President Ramaley's Bookshelf: February 2011
Every day as I drive to and from campus, I look up at the bluffs and think about how this place on the banks of the Mississippi, a landscape nestled in a “driftless zone” that the glaciers never passed over, shapes my own internal landscape. I often wonder how my life on a sandbar beneath the bluffs affects how I think about many things and how my own education, the books I read, the people I meet, the stories I hear all affect how I respond to these bluffs and to the Mississippi flowing beside them.
These questions came back to me as I read Atlantic by Simon Winchester. I have been a Simon Winchester fan for a long time. I enjoy seeing the world the way he sees it, and I also relish the pleasure of following the story as he writes about how other people make discoveries, finding and then working out the meaning of the clues that nature provides about why the world is the way it is. Atlantic is a different kind of adventure. It is a privileged view into the mind of the author as he responds to the sea and to the bluffs and the headlands that frame the sea, to his earlier memories of ocean crossing and to the stories told by others. From these things he creates a richer picture of the Atlantic Ocean and how human beings have responded to its vastness, its depths and its shifting moods.
It is a wonderful exercise in exploring the question of how where we are shapes who we are and how who we are shapes what we see. Winchester sets the book in his own personal space—his lifelong love of the Atlantic, first kindled by a voyage he took across the Atlantic in 1963, in the waning days of the great oceanic passenger liners. He describes the uncanny feeling he had on that voyage of “the sudden silence, the emptiness, the realization of the enormous depths beneath us and the limitless heights above, the universal grayness of the scene, the very evident and terrifying power of the rough seas and wind.” What follows is a hymn to the Atlantic Ocean but also a weaving together of history, geology, warfare and peace, storm and tranquility, the richness of human expression and the response of poets and composers and painters to both the ocean itself and to the idea of that ocean.
After reading Atlantic, I couldn’t resist going back to my book shelf to find two other books that I have read and loved over the years—Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. In doing so, I went from very wet landscapes to very dry ones. Leopold’s book carries his reflections on the passage of seasons on the hardscrabble farm in Wisconsin where he and his family spent many weekends throughout the year. As Robert Finch says in his preface to the book, the Almanac gives us—the readers—an experience of sensibility and intellect, exposure to an attitude towards nature that blends understanding, humility and love, and a call to bring poetry and science back together again so that we may come to an appreciation of who and where we are in the universe. Abbey wrote his book in the late 1950’s about ten years after he took a job as a seasonal park ranger in Arches National Monument in southeast Utah. As he explains in the preface, this is not really a book about the desert. It is more “a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth.” He even calls the desert a vast world, a kind of oceanic world. Deserts and oceans—both larger than our minds can encompass.
So there you have it. The world around us can open up magical connections between what we see in the moment and the richness of all that we have ever heard or read or thought. A reflection on nature can set in motion a magical blending of imagination and discovery, mental landscapes and physical ones, all of which have intrigued me for a long time. There are many ways to interpret what we see and many sources of deeper insight into ourselves and the world around us. Books of this kind are like privileged invitations to discover the world through intimate exploration of the mind of an eloquent and imaginative companion. For me, there is no deeper pleasure than to spend some time with such fine minds captured in words in books that I treasure.
Judith A. Ramaley