Archive for April 2013

The Wisdom of Wilderness – Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature by Gerald G. May : Book Review

5 years ago I wasn’t ready to read this book. I was at a different place on my journey.  A place where phrases like “enriched by insights from Eastern religions” would have sent up red flags, raised an alarm in my pharisaical soul and brought about a slamming of the city gates to keep out the new-age-enemy of what I saw as a faith that needed defending and protecting. In those 5 years my expanding view of the love of God has penetrated, softened and enlarged my heart, deepened my intimacy with him and disabused me of these silly notions along with any agenda I may have clung to. I’m coming to believe that this Abba who loves me more than I could possibly imagine has secreted away in people of all ethnicities (and yes, even faith systems or lack thereof) facets of himself and pieces of his story for you and I to discover. Sort of a cosmic game of hide and seek. Because “God likes it when we place nice together,” as my friend Tom Conlon once said. If you’re at the place in the path where your guard is already going up in reaction to this statement maybe you’re not quite ready for this book…but then again, maybe you are.

From the foreword by Parker J. Palmer:

“Jerry May knew he was dying as he wrote this book. He gathered up all the life he could hold with words… as wild creatures gather food against a hard winter…and left us a book so well stocked with love and wisdom, tears and laughter, healing and hope, it can help all of us winter through.”

These poetic and heart-felt words say more about this book than I could ever attempt to. Let’s hear some more.  This time May’s own words from the preface:

“I am sick now. The prospect of my death is continually before me. My body is frail, my energy always at the edge of exhaustion. At the same time I am wilder than I’ve ever been before. My soul basks in wilderness, and I am grateful.”

Based on these excerpts one might be led to believe The Wisdom of Wilderness to be a depressing dirge, a dying man’s morose reflecting on the end of his days.  Allow me to dispel this misunderstanding without hesitation.  This is anything but. May skillfully and poetically weaves together a lifetime of adventure, laughter and wisdom into a raw, honest and triumphant ode to life as it is meant to be lived. He beautifully relates the healing God provides through wilderness (a healing that I myself continue to experience) while catching you completely off guard with irreverent stories that had me buckled over in spasms of gut-wrenching belly-laughs. He and his little boy’s encounter with a Korean Zen Master alone make this book worth the delightful read.

I can’t recommend The Wisdom of Wilderness highly enough. Though the library provided me with the version I read, I plan to purchase my own copy to place on the shelf beside John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis and others. They’ll find themselves in good company.  I’d have to guess they already have.

The gist:

The Wisdom of Wilderness is Gerald G. May’s swansong. This wonderfully written account of the healing nature provided for him through his beloved Appalachian Mountains deserves a place among the classics. You’ll laugh, cry (and laugh until you cry) and long to spend more time in the wilderness he so beautifully portrays. You may, like me, not agree with all of his theology but you’ll be moved by a life lived from the heart.  And who knows, maybe we’ll find ourselves a little further down the path. This book epitomizes what All Who Wander is about. Highly recommend.

Summoning the Mountains – Pilgrimage Into Forty by Amy Allen: Book Review

from the back cover:

“Hoping to rekindle the spirit of freedom she once knew, a divorced, single mother sets aside family and societies expectations to seek fulfillment by following a lifelong calling.  On the eve of turning forty, Amy Allen reaches for her personal goal of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Accepting the name of “Willow” bestowed by her teenage sons, she settles them into new lives at their father’s house and departs on a 2,000 mile walk.”

I’m a sucker for an AT narrative. I’ve read…dozens.  Recently in a gathering of AT thru-hikers I overheard the sarcastic midstream comment, “…and then they’ll write a book because what we need is one more book about the AT.” At this point, I injected myself into the discussion. “I think we do need another book about the AT, and another, and another. Personally, I can’t get enough.” When I started Summoning the Mountains, I thought I might have to eat my words.

I met Amy Allen at an AT festival in Dahlonega, GA. She stood smiling behind a small table covered with several small stacks of her book.  I was struck, at first, by the beautiful graphic design and if you can judge a book by it’s cover (I’m convinced that sometimes you can) this is one I wanted on my shelf. From the name and tag line to the font and color selection to the perfect cairn that adorns the cover I was hooked.  After thumbing through, I found the design continued throughout the entire book, very tastefully and enticingly done.  Amy and I talked for a moment and I assured her I’d be back to purchase a copy.

Later in the day, Dana, Josiah and I sat listening while Amy shared her story of her “pilgrimage into forty” and the role that her thru-hike played in that transition. Her meek, quiet voice was just what you might expect from her tiny, petite frame. We took in her photos of our beloved AT during her slide show presentation, empathized with the frustrations she encountered from not being able to completely leave behind her “normal”  life to focus completely on her hike and laughed along with her at the inevitable misadventures that are part and parcel of such a journey.  “To be expected on a trip of this magnitude” as a friend of mine is fond of saying. At some point we dropped by and picked up our book and pocketed it away for later.

That same night I snuggled down in my hammock, burrowed beneath my quilt as the North Georgia coyotes and owls began their nightly serenade, and began to read. A chapter or so in and I drifted off to sleep. Over the course of the next several weeks I picked the book back up but struggled to connect. It wasn’t the writing. It is a well-written, well-edited thru-hiker journal.  Had I finally had enough of such accounts? It certainly wasn’t the typesetting, as I’d mentioned already. It was the fact that Amy Allen was a 40 something mom, and I…was not. For this very reason, I have historically avoided most books by female writers.  There are certainly exceptions to this and the exceptions are most extraordinary (case in point?  Jennifer Pharr Davis)  but as a rule I’ve found that I don’t enjoy female writers and this had to be the source of my disconnect.  Having established this, I continued to read. Once I pushed past my gender bias, Amy immersed me in her story. Like most AT narratives (and most AT thru-hikes) Summoning the Mountains is not a thrill ride but instead a steadily plodding narrative, filled with hardships and happiness, punctuated by familiar landmarks along the Trail and made rich by the characters and friendships that grow along the way. Before I knew it, I was sucked in, pulled along for the journey, as if I were making my way north along with Amy and her cadre of companions. And this is why I read AT narratives. My own Appalachian pilgrimage is years away.  A mountain larger than Katahdin looms between Springer and I.  It’s name?  Mortgage. Until that mountain is conquered stories like Amy’s both sate my hunger and stoke the fires of my longing.

As Willow approached Katahdin (Oops, spoiler alert!) I shared her conflicted emotions. The summit she had longed for was finally within sight but the end of her journey was as well. I wasn’t ready for the book to end. Thank you, Amy for sharing your story and providing me a welcome reprieve from my mundane day to day…until my own pilgrimage begins.

The gist:

Summoning the Mountains is a 40-something mom’s well-written, well-edited and eminently readable account of her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Recommended. It took me there.