Gretel Van Wieren went on retreat to the Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon’s western Cascade Mountains to reconnect with the natural world. She wanted to conduct a "spiritual experiment" to try to recapture the sense of deep connection with nature she had when growing up, but felt she had lost while living a super busy, high-tech life with kids.
She wrote about her experience and what she learned in Listening at Lookout Creek: Nature in Spiritual Practice by Gretel Van Wieren, from OSU Press.
Gretel Van Wieren talked with Rose City Reader about getting kids outdoors, a spiritual connection with the natural world, and her new book, Listening at Lookout Creek:
What is your family and work background and how did it lead to writing Listening at Lookout Creek?
I grew up on west Michigan’s lakeshore where I and my three sisters spent a huge amount of time outdoors. My father is a real outdoorsman and took us along on all his activities – fishing with down riggers on Lake Michigan, wading for trout at our family cabin, hunting for morels, digging in the garden, boiling maple sap, identifying birds, collecting night crawlers, picking up roadside trash, you name it, we were out there.
It wasn’t until I was a student at Yale Divinity School that I realized just how much these experiences of nature had influenced my spiritual outlook. After I graduated, I worked as a rural parish pastor in upstate New York where many of my parishioners were dairy farmers. They often talked about the deep connections they had with the land, and even though conversations were not always the most direct, it was clear that their relationship with nature was foundational to their sense of spirituality. It was during that time that I really began to explore the world of nature mysticism, which serves as the basis for the writing of Listening at Lookout Creek.
You describe a "spiritual experiment" that inspired this book. Can you explain more about that?
I generally think of the spiritual life as a kind of ongoing investigation, an experiment, if you will, about what gives life meaning and significance. The “spiritual experiment” that served as the impetus for this book was a condensed version of that. I went into my writing residency at the H.J. Andrews Forest with a specific research question – was it possible, I wanted to know, to rekindle the sense of deep connection I had once had with the natural world, and could it be done in just ten days? The experiment also held a sense of urgency, as it was a particularly restless spiritual time in my life. To be honest, I was so over-taxed at the time with all my obligations, I developed the idea of a spiritual experiment on the plane ride from Detroit to Eugene. I actually think it was my husband, Jeff’s idea.
At the end of the ten day experiment I did feel a sense of reconnection with nature and my own self, though I also wound up discovering what most scientific experiments do – questions lead to further questions. I wondered how long my sense of spiritual connection with nature would last, and whether it was actually possible to live a life of such connection in the midst of my insanely busy, suburban, hi-tech life? I’m still not sure.
Who is the audience for your book?
I would say parents and people in general who are concerned about getting kids outdoors more and on screens less, the fishing and hunting community, and spiritual seekers. In the past month, I have been contacted about the book by the Children & Nature Network, Friends of Michigan Rivers, and The Society of Friends/Quakers in Michigan. I think that well sums up the book’s audience.
During this time of corona virus stay home orders and quarantines, are there particular lessons families can gain from your book?
Get outside as much as you can! I realize that access to the outdoors varies depending on where we live. Still, many of us are spending more time than ever outside, which is a real up-side to the pandemic, in my mind. When Listening at Lookout Creek first came out, my publisher asked me to write a listicle based on the book’s theme of connecting children with nature. It’s called “Ten Tips for Getting your Kids Outdoors.” A few tips that I have found to be especially helpful during this time are: ask your kids what they want to do outdoors; do it with them; work it into their daily study schedules; and make outside somewhere they want to be.
In general, what do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Don’t give up working to connect with the natural world, no matter how small the activities. There are a lot of articles out there right now talking about all the amazing things people are doing in and for nature. It is truly inspiring. At the same time, I find it a bit overwhelming at times. As if now that we have all this time on our hands we should be putting in giant gardens, going on marathon-long walks, learning to identify hundreds of bird species, joining environmental activist campaigns, and the list goes on. Many, if not most of us, are just trying to get by, juggling work and kids at home, paying bills, doing chores. So be generous with yourself and with your loved ones when it comes to getting outdoors during these times. And that goes for all the time. Get outside daily, for sure; but appreciate and be satisfied with the tiny moments you spend in nature and with each other.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
I think I realized just how demanding I am, too demanding I’m afraid, when it comes to spending time outdoors. I don’t think parents should necessarily shy away from forcing their children to spend time outside. But I do think, at least in my case, such a single-minded attitude can create a wedge between parents and children, particularly since most of their peers spend so much time online, and those social relationships are extremely important. I guess I would say that I learned even more what a difficult balance it is to both resist and embrace technology, especially when parenting.
In terms of the writing process, it was much more gratifying than I would have expected to work through my recollections of my own childhood experiences of nature and my experiences of nature with my own children – and then to work through them again and again when writing and rewriting about them. It really provided a source of inner renewal and strength that I had not anticipated.
Who are your favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?
I have a lot of favorite authors, given how interdisciplinary my work is. In terms of those who especially influenced the writing of this book, I’d have to say Rick Bass, Todd Fleming Davis, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Jerry Dennis, Annie Dillard, Tom Montgomery Fate, Robin Kimmerer, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Scott Russell Sanders. Since I have no formal training in creative writing, their books were some of my best teachers and guides along the way.
What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
The pandemic has opened more time for reading, as we all know. For me this has meant reading fiction, which I rarely have time for during the academic year. I just finished, and loved, Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, based on the recommendation of my two daughters, Inga and Clara. At the beginning of the quarantine, we stayed for several weeks at my childhood home, where I just chose books that looked interesting from my parents’ book shelves; I read Ann Packer’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Heather Morris’ The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
I also recently finished some books of creative nonfiction that have been on my desk for a while – Jill Sisson Quinn’s Deranged: Finding a Sense of Place in the Landscape and in the Lifespan and Don Mitchell’s Flying Blind: One Man’s Battle with Buckthorn, Coming to Peace with Authority, and Creating a Home for Endangered Bats, a book I picked-up at (shout out to!) Otter Creek Used Books in Middlebury, Vermont. Currently on my shelf are Pam Houston’s Deep Creek: Finding Hope in High Country and Ann Irvine’s Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land.
And I am always reading spiritual writing, and scholarly articles and books in my field of religion and the environment. Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors is one of my latest favorites.
What's next for you? What are you working on now?
I am writing a lot of poetry these days, because that feels doable with the scattered snippets of time I have. I am also working on a book on place, tentatively titled Staying Put: The Ambiguity of Place in an Age of Uncertainty. It’s a kind of follow-up to Listening at Lookout Creek, focusing on my suburban home place, rather than the wild places of the Andrews Forest and my family’s hunting cabin. I had titled the book before the pandemic, though now it feels like it rings eerily true. It’s certainly given me more to think about in terms of the meaning of place, and how that changes when we’re forced to stay somewhere.
LISTENING AT LOOKOUT CREEK IS AVAILABLE ONLINE, LIKE ALL BOOKS THESE DAYS.