Lovers of the natural world embrace a necessary paradox: They want us to revere and protect wilderness, but would prefer that we don't flock to it. Minnesota writer and environmental activist Barry Babcock loves the Mississippi River headwaters country that is his home, yet one of the things he most values about it is the absence of people. When they do show up on his remote land, their attitudes and behavior are often ignorant and destructive.
"Teachers in the Forest," a collection of Babcock's observations from the northern forest, is a heartfelt plea for the preservation of wild lands, as well as a memoir that illustrates how such appreciation can be spiritually redemptive.
An appealing mix of old-school woodsman and contemporary environmental activist, Babcock, now in his mid-70s, describes his evolution from farm boy to youthful scofflaw to small-town motel owner to forest philosopher, appealing to us to recognize not just our responsibility to nature, but our place in it. In doing so, he becomes one of the "teachers in the forest" his title refers to, especially for Minnesotans who know the terrain he describes and the issues he writes of, particularly those around pipelines, mining and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources actions.
The teachers he venerates include Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and his late Ojibwe mentor Larry Stillday (Chi Ma'iingan, a spiritual healer from Ponemah, Minn.) as well as the "natural, wild and free" creatures of the woods he has come to know well, most prominently the wolf.
Babcock, who is white, has been deeply influenced by traditional Ojibwe teachings and practices. But there is no wistful cultural appropriation here — in fact, his book's main argument is that Native ways of seeing the wilderness may be the only way to save it, and us.
"The need to make respect and love for the land part of our national consciousness is a long-term struggle, and in order for change to come about, we need a radical shift in the philosophical point of view in all our institutions: politics, economics, religion, and education," he writes.
To his credit, Babcock does not romanticize nature. He is an avid hunter, yet describes how he stopped hunting bears because of ethical concerns about baiting. (To illustrate just how smart black bears are, he records how sows teach cubs to visit bait stations only after dark — and hunting hours.)
He feels a powerful spiritual connection to wolves, but does not hesitate to describe the horrific death of a neighbor's dog that came too close to a den area, or his consternation when a curious wolf trots up to him and his dog in the woods — his endearingly fumbling response is to whack it with his baseball cap.
He also demonstrates an appealing humility, as when he describes Stillday gently calling him to task for what Babcock thought was his undetectable impatience with white women who dominated a sweat lodge experience with their relationship sorrows.
"Teachers" holds power and inspiration. It is perhaps best read in a North Woods cabin or at a campsite, because it has a way of further opening your eyes and ears to the sights and sounds of wilderness. It will also serve as a powerful inspiration to environmentalists, who face uphill battles against corporate and cultural forces that do not understand or care that without wilderness, humanity is doomed.
Pamela Miller is a retired Star Tribune editor who lives in Old Frontenac, Minn. email@example.com.
Teachers in the Forest: New Lessons From an Old World
By: Barry Babcock.
Publisher: Riverfeet Press, 268 pages, $16 paperback.