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Kathleen Dean Moore’s Essays Distill the Solace of Nature

Wild Comfort: The Solace of NatureWild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore

Reviewed by Joseph Bednarik
The Oregonian

Pay attention is the message of Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore, a philosophy professor at Oregon State University and the director of the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word.

This collection of essays, reveries and meditations interweaves keen observations of the natural world with descriptions of wilderness travel, conversations, stories and philosophical musings.

"I had begun to write about happiness," Moore shares on the first page, "but events overtook me."

Friends and family died by drowning, disease and accident, and, as Moore admits, "my life became an experiment in sadness."

She turned to the natural world for solace.

"The earth holds every possibility inside it, and the mystery of transformation, one thing into another. This is the wildest comfort."

Moore takes an artistic risk by laying the foundation for her book in personal grief. Readers are inclined to grant sympathy for the author's losses, but Moore must then write a world that effectively represents these places with images so potent and alive that readers feel the solace.

The good news is that she frequently succeeds.

Moore is a talented writer who can describe natural scenes with precision. "I am standing on the pig-barn path in late winter, watching an uncertain flock of geese over an Oregon field." Who can resist any philosopher sending a winter missive from the "pig-barn path"?

In one particularly beautiful essay about light, "Suddenly, There Was an Angel," she describes the setting sun while camped on an island in the Sea of Cortez: "First it was there, slumped on the water like an egg yolk, peppered by frigate birds settling onto Isla Pelícano for the night."

She goes on to gorgeously describe transformative experiences with such radically dissimilar things as bioluminescent algae and candlelight reflected off a beer bottle.

"The glass in the bottle is sand, fused by fire into something that still glitters. And what is sand? -- black urchin spines, fallen stars, unimaginable time."

Please do yourself a favor and read this essay.

As talented as Moore proves herself to be, some of her essays strain to rise above the merely personal. In other instances, her writing can feel overtly poetic, or ideas intended as profound fall short of the mark.

Structurally, Wild Comfort longs to be a cohesive whole -- "a vessel big enough to hold everyone and their grief." Overall, it feels like discrete pieces fitted and framed together as best as can be. One indication is that images recur because they were included in essays written years apart. Snow hides. Flounders emerge. Shadows are everywhere.

Yet shadows have hinted at reality since Plato's cave. So it is appropriate that philosopher Moore plays with shadows, and by extension light. She then goes one vivid step further, imagining Plato "lying on his stomach in the tide pools."

It is easy to imagine Moore lying next to Plato, intensely focused and observant, pointing out the natural world's soothing and transformative miracles. She excels at it.

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