The Wind in the Willows & Love of Place

Kathleen Cain begins her review of Standing in the Light by Sharman Apt Russell (Bloomsbury Review, May/June/July 2009; this way: “I’ve been waiting for this book all my life…I am urged to awe that equals spiritual fervor in the presence of Nature.”
What is it about Nature—Nature with a capitol N as depicted in Sharman’s new book—that moves us so? How can the physical world cause our spirits to have such passionate responses?

On May 4, 2009, Time Magazine chose The Wind in the Willows as its “Book Pick for the Week.” This classic children’s novel, a compilation of stories told by the author Kenneth Grahame to his four-year-old son, was first published in America in 1909. One hundred years ago! Yet here we are today, still falling in love with Mole and Rat and Badger and Otter and yes, even arrogant Toad—creatures great and small who live charmed lives full of missteps and dangerous escapades at, or near, the River. Not just any river, but THE River. As in NATURE. All caps. It is the River that forms the landscape of their lives and serves as metaphor for ours. It teaches them, and us, about the hospitality of community.

A couple of years ago, I attended the annual conference of the Quivira Coalition in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was there to do a book-signing for Home Land: Ranching and a West that Works (Rocky Mountain Land Library). Renowned writer Wendell Barry was the keynote speaker. The Quivira Coalition was formed in 2003, when “twenty ranchers, environmentalists, and scientists met for forty-eight hours to figure out a way to take back the American West…”

A community of people seeking to “find a way to make ourselves worthy of the land we all love” evolved from this initial gathering. And though these individuals were as different from one another as were Mole and Rat and Badger and Otter and Toad, their love of place, of the landscape where they lived their lives, was greater than the divisive issues that had, in the past, kept them apart.

While in Albuquerque at the Quivira Conference, I also had a chance to visit with Peter Forbes, founder of the Center for Whole Communities. “How is it that those of us who care about people and those of us who care about the land, have ended up divided from one another?” the Center asks. “What might we achieve if movements for environmental and social change worked together for healthy, whole communities?” The Center poses this question on their website, where you can view an 8-minute presentation on reweaving people, land, and communities. “Story is the way we carry the land inside of us,” writes Peter Forbes in his book, What Is A Whole Community. “We tell stories to cross the borders that separate us from one another.”

In this same spirit of reweaving, Sharman’s blog, “Love of Place,” celebrates and promotes a “greater relationship and intimacy with the natural world.” She does not advocate a natural world without human beings, though she often writes passionately and with firm opinions about how we interact with the land. (Her perspective and mine on public land grazing probably differ greatly, in great part because she writes about the arid southwest, while my experience is with the forests and grasslands of the Black Hills of Wyoming—much different ecosystems.)

In Standing in the Light, when writing about the environmentally threatened Gila River, Sharman asks who cares about a dead river, what does it mean to care? She tells us of sitting in a meeting packed with men and women who had come to watch a slide show about saving the river. “Outside, the soft August night still smells of rain,” she writes. “The clay in the soil has released compounds like those found in urine, a distinct acrid odor. Walking back to my house, I hear an owl hoot, and I click off the flashlight, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness.”

I cherish these points of intersection, where Sharman’s world and mine come together—where I hear the owl hoot as if I were there walking with her, because, on the ranch in the Black Hills where I reared my children, I, too, listened to the hooting of owls and smelled the acrid odor of clay soil.

When Wendell Barry gave the keynote talk at the Quivira Coalition’s annual conference, more than 500 people attended. I could not help but smile when I scanned the room. The audience was filled with men, women, and children, as different looking from one another as the critters in The Wind in the Willows. Some wore cowboy hats. Some wore Birkenstocks. Some wore Forest Service uniforms. Some wore Park Service uniforms. Some wore Wranglers and denim jackets. Some wore microfleece and Sahara pants. Here was a true gathering of people from all walks of life. But they shared one thing in common—their love of Place.

I hope Sharman and I can sit down soon and talk about the issues we hold close to our hearts—those that lead us closer to the Divine and about which Sharman speaks so eloquently in Standing in the Light. “How should I live in the world,” she asks. “How can I face my death?” “How can I be more joyous?” These are intimate questions, soul-piercing questions to ponder while walking on a favorite trail at dusk, as the evening light draws near, or perhaps while floating down a sunlit river with someone who was, only moments ago, a stranger.


Lindy said…
I read "Wind in the Willows" as a child. I still have it - packed away somewhere. I am going to dig it out and read it to my 4th graders in the next couple of weeks as a beginning to our new school year. Thank you for the awareness.

I have been following SAR's blog for a few months now and am in awe of her book. So much excellent writing about love of place is coming from western women writers. Makes me wonder if anyone living east of the Mississippi is aware of their place? Perhaps books are being written there as well and I have just not come across them yet??

Lindy in AZ
Page Lambert said…
Lindy, read The Hopes of Snakes and Other Tales from the Urban Landscape by Lisa Courturier. I think you'll enjoy it! Lisa lives in Maryland and came to my Literature & Landscape of the Horse retreat in Wyoming in 2008 and 2009. I'm thinking about doing an East Meets West Nature Writing Retreat - for just the reason you mention. Hope your students enjoy The Wind in the Willows!
Lindy said…
Hi Page, Thank you for this title. I asked my little local library to order it for me (ILL).

Someday (probably after I retire as my school always begins the first Monday in Aug.)I hope to attend one of your Writing Retreat workshops - what an expereince that would be :)

Lindy in AZ
Mary E. Trimble said…
This is an interesting, thought provoking article, Page. While many of us are "place" oriented, it's amazing how many people just don't get it. It's articles such as this that will bring to the forefront the importance of these concepts.
Page Lambert said…
Thank you, Mary. I met a man at the Taos Writing Salon when I presented there a few years ago (a geography professor from Washington University) who was working on a book about "mapping our own personal geography" - a fascinating concept for urbanites as well as those who live in rural or remote areas. Place in regards to the geography (landscapes and cityscapes) might be another way to rekindle awareness. Thanks for writing!
Page Lambert said…
Lindy, I look forward to having you on one of the retreats! Any maybe, if I do a mid-summer retreat, you won't have to wait until you retire!
Priscilla said…
Thanks, Page, for introducing the BMW list to Sharman, and for your lovely post. I already commented on Sharman's blog, but I wanted to let you know too that I appreciate your making the connections here. I look forward to getting to know more of her work. Thanks!
Page Lambert said…
Priscilla, so glad I could help introduce you and the Boulder Media Women to Sharman's work! Sharman and I were both contributors to the Writing Down the River book about 10 years ago, which is where I first read her work. She's a scholar and a beautiful writer - a great combination.
Anonymous said…
What a lovely piece, Page! Thank you for weaving the connections between disparate ideas, as you do between seemingly disparate people. It's always a blessing to read your thoughts.

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