Bright Shoots of Everlastingness: Essays on Faith and the American Wild, by Paul J. Willis (A Review)
If you have enjoyed essays by E.B. White, Annie Dillard or Wendell Berry, you'll likely enjoy these essays by Westmont College English Professor Paul Willis. Willis writes warmly, descriptively, and authentically, whether writing about his faith or about mountain climbing. In this 2005 collection of essays, entitled Bright Shoots of Everlastingness: Essays on Faith and the American Wild, most previously published, Willis covers a range of topics, with the majority split between his largely positive (if sometimes peculiar) life in and amongst the evangelical subculture and his second great love, the mountains of the Western United States.
For example, in the title essay, "Bright Shoots of Everlastingness," he speaks warmly of his conversion at the early age of nine and a somewhat mystical experience of that day:
In that moment of coming through the door [to the balcony of the church] I walked into a presence that had been there, I was quite sure, all along. It was quiet, powerful, good, and deep. It was a presence that included me, and all things around me. The clock at the back of the sanctuary, the miserably worn rug in the aisle, the chipped wooden balcony seats, the faded red curtains behind them --- all things were permeated by whatever this quiet, ongoing presence was. They were not different, but more themselves, transfigured in their everyday best. I had not come to a different place but was seeing the place as it always was. Every minute of perception up to this point had just been bumping about in the dark.
There's humor as well, as in his essay on dancing ("Care to Dance?"), a frowned upon practice that he finds initially exciting but ultimately less interesting than reading or a walk in the forest, not a moral choice at all but a choice between good and better:
The world was a different place than I had ever thought it --- a good place, on the whole, and I would choose the best parts, and conscience would not equally matter for every choosing. Or maybe conscience did matter, and the most important moral choice was to separate strong pleasure from weak, the good from the banal. The trick was to enjoy something a long time --- maybe forever.
And then there's the mountain climbing, essays descriptive not only of the climbing but of the natural and social environment of the climbing, not only the what of climbing but the wondering why of climbing. In this context, there are difficult things, like the loss by his brother Dave of fingers and portions of his feet during a climb-gone-bad of challenging Mount McKinley and then later of his horse-mate Sonya ("One Fine Morning"). There are alsothe musings on life that percolate to the mind's surface while climbing in the San Rafael Wilderness of California ("A Wilderness Journal"):
I camp beside Santa Cruz Creek, in a hollow beneath huge oaks, interwoven, arch within arch. Alone at my table, writing by candlelight, I think I hear voices --- in the wind, the water, the leaves, the crickets. Why do I hear them? Because I want to, or because I am afraid to?
As with any collection of essays written at diverse times and for diverse publications, it's difficult for a publisher to know quite what to include and how to sequence them, and whether, in fact, they stand together, thematically, or should be read as simply a diverse collection. Despite the subtitle of the book, and despite the attempt to organize it in sections called The Shores, the Mountain, The Valley, The Hills, and Epilogues, ultimately the stories did not work collectively but singularly for me. And that's OK. I did, however, think the subtitle a bit misleading, as "Essays on Faith, the American Wild, or Other Things" or, simply, "Essays," would have been more accurate. Willis also addresses faith in certain essays, but he generally doesn't explicitly integrate faith with his experience of nature in his nature essays. I expected more integration, as in Cindy Crosby's By Willoway Brook, a book which better integrates the inward and outward journey. But this is a small criticism, really, as I am happy to read each essay and take it for what it is --- an experience in nature, an honest observation on the journey of faith, or simply an interesting issue for C.S. Lewis fans ("The Wardrobe Wars").
A bit more unsettling for me was a statement (unnecessary I think) included in the short introduction: "So far, the God of my youth has not gone away. He --- or she --- still roams the peaks and meadows of memory and imagination" (emphasis mine). Yes, He does, but She doesn't. If Willis is uncertain about how to address God (though Scripture seems perfectly clear on this point), then of what else is he uncertain? The theological point does not discount the value of the fine writing here, but it does mean I do not read it for theological clarity nor can I assume that Willis is orthodox in his faith (though he may well be). I suspect that's as it should be anyway. He doesn't need to validate his faith, but he could have avoided the unnecessary comment which was momentarily off-putting.
It's simply good to see a collection of essays by a Christian writer like Willis. This book probably won't make it to the shelves of your local Christian bookstore, but I'll put my copy where it should be --- right next to E.B. White's Collected Essays. They're that good.