« Return to this article

Know the West

A long walk into hope

  This is a book by a tall skinny guy with a goofy warm smile who took "a long walk across America’s most hopeful landscape: Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks." Along the way, he meets up with old friends, many of whom also seem to be tall skinny guys with goofy warm smiles, who walk a ways with him. Their conversations form the basis of this hopeful book, as relevant to the West as it is to the East, from a guy we generally associate with gloomy predictions.

Bill McKibben is best known for The End of Nature. Published in 1989, that well-reasoned work uses global warming as the ultimate evidence that humans are taking over the operations of nature in a haphazard, unconscious and ultimately destructive way.

Wandering Home is McKibben’s own "hope against hope" answer to the "clanging finality" of his End of Nature argument. He leads us through a post-urban landscape of people making creative efforts to live more intelligently on earth, including the students who started Middlebury College Organic Garden with dreams of feeding the college, and a winemaker grappling with the problems of local organic production when the global agribusinesses have started to exploit "organic."

A key passage is McKibben’s reflection on the slightly unlikely friendship between Wendell Berry and Ed Abbey — the one "nearly solemn in his writing," the other "wildly and rudely funny," but both bound together by "the sense that they each held part of the puzzle: the iconoclastic, individualistic, rebellious defense of the wild as necessary for our sanity; the communalistic, enduring defense of the pastoral as necessary for our culture."

Wandering Home is a good backpack book (hardbound but small) for those trips when you aren’t out to conquer the wilderness, but to seek there the wildness "necessary for our sanity" from which we can look back to think more clearly on what might be "necessary for our culture." We need somebody — maybe everybody — to make this kind of hike here in the Rockies, and in the Sierra, and in the Bitterroots.