Weaving a Way Home: Book Review

Leslie Van Gelder’s Weaving a Way Home.  A Personal Journey Exploring Place and Story (University of Michigan Press) is a complex and evocative dissertation on concepts and intersections of a sense of place, storyingtelling, and anthromophorization in an anthropocentric world.  Her writing is fluid, blending personal stories with extensive quotes from writers as diverse as Gary Snyder, Barry Lopez, and Calvin Luther Martin.  

I was ”hooked“ into reading her book by a single line:  “Both of my parents gave me a life rich in experience.  Both died too young.” (page 7) The death of her parents, particularly her father’s death, prompted her to consider “questions of story and place” (page 9), and to study the fine distinctions between wilderness and wildland and the wildness within all of us.  

The divestment of a parent’s belongings can provoke a reel of memories that one had thought was long-forgotten.  In my own family, the death of an aunt or uncle will draw stories from my cousins who live scattered across the United States:  all those stories will be centered in our “authentic homeland,” upstate New York, where my aunts and uncles and most of my cousins grew up.  These stories or shared memories are what give us our sense of home:  

”The desire for an “authentic homeland” is about wanting to look around and find ourselves surrounded by kin–the people of whom we are a part–with faces like ours, eyes, hands, the same names and language.  More important, we want to be with people who share the memories of the same set of stories, our stories.  Our continuum ensures that our people will exist after we are gone and that we are carrying their nature in us.  We want the senses of being of and from to be one.“  (page 69)

Even those cousins who were born and raised thousands of miles from the ”authentic homeland“ can lay claim to it through their parents’ stories and the stories they made through their visits.  Ironically, death may tie us to our homeland more than life itself.

Van Gelder also draws from her varied and rich travel experiences to support her thesis of storytelling as that which connects us to each other and to our environment.  From Baie de Ha Ha to Cyprus to Africa to New Zealand to New Jersey, Van Gelder weaves a tapestry of stories that give meaning to her life.  

The first several chapters of her book focus on the ideas of wilderness, wildness, and wildland:  “Wilderness, wildness, and wildland are three terms I have used refer to similar places, but they mean very different things.”  (page 20)  Wilderness is the unknown, wildland is the known, but in both cases, humans are not the dominant inhabitants.   “Wilderness becomes wildland when it becomes known to us.  Fear is replaced by recognition, memory, and story.” (page 41).  Wildness is not a place, but a state of being:  “Wildness is the state of being open to the unknown.” (page 53)  Experiencing wildness can be found in something as literal as canoeing down an old, forgotten canal or as subtle (and yet life-changing) as leaving one’s “authentic homeland” for a strange urban jungle on the other side of the continent.

Van Gelder’s meditations on wilderness and wildland resonate because we are continually massaging our concepts of wilderness and wildland in the political realm.  Van Gelder notes that “[t]he intent of the Wilderness Act is to deliberately preserve wildness from humanness.” (page 24)  What happens to the wildness of ANWR if it is opened to oil drilling?  What happens to the wilderness off the coast of Florida if oil drilling is allowed?  Van Gelder’s meditations and the discourse of her own experiences help us see that our relationships to these wilderness places will be irrevocably (and regrettably) changed by human manipulation.  

Contemporary society is anthropocentric:  to be human is to be all.  Van Gelder traces our evolution from anthropomorphic hunter-gatherers to anthropocentric agrarians.  Fear of starvation is one explanation for why our species began to plant and (more importantly) stockpile food.  Animals became objectified as something we eat for the sake of our own survival, not as sentient creatures with which we coexist.  The more anthropocentric we’ve become, the stronger the antipathy we feel toward the “other,” whether the other be a wildebeast, a swamp, or an iceberg.  We’ve alienated ourselves from the very wilderness and wildlands that nurtured our evolution.  

Van Gelder’s tapestry of a book is not smooth to the touch.  Heavy slubs of wools poke up here and there when she digresses into academic recitations.  Her tendency to define terms such as wildness in several different ways as if she were thinking out loud tested my patience at times.  But her stories about her parents, her parents-in-law, her husband, her friends, and herself are colorful threads that often make  reading Weaving a Way Home a poignant joy.  Her love for family and friends and the wilderness and wildlands of her life bind her tapestry in place and make a dense and beautiful fabric.

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