“What Is the Wilderness?”
With that question, author Nick Ripatrazone begins his latest book, Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness. In this, his second book of literary criticism, the author, “looks at poets and prophets, saints and storytellers, who have shown that the natural wild…can bring spiritual transcendence.”
We don’t have to travel far to find this natural wild. In his preface, Ripatrazone takes us with him as he discovers the wilderness in the forest near his New Jersey home, a wild wood from which bears and bobcats emerge and in which he finds restorative solitude.
Reading Wild Belief, I think of a different sort of wilderness from my past, when, at 20, I stayed for a short time next to an Arizona desert preserve. So unlike the green rolling hills of my native Northeastern Ohio, I was afraid of that parched earth—of its coyotes whose calls kept me up at night and of the scorpion that found its way inside my apartment. It was a wandering time in my life, when I felt my creative inspiration and faith had dried up, and so I felt very much alone.
Forest, wetlands, the desert: wilderness all. Different, but the same in their “untouchable”—yet instructive—wildness. Perhaps, the author of Wild Belief posits, “the tension between our understanding of the wilderness as both a fearful and sacred space makes it particularly apt for capturing the unknown and surprising elements of religious belief.” The wilderness is therefore a font for creativity at the same time it is a spiritual tonic—and test.
I thought of my desert again just recently, when singing as a cantor at Ash Wednesday Mass. “Dust and Ashes,” begins the hymn that calls to the Holy Spirit. Come to us, the hymn pleads. Take our hands and lead us safely through the desert; we will follow. And we Catholics are reminded of Bible passages plenty that explore the wilderness—sometimes a place of trial and suffering but also a place of renewal.
Renewal is what I found in Ripatrazone’s examination of the divine in the wilderness taken up searchingly by writers across the ages. From writings of the biblical desert to that of British Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins; from American literary and conservation visionaries Wendell Berry and Terry Tempest Williams to contemporary fiction writers and friends Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane; and from poets “of nature and passion,” like William Everson to poets like Mary Oliver and W.S. Merwin, who were not only “activists for the wild,” but who “believed a return to the wilderness was not merely necessary but inevitable,” in six chapter-long essays, Wild Belief charts some of the best spiritual writing in the wilderness.
Fans of historic and contemporary nature writing in all forms, therefore, will find a foothold in these wide-ranging essays. Ripatrazone is an excellent guide, leading us as we journey along with these literary artists with a spiritual—if not always religious—destination in nature. These are artists for whom the wilderness feeds their art and their spirit. And in turn, we readers are fed.
I found the book’s section on poet Mary Oliver especially sustaining—creatively and spiritually—this Lent. At ease in the nature she found outside her door, growing up in Northeastern Ohio, Oliver was forever inspired by the wilderness. Even as she became one of America’s most famous poets, she was animated by, “her belief that the natural world was her spiritual home.”
As such, Ripatrazone says, Oliver understood that she was at the mercy of nature’s power, its roiling storms and the burdens and blessings of time: “Oliver’s faith in the wilderness meant succumbing to those forces. She accepted that she would give her body ‘back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.’ She believed that was her—our—destiny: ‘Soon enough, we are lambs and we are leaves, and we are stars, and the shining, mysterious pond water itself.’”
As Oliver reminds us, the ashes that mark us Christians at the start of our Lenten journey also remind us that we will return to dust. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” are the words spoken as ashes are imposed on our foreheads, calling to mind the Book of Genesis. Lent is a return to the beginning, and maybe also to the natural world, a world we humans have greatly harmed in our longtime borrowing of it. (In his book’s conclusion, Ripatrazone quotes Laudato si’, the 2015 encyclical from Pope Francis, in which Francis argues that it is the essential role of believers to protect the nature God created.)
Oliver’s vision of the poet’s responsibility is not so much to words as it is to nature. “Before we move from recklessness into responsibility,” Oliver writes, “from selfishness to a decent happiness, we must want to save our world.” Yet in order to save the world, Oliver thought we must first be saved by it—we must acknowledge and embrace the salvific nature of the wilderness.”
Lent feels like a wilderness, a long forty days in the desert, a time of testing and of trust in God’s salvific plan for us. Still, while we’re here on Earth, while its wilderness can still be found, we might learn to see wild spaces for what they can teach us about the spirit. “Oliver’s precise and patient descriptions of small pockets of wilderness…offer her readers a liturgy of observation,” Ripatrazone writes.
That we might see the sacred in the desert, forest, and wetlands we find at our doors during Lent and always! That we might call to God there, see him there, for he is there—especially when we feel most fearful and alone.
“Prayer—in the wilderness and through the wilderness—is a refrain for Oliver,” Ripatrazone notes. For my part, I plan to borrow her refrain and carry it with me into the natural and spiritual wild these forty days and beyond.
In Wild Belief, Ripatrazone quotes Oliver’s “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” one of my favorite poems of the poet’s, and one which speaks to all that literature can—and can’t—do: “I tear [words] from my heart and my tongue. / Then I pray.”
In the same poem, Oliver “calls on the Holy Spirit directly.” So too do we Lenten pilgrims, journeying in prayer and in song, in church and in nature, entreating: “with the ‘fragrance of the fields and the / freshness of the oceans which you have / made, and help me to hear and to hold / in all dearness those exacting and wonderful / words of our Lord Christ Jesus, saying: Follow me.”
Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness can be pre-ordered now and is available May 18, 2021
Rebecca Moon Ruark is a writer, a twin mom, a Mass cantor, and a kitchen dancer. Her reflections and reviews have appeared at the Dappled Things blog, in Ruminate, at her own blog, Rust Belt Girl, and at Parhelion Literary Magazine, where she serves as features editor.