2 Wilderness Memoirs

Brooklyn, NY, USA

I’m working on two major writing projects right now: a set of novels about wilderness conservation and wolf preservation in Montana, and what finally seems like a successful attempt to write a memoir of my Peace Corps service. One morning, perusing the popular East Village McNally Jackson Bookstore, I found myself in the memoir section. I spotted some phenomenal memoirs I had already read, like human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope. I walked out with two memoirs I could consider “research” for my current projects: Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors, and Here If You Need Me by Rev. Kate Braestrup.

In Fire Season, Connors leaves the urban jungle of New York City journalism for a short vacation with a friend serving as a lookout in the Gila National Forest, and quickly finds himself with a new career: fire-spotting by summer, bartending by winter. I picked it up because one of my novels takes place mostly in a fictional disused Forest Service cabin like the one Connors spends his summers in (except mine is in Montana), and I thought I could pick up some good atmosphere. I did that. But along the way, I got absorbed into his world, seduced into the idea of a long, golden summer alone on a mountain peak, a man and his typewriter and his mostly-loyal dog.

I live in New York, as Connor did, but I grew up in the countryside. I appreciate the yearning for the open trail, of wilderness and wild as far as the eye can see, as I experienced it backpacking the Appalachian Trail with my Girl Scout troop. Even in the depths of the Central Park Bramble at midsummer, you don’t get that. But like Kerouac and the college kid who was supposed to be Connors’ once-a-fortnight relief, I don’t think I would last. I found myself envying Connors’ ability to be completely alone with himself and not lose himself.

From April Flowers

I think Kate Braestrup’s world is far more manageable, though it emerged from tragedy instead of ennui. I bought Here If You Need Me because I’d heard her speak on the WNYC program On Being. When her husband, a Maine State Trooper, dies in a car accident, she takes up his dream of becoming a Unitarian Universalist chaplain, eventually becoming the chaplain of the Maine Warden Service. What started as following her husband’s dream turns out to be exactly what Kate needed for herself. As she writes about waiting with families, accompanying wardens on their rounds, and locating the occasional body, she learns what it means to be present. Being a chaplain, she finds, is only sometimes about praying together or confronting grief. Sometimes it’s just about listening with an open heart. It’s not about making sense of the world so much as being in the world and really seeing it, feeling it, appreciating it.

Kate’s book is about grief, and I did cry. It’s also about finding humor, and I laughed more than I cried. Most of all, it’s about living a life of faith that is gentle and nonjudgemental, that opens the heart. When she references scripture, it is to bring the text alive in new and unexpected ways, lending it direct relevance to the simple things in life. She writes in a free associative style that should be confusing, especially after the more traditionally linear narrative of Connor’s Fire Season. Instead, Braestrup’s Here If You Need Me flows from scene to backstory to scene to theology and back to scene so seamlessly that I had finished the book much faster than I was ready for it to be over.

From Lake in Maine

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