CORVALLIS - Corvallis author Kathleen Dean Moore has written a new book of nature essays that builds upon her debut, "Riverwalking," which was published in 1995 to positive reviews, winning a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award.
In her second book, "Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World," the Oregon State University professor again uses nature to explore relationships and a sense of connection. Some of these newest essays tackle difficult topics - from physician-assisted suicide to the meaning of pain. Others are more joyous - the attraction of storms, the smell of oysters and the philosophy of field guides.
A professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Oregon State, Moore has an affinity for water. In "Riverwalking," her essays were tied to different rivers she had visited. "Holdfast" extends the concept to still waters - mountain lakes, tule marshes and the ocean.
The title, "Holdfast," is a term that describes the root-like, organic structure binding marine kelp to the rocks. Moore says the question her book ultimately asks is, "what will hold us in place, attached to what we cherish the most? Is it family? Friends? Ideas?"
The essays feature places Moore has visited within the last three years, from the lake country of Minnesota, to an Alaskan island, to Oregon locations remote and familiar. In her writing, she embraces the natural world and uses its power to give meaning to what happens daily in our lives.
"Nature writing isn't necessarily about nature," Moore said. "It can help us understand how we relate to other people."
One of her favorite essays is "Howling with Strangers," set in the deep woods of Minnesota, where Moore and her husband, Frank, joined a small group of people on a frigid night to literally howl with the wolves. She describes how close she felt to those strangers, bound together by the concentrating effect of the wilderness.
Why, one might ask, does nature have that kind of an impact, and a shopping mall doesn't?
"That is exactly the kind of question the essay raises," she said with a laugh. "That's one of the advantages having studied philosophy; philosophy gives you the courage to blunder into the hard questions."
The ultimate question - the meaning of life - is addressed by Moore in a sobering essay called "The Testimony of the Marsh." In it she describes the struggle for success and survival by birds in a high desert marsh, then contrasts that with the stark reality of those same, sometimes unwitnessed struggles by people she sees every day.
In the essay, Moore describes how embarrassed students will ask "The Question" - what is the meaning of life - and how professors typically respond in a glib manner, evading the question and, often, turning it back on the student. The words quickly trail off and it's on to what material will be on the test.
But not always. She writes:
"But last week, a student who had studied metaphysics and epistemology and Soren Kierkegaard, the student who read Immanuel Kant and brought fresh fruit to class, killed herself with a single gunshot to the head, sitting at home, at the kitchen table. She left no note, no explanation, and no one can make any sense of it. Her professors lean heavily against the classroom walls and cannot speak. We realize too late that we never taught our students what ducks know without knowing, that 'we must love life before loving its meaning,' as Dostoyevsky told us. We must love life, and some meaning may grow from that love. But 'if love of life disappears, no meaning can console us.'"
Throughout her collection of 21 essays, Moore celebrates life's connections and laments its separations, be they between parents and child, the fragmentation of communities, the polarization resulting from disparate beliefs, or the separation of academic disciplines.
The major separation, however, the "Big One," she calls it, is how humans have exiled themselves from the natural world.
"There is a kind of sadness that comes from separating ourselves from nature, a kind of spiritual homelessness," Moore said. "It is a sin of philosophical pride to think that the world was created solely for our use."
Published by The Lyons Press, "Holdfast" already is reaping praise by critics. Kirkus Reviews called the book, "Graceful meditations on nature, mostly set in the Pacific Northwest....An altogether satisfying collection by a gifted interpreter of the natural world."
Publishers Weekly says Moore's essays are "reminiscent of the work of Annie Dillard and others who have combined their observations of the natural world with philosophic reflections."
Gary Snyder, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, wrote: "The natural world is not just rocks and bears, it is close and familiar. I am stoked by how 'Holdfast' makes that familiarity fresh and exciting. Kathleen Dean Moore's book negotiates between the energies of both critters and people - coots, kelp, otters, daughters, and more. Her clean, intimate prose shows how learning to howl like a wolf is also learning to howl like a human."
"Holdfast" is available at book stores throughout the Pacific Northwest.