Meet Kathleen Dean Moore
Kathleen Dean Moore lives in a college town at the confluence of two Oregon rivers, and in summer, in a little cabin on the shore of a southeast Alaskan inlet. An essayist, activist, and professor, she brings together natural history, philosophical ideas, and creative expression in a search for lasting, loving ways to live on Earth. Her three previous collections of personal essays all address, as she puts it, "living in the lively places where water meets land," Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water, Holdfast, and Pine Island Paradox. Her essays have appeared in journals including Audubon, Discover, the New York Times Magazine, and Orion, where she serves on the board of directors, and many anthologies, including What Wildness Is This, published by Story Circle Network. She is a distinguished professor at Oregon State University, and cofounder and director of the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word. Moore says she "best loves exploring wild places with her husband Frank, a biologist, and with the young families of their daughter and son."
Read Susan Tweit's review of Wild Comfort for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 05/17/2010
Wild Comfort opens with these lines: "This is a book about the comfort and reassurance of wet, wild places...I am trying to understand this, the power of water, air, earth, and time to bring gladness gradually from grief and to restore meaning to lives that seem empty or unmoored." This sounds like writing as thinking. Did you set out to write the book as a way to work through the grief of that autumn of losses when three friends and your father-in-law died?
I had set out to write a book about happiness. I planned a sort of research project, to keep careful notes about those moments when I was fully happy and then to study the collected moments to see what I could learn. But part way through that year, events overtook me—death after death of people I really cared about. What had begun as a study of happiness became a study in sorrow and courage.
The book is divided into three sections, "Gladness," "Solace," and "Courage." Did the essays come to you in that order, or did you write them and then sort through to see where they be-longed?
I wrote the gladness essays first, but the solace and courage essays came willy-nilly as I cast about for some way—any way—to tap into the reassurance and the steadfastness of the natural world. I thought a lot about how to arrange the essays then. I thought I had found a progression of ideas, almost like a different view of the five stages of grief. So the book moves from glad-ness to sorrow, as life often does, and climbs through what might be prayer or a kind of stillness, to restored meaning and hope, to peace, maybe even to celebration and the courage to be glad again. But life isn't as neat and clean as all that, as everyone knows, and I didn.t want to pretend it is. So I decided on just those three sections, coming at last to courage, which is where we must live.
In the essay, "Suddenly There Was With the Angel," you write, "I'm thinking it's a paltry sense of wonder that requires something new every day." You continue, "To be worthy of the astonishing world, a sense of wonder will be a way of life, in every place and time, no matter how familiar: to listen in the dark of every night, to praise the mystery of every returning day, to be astonished again and again, to be grateful with an intensity that cannot be distinguished from joy." In your admittedly complicated life, how do you maintain that daily sense of wonder, that ability to praise the mystery of every returning day?
This is very, very hard. You have raised the question that haunts me and sometimes wakes me, crying. I know you feel this too. Everyone must. But do you remember the line from the Mary Oliver poem that begins, "My work is loving the world"? Later in the poem, she describes her work as "...mostly standing still and learning to be astonished." What strikes me as deeply im-portant is how closely learning to be astonished follows on the heels of standing still. Rivers teach us this too. When rivers are rushing around a rock, they lose all color and become as pale as dead fish. It's only when rivers stop in an eddy or behind a rock that they fill with their blue and green and their rainbows. I don't want to be a dead fish; I think I know what that feels like for a writer. So I am trying to stand still: at the door when I pick up the newspaper, when I enter my office, while my computer charges up (this is pitiful), when I walk to campus. But it's true that whenever I stop and stand still, then the mystery and beauty of the world can find me in that quiet space.
What are your hopes for Wild Comfort?
I hope that my book helps people. I hope it's a book that people bring to their friends who are struggling for some reason, the way they might bring a casserole. I hope the book passes from father to friend, from sister to mother, maybe between strangers in an airport, or pauses for a week on a bedside table or a boulder by a stream, shows up on a doorstep with a pile of wild-flowers, goes camping in the rain and desert, until—sooty from the campfire, brittle from the sun, underlined into a map—the pages all fall out. That's a good life for a book.
What is the connection between your work as a writer and your work as a philosopher?
I think that my work is to use the only words I have—bones and leaves, seas and moons, dark and sand—and the only stories I have—kayaking in the snow, avoiding whales, singing away bears, camping in the desert—to go after the hardest questions I know, which are (and always have been) three: What is the world? What is the place of a human being in the world? How then shall we live? I love to write about real things (things with feathers or moss or feelings), and I love to write about ideas. So I try to write essays that dive from experience to ideas as recklessly as osprey dive after shadows.
If you had to pick just one place to spend the rest of your days, where would it be?
Ah, cruel question. Will it be (a) sitting beside a turquoise spring river under sun-warmed ponderosa pines (the smell of vanilla, and pine needles prickling my legs), (b) wading shin-deep in tide pools that smell of salt and sea and rockwrack drying in cold sun, (c) dangling my legs off the bow of the driftboat as we float the river in May, an in-between time when cottonwood leaves still smell sticky and sweet but orange poppies have begun to bloom on the gravel bars? I give up.
What's your favorite thing to do with your grandchildren? Favorite place to take them?
I have two grandchildren, so I'll tell you two stories.
Zoey is two. We are camping in the Pinnacles National Monument in California. For a reason I can't remember (these things happen), Zoey and I fall on our backs in the grass. When we look up, there, in a clear blue sky, are condors. They soar on impossibly huge wings. "Condors," I say. "Condors," Zoey says. Lying on our backs, we hold hands and stretch out our arms, but even so, our arms together are not as long as the condors' wings. So we just lie there, holding hands, and watch them soar. I have been so afraid for my grandchildren, knowing the degraded and poisoned world we are leaving them. But watching the condors, brought back to the cliffs by caring human beings, gave me a kind of hope and peace I have not felt for a very long time.
Theo is one. We poke things in holes. We poke sticks into gopher holes. We poke fingers into pudding. We poke a screwdriver (don't ask me how this happened) into every opening in the door latch. We push everything through the knothole in the fence—maple samaras, stones, sticks, green beans, daffodils, and the screwdriver. We slap puddles with sticks to raise the splash. We dissect tulips. We practice sitting on rocks or benches or potholders. And all the while, Theo sings a little song, soft like a river. He hums and chortles and laughs out loud. There is no more beautiful song in the world.
Are you still planning on writing that book on happiness?
No and yes. My writing life made an abrupt turn not long ago, when I was reading to Zoey about owls, which Zoey found so completely hilarious that she plopped on her back in helpless laughter. I said to myself, "That's it. It's over. Nothing more to decide. I will devote every ounce of my strength as a writer to preserving a world that is safe for the laughter of children." So my next book, Moral Ground, due out in September, gathers writing from moral leaders around the world, all calling us to honor our moral obligation to leave to the future a world as rich in possibilities as the world we inherited. If we love this wet wild world and all that lives in it, we have a sacred responsibility to do everything we can to save it from the forces that would poison and pave it. Is that a book about happiness? It better be, because what better argument for saving the world than the joy we take in it, and the love we feel for the ones who will live there?