I am giving this book five stars for the excellent writing and wonderful nature stories -- even though the author and I are worlds apart on theology. Like many neo-pagan writers nowadays, she has a tendency to mis-blame human disconnectedness with other living beings on "monotheism." (In her case, mostly her childhood Catholicism. She says very little about Judaism. I am more inclined to blame the disconnect on the 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes, who thought of animals as nothing but unfeeling machines -- but that's a whole other blog.) She takes a polytheistic approach to the natural world that I, as a Jew, cannot embrace as such, athough I do share her deep love of animals and nature. But in a different way. So I need to be very clear that I am NOT recommending that my fellow Jews should worship fertility goddesses, pray to animal spirits, or set up pagan altars in their living rooms. Having said that, this book is still an excellent read if you approach it as a cross-cultural experience. Plus, there are many activities in the book -- such as map making, quiet meditation, dream journals, collages, etc. -- that are universal enough for anyone to try.
What impressed me the most about this book is Catriona MacGregor's amazing descriptions of nature. These passages read like pure poetry. She begins with her childhood when, at age four, she climbed to the top of a tree to put a baby bird back in the nest -- unable to understand why her mother and godmother were so panicked below. (She got down safely). From there she describes some incredible mystical experiences with trees and animals, including a vision of the "soul" of a huge old tree on the day before it was cut down. She writes: "The tree, knowing of its impending demise, shone forth its inner light, sharing its everlasting soul with the rest of the world." (For my Jewish readers, lest you scoff, I refer you to this passage by Elie Wiesel in Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, page 145: "Once upon a time Hasidism had meant emphasis on inner truth and fervor; a return to nature, to genuine beauty, to identification. A Hasid would see a tree and become that tree; he would hear the song of a shepherd and become that song and shepherd -- that was his way of coming closer to the essence of man." The two stories are not so far apart. Modern Hasidim, however, are urbanized and have lost this connection. They have the stories but not the experience.)
MacGregor is now an environmental activist who also leads vision quests, which she calls "nature quests," a name I find most appropriate nowadays, when nature itself become something we must actively seek out. Although she bases these activities on Native American practices, they are not dogmatically ritualized and there is plenty of room for personalization. (In other words, you can do this without worshipping pagan gods or idols.) The basic idea is to set up a circle somewhere in the wilderness and spend a few days meditating there, closely observing both the natural world and your inner thoughts. Participants keep a journal of any dreams or other experiences during the quest. In the process, many people reconnect with nature in a positive way and find some new direction in their lives. (I myself did a vision quest when I was in South Dakota in 1969. It was nothing so ceremonial, just me alone, with a blanket and a Bible, on a hill the night of Tisha B'Av. Nevertheless, it was a life-changing experience for me, which I described in my book, Beyond the Ashes: Cases of Reincarnation from the Holocaust.)
Another interesting story concerns the souls of road-kill animals that she has buried and/or prayed for. I myself have often stopped to move dead animals to the side of the road, but it never occurred to me to pray for the release of their souls. According to MacGregor, animals souls, like those of people, can become earthbound if their bodies die suddenly. So, if it is safe to do so, she stops to give these animals "last rites," so to speak. In her "shamanic journey" vision, she saw their spirits alive and joyful. I must admit this story has changed my perception of road kills.
All in all, I enjoyed this book very much. It also gave me the direction for my next project: To finish writing "Notes from a Jewish Naturalist," the working title of a book I've had on the back burner for some time now. Because, as I said in the opening paragraph, I don't really think "monotheism" per se is to blame for our current environmental crisis. "Monotheism" means there is only one GOD -- it does NOT mean nothing else has a spirit. There are many beautiful, nature-oriented teachings and stories within the Jewish tradition, many of which are all but forgotten in today's urban communities. Like Catriona MacGregor, I am acutely aware of the fact that our younger generations are growing up disconnected from God's creation. (See Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder by Richard Louv, founder of the "No Child Left Inside" movement.) So I think it was, as we say in Yiddish, quite "bashert" (destined) for me to find this book now. Thank you, Catriona, for giving me the kick in the butt that I needed :)