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Journeys into the American Wilderness

by Gregory McNamee

Pub Date: June 1st, 2000
ISBN: 1-58574-014-4
Publisher: Lyons Press

Elegantly distilled experiences in wild places—mostly desert, though Rome figures here, as does Kamchatka and the Burren and other places—that have moved McNamee’s soul.

McNamee (a reviewer for Kirkus and ed., The Mountain World, see below) makes a strong case for stopping to smell the roses—“to distinguish the differences between look-alike plants, to separate out the churring of myriad insects and the whirring of birds”—which often as not means (as Gary Snyder suggests) that we really do not know a place until we can name 100 of its plants and animals. The sublime, in particular, has been intimated to McNamee in the wildest of outposts—places noble and terrifying, “unearthly and expanding,” places like the shoreline of Iceland or the mountain peaks of Colorado. It is in such places, McNamee suggests, that he comes closest to real mysticism, for it is only in these venues that he can appreciate the impulse of religion. In such places, natural phenomena become the object of a fascination that surely gripped our forebears, where lightning and wind and flowing water are elemental and humbling. McNamee doesn’t aspire to reveal an essence, for he is smart enough to appreciate that people will find their own essences if they look closely enough, drink deeply enough, find some vulnerability and promise in their own landscapes. Rarely does McNamee stumble on this multi-part walkabout, although he can let his didacticism get in the way (“creating an upward-downward (anabatic-katabatic) wind flow”) and he sometimes goes preachy: “These mountains are my garden. . . . I mean not ownership but responsibility.” None of this is more than a passing irritation, however, a mosquito in the tent on an otherwise majestic camping trip.

Experiences such as these rambles, investigations, and broodings are what make up a life, estimable and visited by a curiosity that keeps it fresh and in wonder.