PEOPLE WHO CONTEMPLATE “the wilderness” are of course contemplating themselves. The lens forms the nature of the picture; or, rather, without the lens, there could be no picture. Nature, yes (If a tree falls in the woods . . . ); but no frame around it. “The wilderness is where we learn again to be human,” writes Doug Thorpe in this book-as-frame for a very particular image of nature, one filled with thought, poetry, complexity, and that very human but very wild construct, the sacred.
There is a deep pleasure in being invited into a well-read person’s mind, like being allowed access to the stacks of a great personal library. Blake, Wendell Berry, Whitman, Vicki Hearne, Lao Tzu — and that is just in the introduction to Thorpe’s dense and lovely exploration of what are really the largest themes we can put our brains to. Who are we? And how can we know?
The answer, Thorpe proposes, is in always and forever bringing ourselves back home, back to wildness. “Failing to embrace the shadows within, attempting too often to civilize our darkness away, we continually miss the meeting with the Beloved.”
To find the way into this rapture, this profound experience of our very heart, is Thorpe’s project, and his statement of it almost gives a shiver: “I want to taste wildness, digest it, and let it digest me.” He accomplishes it through telling stories, his own and others’ (gleaned from camping with his family, reading widely in world literature, the results of meditating and thinking and letting experience in), stories of encountering that which cannot be defined: the wilderness. It is the sound of wolves calling back to his daughter’s crying; it is the poet’s quest (Denise Levertov as well as Wordsworth); it is Schubert; contemplation; accident. All this Thorpe, who teaches writing and literature at Seattle Pacific University, lays out in what amounts to a prose poem of great power.
Although he builds a complex viewing apparatus out of words, and words about words — and sometimes words about sights, as in a brief appreciation of the painter Caspar David Friedrich — the author knows what he seeks is beyond them. It is inside their suggestiveness, drawing us out toward the world.
It is even, Thorpe says, inside a consideration of the Mall of America.
But finally, he can leave us only his own shredded and well-worn map and encourage us on our own journeys. We are on them, anyway: we might as well recognize it, and look around to truly see. What we will feel, this book assures us, is “astonishingly open-ended love,” terrifying perhaps, but everything.