pardons: Justice, Mercy, and the Public Interest with Oxford University Press.
Later, after publishing several critical-thinking textbooks, she formed a writing group with an OSU colleague, taught herself the art of the essay, then used her knowledge of philosophy to revisit the topic of our moral relationships with water and the greater natural world. She is not easily deterred.
Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water, writes Bill McKibben, points toward "a new kind of nature writing, one where the outdoors is in dialogue not only with our inmost souls but with our families, our relationships, our lives."
This deep connection to family and other people and creatures beyond the self -- the traditional Solitary Writerly Self -- starts with the book's first sentence: "For as many years as I can remember, I have walked in rivers. Each Sunday afternoon, through all the summer and winter Sundays of my childhood, my father led nature walks through the beech-maple forest at the bottom of a valley that divides the suburbs from the western edge of Cleveland ... He was the Rocky River Park naturalist -- walking briskly ... carrying a tame crow on his shoulder, lifting rotten logs to find salamanders. ..."
So Moore and her sisters walked the river along with him, while their mother, Dora, the science curriculum coordinator for the local school system, prepared refreshments back at the museum. Kathy likes to call her parents "professional teachers of wonder."
In her essay, "Refrigerator Fungus," she remembers her dad lying in ditches for hours, snapping close-ups of cicadas or dung beetles, while passing cars screeched to a stop. "... The occupants would spill out, sure they had discovered a corpse. Before long everyone would be on their stomachs, watching beetles mate tail-to-tail, while my sisters and I sat in the grass, dying of embarrassment."
She regrets that her dad didn't live long enough to enjoy this Alaskan phase of her life, though the legacy of heightened curiosity runs through her two children. Like their parents (Frank is a recently retired OSU biologist), each is a university professor, Jonathan in aquatic biology, Erin in architectural design.
Kathy jots down ideas in a composition notebook whose cover is laminated with a color photo of her, Frank, Jonathan, Erin, their spouses and toddlers, almost everyone wearing fleece or Gore-Tex. One afternoon, after we've feasted on Dungeness crabs caught that morning, Kathy shows me a desk that Erin built for her, and Frank points out the wire deck railings their daughter also designed.
Members of Moore's family appear in almost every essay of The Pine Island Paradox and in much of her other writing. In this way, she's the opposite of Edward Abbey, the "Cactus Ed" whose book Desert Solitaire neglected to mention that his young wife and infant child happened to be sharing his trailer in what was then Arches National Monument.
This inclusiveness is by design. Kathy's friends and family members underscore Aldo Leopold's belief that, just as ecology is the science of connection, so "all ethics ... rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts."
It is also Moore's reply to centuries of Western philosophy. She believes that our great thinkers have spent far too much energy parsing distinctions between ideas, between humans and other living things, between the mundane and the sacred, and not given nearly enough effort to pointing out commonalities.
In other words, they've pushed humans away from nature. For the sake of nature and ourselves, Moore wants to bring us all back in.
At the kitchen table, Kathy tells a funny story about the mating behavior of Famous Writers at a conference she once attended. Then she turns serious again and describes two of her forthcoming books. The essays in Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature explore "the wild earth's power to move us from sorrow to courage and hope." With co-editor Michael P. Nelson, she's also just completing For All Time, a collection of pieces by prominent thinkers and public figures, such as Pope Benedict XVI, on our obligation to the future in light of global climate change. This is "the work of redemption," Kathy says. She quotes theologian D. Elton Trueblood, saying that a person "has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit."
We're whooshing along in deep water in the Kitsap, Frank at the wheel, navigating with the casual expertise he learned as a boy sailing on Lake Erie.
A splash alongside us, then another. Dall porpoises! Two -- no, three! -- rocketing ahead, playing or maybe hunting fish startled by our speed. Silver bubbles stream down the length of their bodies, turning them luminescent as they braid the water, slipping over and under one another. Kathy stands beside Frank, grinning, her blonde hair whipping in the wind.
Watching her, I'm reminded of the final words of her essay, "The Maclaren River." Kicking about an Alaskan lake in an old inner tube, she notices a loon: "... what makes the loon a hero in my eyes is that sometimes, on clear nights ... the loon lifts itself with strong wing beats to stand almost upright on the water, raises its head to the sky, and lets loose with wild, maniacal laughter that rolls across the pond and bounces, yowling and exultant, against the farther shore."