A critique of wild belief
Every morning I walk a few kilometers in my neighborhood, drinking the songs of crows and songbirds, sometimes seeing deer and sometimes seeing a fox. But the low rumble of traffic reminds me that I live in the suburbs, not in a desert. The owners of my development are trying to control nature, cleverly mixing butterfly bushes, crepe myrtles and hydrangeas among oaks, dogwoods and magnolias. The chemicals keep the non-native grass green and kill mosquitoes in the summer. When we say that someone’s garden looks wild, that is an insult. Still, fragments of wilderness exist in pockets, behind, and between some homes, and Virginia’s native wetland laws prohibit taming these areas.
Nick Ripatrazone, who lives in America’s most densely populated state, New Jersey, writes forcefully about the wilderness in his latest book. Savage belief addresses biblical concepts, including the wilderness as a place of testing and transformation, but focuses on poets and writers, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas McGuane, WS Merwin, and Mary Oliver. “Poets and prophets, united by the imagination, capture the sublime transcendence of the desert,” says Ripatrazone. “Indifferent to intellectual theories, they capture emotion.”
Ripatrazone describes the elusive idea of wilderness, which was not a concept in Paleolithic times but permeates the Bible. The wilderness became especially important to Americans at the onset of the pandemic as people flocked to parks and trails, ultimately creating gatherings so large they led to closures. “Thoreau was right: we need the tonic of savagery,” observes Ripatrazone.
The introduction and the first chapter revolve around the themes of prophecy and temptation, focusing primarily on John the Baptist and Saint Anthony, with a few other Desert Fathers dotted alongside Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton and Gustave Flaubert. . Flaubert is perhaps best known for Madame Bovary, but he also wrote a novel about Anthony, which Ripatrazone describes in detail. Ripatrazone also writes about the medieval tradition of the “wild man,” who was not born out of the wilderness but evolved there. And it evokes the intriguing ideas of essayist Richard Rodriguez that the desert is essential – and even linked to God – in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In these pages, the desert offers transcendence and transformation in addition to temptation.
Ripatrazone describes many prophets throughout the book, most of whom are modern people instead of Biblical figures. I would have liked to see sustained treatment of the Old Testament prophets. But dozens of other books do, as this one convincingly reveals essayists and poets as prophets. Ripatrazone explains that these writers “do not share a unified view of the desert because the desert rejects the classification”.
I was particularly impressed with a chapter titled “Stewards of the Glorious Indifferent,” which is devoted to Wendell Berry and Terry Tempest Williams. Berry advocates sections of wilderness among domesticated spaces, “sacred groves — places that we respect and leave alone, not because we fully understand what’s going on there, but because we don’t. . He also advocates reading the Bible outdoors, a practice that I wholeheartedly endorse. The wilderness of Berry, Kentucky differs from Williams’ Utah Desert, which she describes as “the hard, brutal beauty of skin and bones.” Williams’ Mormon faith colors her writing more, and she describes herself as “raised to believe in a spirit world.” Ripatrazone observes that the wilderness heals us by helping us to be aware of our bodily limits in nature.
Although a few pages in the conclusion deal with Toni Morrison and the role of the wilderness in Beloved as a place of resurrection and renewal, the main writers featured in this book are all white. I would have appreciated a chapter devoted to some Indigenous poets and prophets whose writing and worldview interact with the wilderness.
Savage belief leans academic, with some chapters more beautifully crafted than others. Ripatrazone weaves writers with theology, sometimes so densely that I had to read portions several times to keep the players straight. Given the breadth of work referenced, I was grateful for the inclusion of an index. English majors passionate about theology: this book of criticism focusing above all on the words of other writers is for us.