On September 11, 2001, my husband and I were camping on Dungeness Spit in Washington State when we heard the horrible news of the day. We felt lost and terrifyingly alone. We’d already been traveling for a couple of months and planned to keep traveling for a couple more but in those moments, nothing seemed more important than getting home. But we couldn’t get home. Not easily. And so we did that which we found most comforting; we hiked.
We found some solace in the hike, but by late afternoon, we had still not seen the actual footage. It wasn’t until we stood before a wall of televisions in Radio Shack where we’d gone to buy a radio for our camp that we saw the footage. I remember falling to my knees. I’m not sure if I actually did fall but I remember that I did.
I stayed up that night listening to the radio, bewildered people calling into talk radio. Everyone seeking a connection. The next morning, we decided to hike again. We hoped the hike would help us make our decision about whether to keep going on our trip or to head for home. As we were going up a beautiful trail in Olympic National Park, two young men were coming down. We stopped on the trail and chatted. They’d been camping in the backcountry for several days, they told us. Did you hear the news? We asked.
Yes, they said. They were almost blase about it. Not in a horrible way, but in a way I understood as not fully understanding the gravity of what they were about to witness once they made it back to reality. They had not yet heard the voices. They had not yet seen the images. They had been wrapped in the cocoon of nature. They had been safe. They had been innocent. I envied them their not knowing. I wanted to tell them to turn around and go back. Do not let yourself know this horrible thing.
I have wondered what it would be like to go back to that state of innocence when we don’t yet know that a horrible act has occurred, when we are focus solely on feeding and housing ourselves. What would it be like to be alone in the woods? What would it like to be cocooned in nature? I think about this when I read the news–the atrocities. Children abused, starved. Bombs dropped on civilians. People murdered in their sleep. I want to unknow these things. I want to believe I am innocent and safe.
Steve Himmer has not only wondered about returning to our state of innocence–returning to the allegorical garden before an original sin has occurred and before the birth of knowledge–he has recreated it in his beautiful novel, The Bee-Loud Glade, where his protagonist Finch accepts a job as a decorative hermit on the property of an impossibly wealthy and powerful man named Mr. Crane.
What follows is an allegory for our times, in which we have forsaken human contact and chosen, instead, to communicate without our true voices or with no voices at all. In which we ARE the avatars we create for ourselves. We have closed off our speech and allowed ourselves to be viewed by others, our privacy stripped away. We have been tempted to believe the beautiful people we see in movies are what we should desire and in desiring them, we recognize our own limitations–our all-too-human smells and unfortunate hairs and dimples.
Though Finch has left the world of technology behind him, he does not really leave it behind, until Mr. Crane loses everything he owns, leaving Finch truly alone for the first time. Then he relies on himself alone and finds that he can, in fact, be self-reliant. It is only when two hikers seek out and find the aged Finch that he realizes the true state of his existence:
I pretend my solitude is isolation, that I’ve erased myself from the world, but I’m more in it than I’ve ever been. Which is to say, not very much, no more and no less than anyone else–we may have a more lasting impact on the world when we break down into nutrients and raw material that nourish a whole chain of life, insects and earthworms and grass, than we ever have when we’re alive. Perhaps that’s the closest any one of us comes to knowing how things fit together.
Ultimately, Finch understands his purpose in the garden. He understands that we can’t return to blissful ignorance. Once connected, we remain connected on this great big garden, planet Earth:
Maybe self-reliance was never what I was meant for, and sustainability was: can I build something and have it continue without me, can my good works outlast my good life?
This book will make you think. You will consider you reliance on social media, your inability to truly trust in the regenerative aspect of nature. You will see your own frailties and desires in Finch. Finally, you will see what Finch sees despite his failing eyes and that is that we are not often at our best when we are alone. We are social animals, after all, who need the warmth and love of others like us to help us reach true sustainability and self-worth.
It is a beautiful book. I hope you will read it.