"Many years ago I was taught by stones, stones collected from south Texas and rocky Colorado, Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the sun-blazed cathedrals of Zion National Park, Wyoming's Big Horns and the plain-dressed woods of rural Indiana. A shaman's stone from South Dakota. Leopold's wilderness prophecies and a fall while climbing that taught me to sit still."
That is how Kerry Temple sums up his lessons in "Back to Earth: A Backpacker's Journey into Self and Soul." The book is a lyrical meditation on knowledge gained from nature, the solace Temple has found in long hikes and backwoods journeys. As the book begins, he's at a loss; his marriage his ended, and his path has become misdirected, diverted by the tiny, cumulative compromises of everyday life. In an effort to re-focus, Temple moves to an isolated cabin in South Bend, Indiana, one without radio or television or even a clock. There he contemplates, recollecting old journeys and talismans he has collected along the way, rocks that evoke scenery, beauty and lessons learned and forgotten.
The book is a seeker's tale, recounting a lifetime of hikes and, through time spent in nature, efforts to reconnect with a unifying purpose, a God seemingly stripped of his dogma. Temple steps steadily through old memories on the trail, moving patiently toward the transcendent experiences he seeks there. His hikes are varied--they take him to Wyoming and the Rockies, Lake Superior and the frozen Arctic. These are places where he walks in company, shivers in the hubris of youth.
As he looks back, Temple wonders how he led himself astray, how his sense of purpose eroded under obligation and ease. He explores his new surroundings, venturing into the stream bordering his cabin, listening to the shifts of the seasons. The book is open to the big ideas of natural philosophers--Leopold, Muir, Emerson--but remains grounded in their exploration. Temple faults our society for its emphasis on the immediate, but he faults himself as well, avoiding the tediousness of the scold.
"Our species has come a long way since timekeeping meant monitoring celestial migrations and contemplating the universe in all its twinkling wonder. Yet we seem less attuned and more bewildered. Perhaps, in asking how best to spend our time, we have forgotten how to ask, "Is this how I was to spend my life?" Progress is not absolute."
At times, the book can seem overly nostalgic for a preferred past. In lauding the connection people once shared with nature, Temple can glide over over famine and disease, natural disaster and tribalism. At one point, he states, "It is significant, I think, that the deterioration of our species' psychological and spiritual health has coincided with its gradual separation from and exploitation of the earth." I would quibble with that assumption of deterioration.
But "Back to Earth" is a rewarding read, humble and wise, full of stories that inspire longing for rucksacks and trails. Nature does hold something essential for us all; the book is persuasive there. We just need the time and space and solitude to discover that meaning for ourselves.
"What I remember, too, is Mac picking us up that first Sunday when we'd grown weary of too-short rides and paved highways. I remember his last name was McGowan and he said to call him Mac and he said do not worship nature for it is only the face of God, not God itself. And he took us for a drive and pointed us north, and in the meantime took us fishing and touring around, higher and higher, deeper and deeper into the woodsy mountains."
"'I wouldn't call the Indian way "religion," said Father Bill Callahan, a Jesuit priest I had met the day before at Red Cloud School in Pine Ridge. 'There is no dogma, no structure, no mimeograph machine.'
'It is spirituality. They believe in the sacredness of the created world and the spiritual idea of personal and family holiness.'"
"There are other places on the earth, many similar constructions, stones of various sizes, pyramids and etchings, altars and carved rock tablets linking the human species to the celestial machinations, indicating a need to discern, to correlate, to map somehow the mysterious and awesome power of creation, looking for a higher power's hand in it all, believing in the spirited intelligence that beckons from just beyond the horizon. We come and leave our offerings upon the landscape too--our own prayer feathers, medicine bundles and humble pouches of tobacco."
"It has also occurred to me that these truths and hopes and good intentions are of little power if hey do not last, if they are not incorporated into the affairs of human interaction, if they are not brought along and shared, integrated into the lives of those around us. It is one thing to revel in the beauty and order of creation; it is another to find it here among the people, the many nations with whom I live."