. John Tallmadge | Exploring Nature, Culture, and the Human Journey
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Meeting the Tree of Life: More

Meeting the Tree of Life describes a young teacher’s coming of age through wilderness adventures framed by the study of nature writing. John Tallmadge’s path begins with his discovery of Big Sur and the High Sierra during an Army tour in the early 1970’s and leads him through new England’s mountains and universities to the New West of Utah and Wyoming. There, under the spell of romantics like Henry Thoreau, John Muir, and Edward Abbey, he searches for an Edenic landscape in which to enact his vocation. He turns first to the mountains, whose clean, enduring rock and sublime geometry promise a godlike view of the world, and then to the deserts, whose austerity and remoteness offer the strength to live without institutions. But each place thwarts and then transforms the author’s desire, revealing unexpected dimensions to the landscape’s power and grace. When his path forces him out of the West, Tallmadge discovers in Minnesota’s canoe country a “spirituality of water” that embodies goalless travel and living by faith. Finally, the cone of the humble jack pine, which needs fire to release its seeds, shows him what true teaching and personal survival really mean.

University of Utah Press, catalog description

 

Meeting the Tree of Life is a unique series of essays, what I would term a hybrid collection—an intriguing mix of autobiography, adventure, literary criticism, natural history, and educational philosophy. Ultimately, Tallmadge is searching to locate himself within the tradition of American nature writing, but he does this through a series of “coming of age” stories, each tale reflecting his personal tensions. These challenges provide the book with its enchanting literary movement as the reader discovers the universality of these tensions, described through Tallmadge’s adventures, but linked to larger developmental questions, and brilliantly connected to some of the core questions of American environmentalism. Tallmadge struggles to discover a sense of place and a feeling of home, yearning to be settled in a landscape, but ultimately realizing that he must journey through many landscapes in order to find his own center, that to be home in a landscape he must be at home with himself. He looks to the wilderness to confront his fears and aspiration, to find community and solitude, to find meaning and purpose, to discover perfection in the sublime, to establish his personal identity.

Above all, Meeting the Tree of Life is a superb read. The language flows smoothly and the narrative is engaging. Tallmadge’s adventures are intriguing because I want to know how he resolves the various tensions in his life. I trust him enough, as the book proceeds, to learn from his adventures. Anyone who is interested in issues of place, landscape, home, travel, and nature writing will be similarly intrigued. Tallmadge masterfully blends the multiple voices in the book. He is at once a lonely literary scholar, a bold adventurer, an inexperienced professor, and a nature writer. He is honest and forthright, gaining the reader’s confidence and trust. I particularly enjoyed his moments of vulnerability, when he challenges his values most directly, when he is contemplating his ecological identity. Indeed, there are passages of extraordinary beauty throughout this book, among the best nature writing I have ever read. Similarly, his insights about Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and Abbey are stunning, and among the most vibrant sections of the book. Tallmadge’s descriptions of natural history, his literary interpretations, and his memoirs are uniformly excellent.

Mitchell Thomashow, author of Ecological Identity (MIT, 1995) and Bringing the Biosphere Home (MIT, 2004)

 

In one way, this book is in the tradition of the author's admired nature writers -- such folk as Emerson, Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold. But the framework is an autobiography, beginning with brief mention of his childhood in suburbs, which he describes almost as if they were crowded cities, and from which he began to escape at age 15 to backpacking and climbing. A college student during the Vietnam War, he later sought in wilderness "authenticity" and " a model for just and sustainable human societies" -- which he did not see in the world he and his friends had grown up in.

He begins the detailed story with a difficult High Sierra climb -- between his military service (having volunteered for a program of Russian studies and intelligence work in order to avoid Vietnam itself) and graduate school. As he seeks for understanding of his motivations and feelings, he speaks first of challenge, thrill, danger, and athletic pleasure, but eventually realizes that he has become a naturalist, appreciating nature in all its complexity, not just the physical challenges and dramatic views. We follow his wilderness explorations, first in the mountains of the southwest during his first three years as a professor in Utah, then his disappointment in leaving the mountains for his next job, in Minnesota. There, however, he develops an appreciation of the wilderness of the flat country, mostly in canoe trips.

Certainly an offbeat English professor, he had his students read nature writing, then accompany him on difficult treks to mountains and lakes, and return to write about their experiences. This approach was not appreciated by his colleagues, who apparently preferred traditional methods of teaching literature and writing. He ends this volume with the shock of being denied tenure -- but finds new awareness in the metaphor of a pine cone that releases its new life only in fire.

Leo Goldman, Natural Resources Defense Council On-Line

 

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Meeting the Tree of Life: A Teacher's Path . 1997
University of Utah Press

 

Students of American nature writing will recognize John Tallmadge as the author of scholarly articles on Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey, Barry Lopez, Richard Nelson, and Annie Dillard; however, he is also a practicing nature writer whose work has appeared in Orion, North Dakota Quarterly, and Witness. In his debut collection of nonfiction essays, Meeting the Tree of Life, Tallmadge creates a compelling story of his own personal and professional development by carefully braiding three narrative strands: tales of ennobling wilderness adventures, ruminations on the wisdom offered by nature writers, and accounts of difficult and inspiring experiences in college teaching.

If Meeting the Tree of Life is a crafted logbook that records the author’s personal journey toward authenticity as a hiker, scholar, and teacher, it is also a deep map suggesting the ways the landscapes of earth and those of desire conflict with and complement one another. The book is structured around places—including the Muir Trail in Yosemite, Mt. Katahdin in Maine, and the Boundary waters canoe country of Minnesota—and is largely an account of how the author learns to both love and to leave the places that educate and inspire him, even as he seeks to educate and inspire the college literature students he takes to these places. Tallmadge is unusually honest about how often we wish (and rarely find) that places will effortlessly accommodate our extravagant desire. The poignancy of his contemplations is intensified as he examines issues of place and displacement through the parallel lens of American nature writing: he reads Thoreau against the inscrutability of the Maine woods, Muir against the brightness of the Sierras, Abbey against the starkness of the desert, Leopold against the subtleties of midwestern landscapes.

As an unfolding chronicle of the joys and difficulties of teaching, Meeting the Tree of Life is especially compelling. The stories of class trips beautifully unify the main themes of the book by combining wilderness experience, nature writing, and innovative teaching with the search for a dignified way to inhabit the places we call our homes. Not quite autobiography, memoir, or wilderness travel narrative, Tallmadge’s accomplished collection of personal essays carefully negotiates the convoluted, exhilarating, often dangerous terrain where the paths of our personal and professional lives intersect.

Michael P. Branch, Western American Literature.

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