Wilderness is a conflicted, multi-faceted idea. It is a place we escape to for quiet and solace but not somewhere to call home. It can be threatening and dangerous while offering refreshment and recreation. In the Catholic imagination, it is the site of both temptation and prophecy. For the poet, it is a dark wood, the selva oscura of The Divine Comedy, where the way has been lost yet also a place to find the way back to authentic life.
In Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness, Nick Ripatrazone sets out to explore the concept along these many dimensions. It is just as easy to get lost exploring the idea of wilderness as it is navigating the wild itself. Thankfully, Ripatrazone keeps the reader’s boots on the trail by following the tracks of a small group of writers who have found their muses in the wilderness, letting those authors play Virgil to the reader’s Dante.
The introduction and first chapter provide a grounding in the central paradoxes of the wilderness through the dual lens of faith and fiction and are worth reading as stand-alone essays, as is the conclusion which quite unexpectedly brings Toni Morrison into conversation with Martin Heidegger. The other five chapters are devoted to specific authors: Gerard Manley Hopkins; Wendell Berry and Terry Tempest Williams; Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane; William Everson, also known as Brother Antoninus; and Mary Oliver and W.S. Merwin. One of Ripatrazones’s strong points as a critic is seamlessly blending biography with literary analysis, so that the works of each author seem to flow naturally and with a certain inevitability from their background and character.
This list of writers—Western and, more specifically, Anglophone— is undoubtedly a small fraction of those who have spoken to the idea of wilderness, so there are naturally some perspectives that are not included. It would be quite interesting to bring some Native American, Indigenous or First Nations writers into the conversation. Would such writers see the same paradoxes within the idea of wilderness? For European immigrants to America, by contrast, the wilderness and the frontier were at times synonymous, with largely negative connotations: think of “Manifest Destiny,” or the portrayal of wilderness as a danger to be conquered in the patriotic song “America the Beautiful”:
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
Does this still inform the poetic imagination of the (non-Native American) writers who consider what the wild represents?
Younger writers could be another case study. The youngest author profiled, Terry Tempest Williams, is sixty-five. What of the younger generations? Are there, say, Gen X or Millennial writers who put stock in wilderness as a literary idea, or is that part of the imaginary fading from memory into myth just as wild land itself has largely disappeared? These questions are raised not as points of criticism but rather to illustrate just how broad this topic is and how fruitful it would be to explore further.
To slip into the first person for a moment, I was thrilled to learn that Ripatrazone was writing this book. First, because this is a book that very much needed to be written. Among some Christians, and Catholics specifically, there is an anti-environmentalism that starts as a reaction to anti-natalist, Malthusian rhetoric but spills over into suspicion of nature. This isn’t universal, of course. There are great saints like St. Francis who can inspire a respect for the natural world, and of course our very Franciscan (for a Jesuit!) Pope who has helped put care for the environment in theological context through his encyclical Laudato Si. But one encounters the attitude enough that any new book that aims to recover a deeper and more positive vision of nature is most welcome.
Second, while such a book needed to be written, it seemed to me that Ripatrazone was just the person to write it. He has a love for the natural world that—fair warning—is practically contagious from reading his prose, combined with a deep knowledge of literature and poetry. He can take a single line from a poem that you or I might gloss over and pluck it out, holding it up to the light and examining it from all sides like an iridescent feather. There are few Catholic scholars who are better able to bring disparate voices into conversation, leaving behind tired dichotomies of who counts as a Catholic writer in favor of exploring the inherent tensions and dualities within each author’s work and life—as he did admirably in Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction.
I hope this brief review serves as an invitation to explore Nick Ripatrazone’s excellent book, the authors he highlights, and most importantly the wilderness itself, where grace may find us far from the madding crowd.