Henry David Thoreau, A Life, by Laura Dassos Walls

I guess biographers’ hearts are  trained and exercised through scholarship and study, through writing, and deep sympathetic thinking along with their subjects. If a biographer is to do justice to the life she tells about, she should have a heart almost equal to her subject’s  Laura Dassos  Walls shows the wild man, Thoreau, in domestic relationships in Concord. She shows us the ambitious poet as a responsible citizen, speaking out on issues of justice. She shows us the gifted essayist, measuring his paragraphs by the pace of his steps through the woods around Walden, and in the rhythm of his canoe paddle dipping into the Sudbury River.

I think Thoreau is the father of the best part of the American character: independent, helpful, creative, neighborly, scientific, ingenious, child-like and innocent. This fine biography is a long, complex tale of one of the first and greatest Americans, told richly through the characters and intellectual society of his beloved Concord.

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

Earlier today, as the sun was setting, I saw a red fox moving quickly across a frozen lawn. It must have felt energized by the cold and the fading light. The fox barely slowed down for a glance at a garden, and to mark one of the fence posts, before it was gone, into the trees. I thought of Christopher Knight, the elusive figure in this story. Finkel’s reporting and involvement pulls a reader right through to the end, following Knight deep in the woods of Maine, in all seasons. Knight made peace with his existence. He never bailed out for more comfortable, drier or warmer temporary shelter. The author works hard to add sense to what seems to us (but not to Knight) like a desperate and lonely and unnecessarily severe way to live: as an absolutely solitary camper and careful forager on the edge of society for 27 years: like a lone wild animal, foraging, with polite human deftness, what he needed from unoccupied cabins and camps, surviving through discipline and luck, reading the woods and reading stolen books.

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Clyfford Still Museum, Denver

                                                                           PH-837, 1971

Clyfford Still (1904-1980) was a pioneer in the abstract expressionist movement that developed after World War II. The museum in Denver is dedicated to his work alone.  The current exhibit shows Still’s conversations with paintings of other eras, especially with the paintings of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), whose work is featured next door at the Denver Art Museum.

Tornado Child by Kwame Dawes

Tornado Child

For Rosalie Richardson

     I am a tornado child.

I come like a swirl of black and darken up your day;
I whip it all into my womb, lift you and your things,
carry you to where you’ve never been, and maybe,
if I feel good, I might bring you back, all warm and scared,
heart humming wild like a bird after early sudden flight.

     I am a tornado child.

I tremble at the elements. When thunder rolls my womb
trembles, remembering the tweak of contractions
that tightened to a wail when my mother pushed me out
into the black of a tornado night.

     I am a tornado child.

you can tell us from far, by the crazy of our hair;
couldn’t tame it if we tried. Even now I tie a bandana
to silence the din of anarchy in these coir-thick plaits.

     I am a tornado child.

born in the whirl of clouds; the center crumbled,
then I came. My lovers know the blast of my chaotic giving;
they tremble at the whip of my supple thighs;
you cross me at your peril, I swallow light
when the warm of anger lashes me into a spin,
the pine trees bend to me swept in my gyrations.

     I am a tornado child.

When the spirit takes my head, I hurtle into the vacuum
of white sheets billowing and paint a swirl of color,
streaked with my many songs.

Kwame Dawes

Windy Nights by Robert Louis Stevenson 1880-1894





Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.


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American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Blake Blakeslee

In 1995 wolves were brought down from Canada and reintroduced into Yellowstone. This is a story of a fitful re-enchanting of  managed American wilderness through the presence of wolves. Biologists and naturalists observe wolves and care for them as if they are alien royalty. Ranchers despise them as terrorists and thieves. Hunters and guides hate them as mortal rivals for the same big game.

Blakeslee quotes Barry Lopez, who wrote: “The wolf is an animal capable of killing a man, an animal of legendary endurance and spirit, an animal that embodies marvelous integration with its environment. This is exactly what the frustrated modern hunter would like: the noble qualities imagined; a sense of fitting into the world. The hunter wants to be the wolf.” p. 105

Blakeslee writes that “when the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock there were perhaps as many as two million wolves on the continent.” Then, along with the settling of the nation, came the extermination of the wolf.

Rick McIntyre, a hero of this book, along with the named and adored wolves themselves, advocated for wolves to be brought back to America. Drawing on the original American environmentalist–Thoreau–McIntyre wrote that a wilderness landscape was incomplete without the wolf: “The only way we can experience ‘an entire heaven and an entire earth’ is to bring the wolf back.”

This is a loving tale of wolves, carefully observed, and of their tragic collisions with human society, and the passions and fears thereof.

Copyright Dave Shumway

O-6 the legendary alpha female profiled in the book





Now Winter Nights Enlarge by Thomas Campion 1567-1620

Now Winter Nights Enlarge

Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours;
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine,
Let well-turned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.

This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defense,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights.

A Stable Lamp is Lighted by Richard Wilbur 1921-2017

A stable lamp is lighted
whose glow shall wake the sky;
the stars shall bend their voices,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
and straw like gold shall shine;
a barn shall harbour heaven,
a stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city
shall ride in triumph by;
the palm shall strew its branches,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
though heavy, dull and dumb,
and lie within the roadway
to pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
and yielded up to die;
the sky shall groan and darken,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
for gifts of love abused;
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s blood again refused.

But now, as at the ending,
the low is lifted high;
the stars shall bend their voices,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
in praises of the child
by whose descent among us
the worlds are reconciled.

Still by A. R. Ammons 1912-2001

This seems like a fine poem for the Christmas season. Everything is magnificent with being. Archie Ammons was a man of rural and religious roots who became an essential American poet.


I said I will find what is lowly
and put the roots of my identity
down there:
each day I’ll wake up
and find the lowly nearby,
a handy focus and reminder,
a ready measure of my significance,
the voice by which I would be heard,
the wills, the kinds of selfishness
I could
freely adopt as my own:

but though I have looked everywhere,
I can find nothing
to give myself to:
everything is

magnificent with existence, is in
surfeit of glory:
nothing is diminished,
nothing has been diminished for me:

I said what is more lowly than the grass:
ah, underneath,
a ground-crust of dry-burnt moss:
I looked at it closely
and said this can be my habitat: but
nestling in I
below the brown exterior
green mechanisms beyond the intellect
awaiting resurrection in rain: so I got up

and ran saying there is nothing lowly in the universe:
I found a beggar:
he had stumps for legs: nobody was paying
him any attention: everybody went on by:
I nestled in and found his life:
there, love shook his body like a devastation:
I said
though I have looked everywhere
I can find nothing lowly
in the universe:

I whirled through transfigurations up and down,
transfigurations of size and shape and place:

at one sudden point came still,
stood in wonder:
moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self, magnificent
with being!

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Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

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A major figure of the twentieth century, there is a lot to tell about Muhammed Ali, as evidenced in this 640-page brick of a biography. A black athlete from Louisville, with so much wit and charisma that the whole world, not only boxing fans, knew his name and recognized his face. Born for television, Ali bullied and baited opponents with rhymes. He enraged people–mostly white people–with bravado and arrogance. Courageous, ambitious and adaptable, he fought too long. His last matches seemed like exhibitions of survival, or self-sacrifice. Leaning back against the ropes to cushion punches from younger, stronger fighters, he covered himself with his arms and gloves in a strategy he called rope-a-dope, a term that was one-half word play and one-half insult of dimmer opponents. A few years after his last fight, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

For resisting the Vietnam draft, Ali lost three years of his boxing career. He became a symbol of opposition to authority for many young people, and a hero. He explored spiritual and racial matters through the Nation of Islam. He was a celebrity athlete and cultural icon whose renown was rivaled, in his time, by only a few most popular musicians and movie stars. My review of Ali: A Life will be published in The Christian Century.