Synopses & Reviews
Small farms once occupied the heights that John Elder calls home, but now only a few cellar holes and tumbled stone walls remain among the dense stands of maple, beech, and hemlocks on these Vermont hills. Reading the Mountains of Home
is a journey into these verdant reaches where in the last century humans tried their hand and where bear and moose now find shelter. As John Elder is our guide, so Robert Frost is Elder's companion, his great poem "Directive" seeing us through a landscape in which nature and literature, loss and recovery, are inextricably joined.
Over the course of a year, Elder takes us on his hikes through the forested uplands between South Mountain and North Mountain, reflecting on the forces of nature, from the descent of the glaciers to the rush of the New Haven River, that shaped a plateau for his village of Bristol; and on the human will that denuded and farmed and abandoned the mountains so many years ago. His forays wind through the flinty relics of nineteenth-century homesteads and Abenaki settlements, leading to meditations on both human failure and the possibility for deeper communion with the land and others.
An exploration of the body and soul of a place, an interpretive map of its natural and literary life, Reading the Mountains of Home strikes a moving balance between the pressures of civilization and the attraction of wilderness. It is a beautiful work of nature writing in which human nature finds its place, where the reader is invited to follow the last line of Frost's "Directive," to "Drink and be whole again beyond confusion."
What a grand book this is! It's too full of life to be confined to a genre--it's memoir, natural history, and literary criticism, but it's also much more than the sum of its parts. Reading the Mountains of Home is one of the great classics of the American East. Terry Tempest Williams, author of < i=""> Refuge <>
John Elder turned to Frost's last great poem and has written a beautiful study of its complicated narrative...More than literary criticism, Reading the Mountains of Home is an extended homage, a memoir and meditation. Elder succeeds in the most difficult of ways: As his focus expands, his concentration grows more acute...His analysis is attuned to both the language of the poem and to its concentric rings, the stories that illuminate this landscape and prove the vitality and relevance of poetry. Tom Shayton - Vermont Public Radio
John Elder has plumbed deeply the wisdom of the likes of Parker and Frost, examining with the skill of both a poet and a naturalist the history of the modern Vermont landscape...[He] has written a book that manages at once to blend precise nature writing, profound literary criticism, and a moving examination of his own personal world at midlife...Reading the Mountains of Home is a truly rare joy: It is a book that will not merely help a reader to navigate the world in the woods; it will also help one to understand that all too complex geography of the human soul. Thomas Curwen - Los Angeles Times
Elder's extended essay achieves what little criticism does: it brings poetry, literally, down to earth...Part meditation, part ecological history of [the Bristol] woods, and part literary criticism, the work is also a quiet testimonial to the uses of reading--reading either a mountain or a poem...This is the opposite of most academic writing--although Elder is a professor of English and environmental studies at Middlebury College--and also averse to the critical writing of most poets today, since...[his] language avoids the lyrical and mystical steadfastly for the plain and true. As a provocative alternative to customary criticism, it is also an example well worth following by other writers--a 'directive' of its own. Chris Bohjalian - Free Press (Burlington)
Elder begins each chapter with several lines from the poem, an effective technique that creates a convergence of literary criticism and nature writing. The reader learns much about the natural history of the Vermont landscape, from prehistory to the settling and clear-cutting by Europeans to current recovery and return to wilderness. Elder is an able guide, sprinkling his text with anecdotes, statistics, and self-revelation. Noel Perrin, Dartmouth College
John Elder's Reading the Mountains of Home blends mountain hiking, Robert Frost, Vermont history and lore, and meditations on family into a thoughtful depiction of living with nature in the late twentieth century. Lovers of Frost's poetry, of New England's landscapes, and of the rich tradition of American nature writing, of which Elder is a leading authority, will be drawn to this engaging volume. Richard Nelson, author of < i=""> The Island Within <>
John Elder has interwoven a dazzling series of odysseys, of heart and head, place and people, composed them in the framework of Robert Frost's 'Directive,' and produced one of the most beautiful books of natural history I've ever read. It is seldom that the elegance of one writer's soul, mind, and style have combined to give us such insights into the relationship of people with place and with each other, and the epiphany of riding your own fragile handmade canoe through whitewater rapids. David M. Robinson, Oregon State University
Elder hikes through the [Bristol] region as he muses on its sociology and biology and how its hardwood forests were lost to small farms, themselves now replaced by blazing maples. In an unusual and insightful book, Elder argues that not all ecological destruction this century was intrinsically wrong, while showing that, just because a landscape pleases the eye, there is nothing to say that it must be natural. Poetry Calendar
A sure sign that the Northern Forest region is in the early stages of cultural renewal is the development of a Northern Forest literature, 'a dialogue between wilderness and culture.' John Elder's...book Reading the Mountains of Home is a wonderful contribution to this dialogue...[The book] is a deep, lyrical, celebration of living very locally. Yet, its focus on such a small plot of land leads the writer and reader to ponder universal questions of living lightly on Earth. Randy Dykhuis - Library Journal
Starting with a few lines of Frost's poem on the human and natural histories of this enclave, each chapter examines the exquisite detail of nearby nature in conjunction with close analysis of Frost's expansive meanings...Readers may question whether this is primarily a book of literary criticism, environmental appreciation or simply a minute vivisection of a poem, but in the end Elder persuades us of the vastly encompassing theme Frost addressed and the eventual self-discovery of being lost in this land. Elder has written a tour de force of insight and interpretive skill. Publishers Weekly
It is deeply personal and profoundly moving--and an eloquent challenge to some of the principal assumptions that guide the environmental movement in this country. Reading the Mountains of Home may be at once one of the more accessible yet complex nature books ever published. It is accessible because Elder is an immensely gifted writer, whether he's describing the way a glacier halved a mountain 20,000 years ago or explaining why, in his opinion, Frost was one of New England's great naturalists. It is complex because the book has three distinct threads: First, there is a nature writer's scrutiny of the world; second, there is an English professor's precise discussion of literature and one long Frost poem; and, third, there is one man's self-examination at midlife...Though John Elder's book is suffused with loss...[it] is uplifting. In part, this is due to Elder's contention that man and nature are not incompatible and that wilderness may be renewable after all. But it is due also to Elder himself: It is not hard for Elder to find beauty and pleasure in the world, and this comes across on almost every page. Chris Bohjalian
[This] is the most intelligent book about Vermont that I've read in several years. New Vermont books often fall into a very few predictable categories...John Elder's book, Reading the Mountains of Home, fits into none of those categories. It transcends them all, brilliantly, and emerges as that rare find: a new and fascinating look at this complex place we call home...A book of considerable subtlety and complexity that reads easily and spins a story as compelling as any good novel. But that's only one of [its] accomplishments. For what Elder has also done here, I believe, is the very important task of pointing a new, coherent direction for the national environmental movement, a movement now struggling with an outmoded script, and very much in need of revitalization...Perhaps the best description of Reading the Mountains of Home is to call it an exploration--a deep exploration of what a particular place can mean to a particular human being--and thereby to all of us. It's a book I hope every Vermonter will read. Boston Globe Magazine
I'm not sure what impressed me more about John Elder's writing in Reading the Mountains of Home: his eloquent use of language or the ambitiousness of what he accomplishes. First, the book functions as a literary exercise...Second, it examines the complicated cycles of loss and recovery within Vermont's natural and human communities. Finally, Reading the Mountains of Home is an engaging familial narrative, as Elder processes several personal losses--the death of his father and dog, the slow recovery of his mother from surgery, and the social withdrawal of his son...This book is for the optimist as well as the amateur historian. Elder celebrates change by describing how loss soon leads to recovery; 'sometimes we must go down before we find our second chance.' Citing [Frost's] 'Directive,' Elder espouses the value of being 'lost enough to find yourself.' Delightfully, Elder's journey becomes the reader's. Adrian Barnett - New Scientist [UK - ]
Reading the Mountains of Home is an exquisite literary map that orients us toward an empathetic response to wilderness. Using Robert Frost's poem, 'Directive' as his compass, John Elder charts an utterly original course as he explores the terrain of his own natural autobiography and what it means to live in place. This book is a smart, moving, and intricate path through the wildlands of Vermont. John Elder has created a beautiful, enduringly wise topography of his own, where language and landscape create a confluence of native rapport. Kelly Ault - Vermont Woodlands
Elder mixes his experiences on the land with wide ranging reflections. Ashe observes his external world, he also looks inward, examining how thelandscape has become meaningful to himself, his family, and his neighbors. John Elder is a fine writer, a knowledgeable and insightful guide, a livelyand engaging companion, a man of remarkable depth, sensitivity, andgentleness. What a pleasure, to share in this man's loving, thoughtfulexploration of Bristol and the surrounding mountain country. Bill McKibben
Here is a very unusual piece of nature writing. John Elder makes his way simultaneously through Robert Frost's greatest poem and through one of Vermont's wildest places. His double journey produces a whole book of illuminations. Ann H. Zwinger
Small farms once occupied the heights that John Elder calls home, but now only a few cellar holes and tumbled stone walls remain among the dense stands of maple, beech, and hemlocks on these Vermont hills. Reading the Mountains of Home is a journey into these verdant reaches where in the last century humans tried their hand and where bear and moose now find shelter. As John Elder is our guide, so Robert Frost is Elder's companion, his great poem "Directive" seeing us through a landscape in which nature and literature, loss and recovery, are inextricably joined.
About the Author
John Elder is Stewart Professor of English and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and the author of Following the Brush and Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature.
Professor of English and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College
Table of Contents
"Directive" by Robert Frost
A Wilderness of Scars
Hiking by Flashlight
The Plane on South Mountain
Someone's Road Home
In the Village
North Mountain Gyres
Coltsfoot, Mourning Cloak
The Stolen Goblet
A Confusion of Waters