CORVALLIS, Ore. - To most people, an island is a place of isolation and a simple existence. Kathleen Dean Moore, on the other hand, sees islands as the high point of something much deeper and more complex, yet rarely examined.
Using islands as a metaphor, Moore explores the interrelatedness of nature - and of families - in a new book of essays just released by Milkweed Editions publishers. Titled "The Pine Island Paradox," the book challenges the philosophic assumption that humans are somehow separate from and above nature, and also suggests an environmental ethic defined by care.
Moore, who carries the title of distinguished professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, is the author of two critically acclaims books of nature essays, "Riverwalking" and "Holdfast."
"I've spent a lot of time lately, happily storm-bound on islands," Moore said. "In the dark and the rain, an island seems like the very essence of isolation and exile. But when you wade at the edge of the tide, you quickly realize that an island is only the high point in the continuous fabric of the planet, the small part we can see of the hidden substance that connects everything on Earth.
"So this book tells stories about islands, trying to evoke the hidden kinship and connection of all life and the responsibilities that grow from those families ties."
Moore opens "The Pine Island Paradox" with one of her favorite essays, describing the plaintive howling of a wolf and the seemingly desperate cries of a loon - heard above the pounding of an Alaskan rainstorm. To her, they echo the sound of human longing and "remind us of the place of humans in the harmony of nature."
Another favorite is called "Refrigerator Fungus," which tells the story of her father - a biologist - and his passion for nature's agents of decay. Moore recalls how near the end of his life, he would take his collection of scientific slides and put them to music.
"The joy he took in the natural world and his sense of wonder fills me still," she said, "and shapes how I teach and live and raise my children."
All three of Moore's books on essays have explored themes of water and the cultural and spiritual value they bring. "Riverwalking," an exploration of rivers, received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. "Holdfast," named for the root-like structure binding kelp to rocks, received the 2000 Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award.
Regarded as one of Oregon State University's most innovative teachers, Moore has written a pair of textbooks that connect critical thinking and effective writing. Each fall she teaches a philosophy of nature course that meets in the Cascade Range, where 15 students camp by a lake, think about the relationship between humans and nature, and write about their thoughts and experiences.
Moore is the director of the Spring Creek Project at OSU, an initiative created to "bring together the practical wisdom of the environmental sciences, the clarity of philosophical analysis, and the creative, expressive power of the written word, to find new ways to understand and re-imagine our relation to the natural world." One fascinating example of the project's scope came last year, when OSU hosted a conference that brought together scientists and poets to share ideas about new ways to describe ecological restoration.
Her writing, teaching and work with the Spring Creek Project all intersect, she says, and "The Pine Island Paradox," reflects those values of interconnectedness. It also crystalized Moore's realization of how interconnected her own life really is.
"I used to think that my work as an essay writer and my 'day-job' as a philosophy professor were separate lives," she said. "For me, the pleasure of writing this book is discovering that the writer and the philosopher are doing the same thing - telling stories about who we are, we human beings, and what it means to live humanely in this wild, wonder-filled world."
Moore's new book, "The Pine Island Paradox," is available at bookstores or can be ordered directly from Milkweed Editions online at www.milkweed.org.