Reading The Mountains Of Home

Overview

Small farms once occupied the heights that John Elder calls home, but now only a few cellar holes and tumbled stone walls remain among the dense stands of maple, beech, and hemlocks on these Vermont hills. Reading the Mountains of Homeis a journey into these verdant reaches where in the last century humans tried their hand and where bear and moose now find shelter. As John Elder is our guide, so Robert Frost is Elder's companion, his great poem "Directive" seeing us through a landscape in which nature and ...

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Overview

Small farms once occupied the heights that John Elder calls home, but now only a few cellar holes and tumbled stone walls remain among the dense stands of maple, beech, and hemlocks on these Vermont hills. Reading the Mountains of Homeis a journey into these verdant reaches where in the last century humans tried their hand and where bear and moose now find shelter. As John Elder is our guide, so Robert Frost is Elder's companion, his great poem "Directive" seeing us through a landscape in which nature and literature, loss and recovery, are inextricably joined.

Over the course of a year, Elder takes us on his hikes through the forested uplands between South Mountain and North Mountain, reflecting on the forces of nature, from the descent of the glaciers to the rush of the New Haven River, that shaped a plateau for his village of Bristol; and on the human will that denuded and farmed and abandoned the mountains so many years ago. His forays wind through the flinty relics of nineteenth-century homesteads and Abenaki settlements, leading to meditations on both human failure and the possibility for deeper communion with the land and others.

An exploration of the body and soul of a place, an interpretive map of its natural and literary life, Reading the Mountains of Home strikes a moving balance between the pressures of civilization and the attraction of wilderness. It is a beautiful work of nature writing in which human nature finds its place, where the reader is invited to follow the last line of Frost's "Directive," to "Drink and be whole again beyond confusion."

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Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe Magazine

It is deeply personal and profoundly moving—and an eloquent challenge to some of the principal assumptions that guide the environmental movement in this country. Reading the Mountains of Home may be at once one of the more accessible yet complex nature books ever published. It is accessible because Elder is an immensely gifted writer, whether he's describing the way a glacier halved a mountain 20,000 years ago or explaining why, in his opinion, Frost was one of New England's great naturalists. It is complex because the book has three distinct threads: First, there is a nature writer's scrutiny of the world; second, there is an English professor's precise discussion of literature and one long Frost poem; and, third, there is one man's self-examination at midlife...Though John Elder's book is suffused with loss...[it] is uplifting. In part, this is due to Elder's contention that man and nature are not incompatible and that wilderness may be renewable after all. But it is due also to Elder himself: It is not hard for Elder to find beauty and pleasure in the world, and this comes across on almost every page.
— Chris Bohjalian

Vermont Public Radio

[This] is the most intelligent book about Vermont that I've read in several years. New Vermont books often fall into a very few predictable categories...John Elder's book, Reading the Mountains of Home, fits into none of those categories. It transcends them all, brilliantly, and emerges as that rare find: a new and fascinating look at this complex place we call home...A book of considerable subtlety and complexity that reads easily and spins a story as compelling as any good novel. But that's only one of [its] accomplishments. For what Elder has also done here, I believe, is the very important task of pointing a new, coherent direction for the national environmental movement, a movement now struggling with an outmoded script, and very much in need of revitalization...Perhaps the best description of Reading the Mountains of Home is to call it an exploration—a deep exploration of what a particular place can mean to a particular human being—and thereby to all of us. It's a book I hope every Vermonter will read.
— Tom Shayton

Los Angeles Times

John Elder turned to Frost's last great poem and has written a beautiful study of its complicated narrative...More than literary criticism, Reading the Mountains of Home is an extended homage, a memoir and meditation. Elder succeeds in the most difficult of ways: As his focus expands, his concentration grows more acute...His analysis is attuned to both the language of the poem and to its concentric rings, the stories that illuminate this landscape and prove the vitality and relevance of poetry.
— Thomas Curwen

Free Press (Burlington)

John Elder has plumbed deeply the wisdom of the likes of Parker and Frost, examining with the skill of both a poet and a naturalist the history of the modern Vermont landscape...[He] has written a book that manages at once to blend precise nature writing, profound literary criticism, and a moving examination of his own personal world at midlife...Reading the Mountains of Home is a truly rare joy: It is a book that will not merely help a reader to navigate the world in the woods; it will also help one to understand that all too complex geography of the human soul.
— Chris Bohjalian

Poetry Calendar
Elder's extended essay achieves what little criticism does: it brings poetry, literally, down to earth...Part meditation, part ecological history of [the Bristol] woods, and part literary criticism, the work is also a quiet testimonial to the uses of reading--reading either a mountain or a poem...This is the opposite of most academic writing--although Elder is a professor of English and environmental studies at Middlebury College--and also averse to the critical writing of most poets today, since...[his] language avoids the lyrical and mystical steadfastly for the plain and true. As a provocative alternative to customary criticism, it is also an example well worth following by other writers--a 'directive' of its own.
New Scientist [UK]

Elder hikes through the [Bristol] region as he muses on its sociology and biology and how its hardwood forests were lost to small farms, themselves now replaced by blazing maples. In an unusual and insightful book, Elder argues that not all ecological destruction this century was intrinsically wrong, while showing that, just because a landscape pleases the eye, there is nothing to say that it must be natural.
— Adrian Barnett

Vermont Woodlands

I'm not sure what impressed me more about John Elder's writing in Reading the Mountains of Home: his eloquent use of language or the ambitiousness of what he accomplishes. First, the book functions as a literary exercise...Second, it examines the complicated cycles of loss and recovery within Vermont's natural and human communities. Finally, Reading the Mountains of Home is an engaging familial narrative, as Elder processes several personal losses—the death of his father and dog, the slow recovery of his mother from surgery, and the social withdrawal of his son...This book is for the optimist as well as the amateur historian. Elder celebrates change by describing how loss soon leads to recovery; 'sometimes we must go down before we find our second chance.' Citing [Frost's] 'Directive,' Elder espouses the value of being 'lost enough to find yourself.' Delightfully, Elder's journey becomes the reader's.
— Kelly Ault

Wild Earth

A sure sign that the Northern Forest region is in the early stages of cultural renewal is the development of a Northern Forest literature, 'a dialogue between wilderness and culture.' John Elder's...book Reading the Mountains of Home is a wonderful contribution to this dialogue...[The book] is a deep, lyrical, celebration of living very locally. Yet, its focus on such a small plot of land leads the writer and reader to ponder universal questions of living lightly on Earth.
— Jamie Sayen

Boston Globe Magazine - Chris Bohjalian
John Elder has plumbed deeply the wisdom of the likes of Parker and Frost, examining with the skill of both a poet and a naturalist the history of the modern Vermont landscape...[He] has written a book that manages at once to blend precise nature writing, profound literary criticism, and a moving examination of his own personal world at midlife...Reading the Mountains of Home is a truly rare joy: It is a book that will not merely help a reader to navigate the world in the woods; it will also help one to understand that all too complex geography of the human soul.
Vermont Public Radio - Tom Shayton
[This] is the most intelligent book about Vermont that I've read in several years. New Vermont books often fall into a very few predictable categories...John Elder's book, Reading the Mountains of Home, fits into none of those categories. It transcends them all, brilliantly, and emerges as that rare find: a new and fascinating look at this complex place we call home...A book of considerable subtlety and complexity that reads easily and spins a story as compelling as any good novel. But that's only one of [its] accomplishments. For what Elder has also done here, I believe, is the very important task of pointing a new, coherent direction for the national environmental movement, a movement now struggling with an outmoded script, and very much in need of revitalization...Perhaps the best description of Reading the Mountains of Home is to call it an exploration--a deep exploration of what a particular place can mean to a particular human being--and thereby to all of us. It's a book I hope every Vermonter will read.
Los Angeles Times - Thomas Curwen
John Elder turned to Frost's last great poem and has written a beautiful study of its complicated narrative...More than literary criticism, Reading the Mountains of Home is an extended homage, a memoir and meditation. Elder succeeds in the most difficult of ways: As his focus expands, his concentration grows more acute...His analysis is attuned to both the language of the poem and to its concentric rings, the stories that illuminate this landscape and prove the vitality and relevance of poetry.
New Scientist [UK] - Adrian Barnett
Elder hikes through the [Bristol] region as he muses on its sociology and biology and how its hardwood forests were lost to small farms, themselves now replaced by blazing maples. In an unusual and insightful book, Elder argues that not all ecological destruction this century was intrinsically wrong, while showing that, just because a landscape pleases the eye, there is nothing to say that it must be natural.
Vermont Woodlands - Kelly Ault
I'm not sure what impressed me more about John Elder's writing in Reading the Mountains of Home: his eloquent use of language or the ambitiousness of what he accomplishes. First, the book functions as a literary exercise...Second, it examines the complicated cycles of loss and recovery within Vermont's natural and human communities. Finally, Reading the Mountains of Home is an engaging familial narrative, as Elder processes several personal losses--the death of his father and dog, the slow recovery of his mother from surgery, and the social withdrawal of his son...This book is for the optimist as well as the amateur historian. Elder celebrates change by describing how loss soon leads to recovery; 'sometimes we must go down before we find our second chance.' Citing [Frost's] 'Directive,' Elder espouses the value of being 'lost enough to find yourself.' Delightfully, Elder's journey becomes the reader's.
Terry Tempest Williams
Reading the Mountains of Home is an exquisite literary map that orients us toward an empathetic response to wilderness. Using Robert Frost's poem, 'Directive' as his compass, John Elder charts an utterly original course as he explores the terrain of his own natural autobiography and what it means to live in place. This book is a smart, moving, and intricate path through the wildlands of Vermont. John Elder has created a beautiful, enduringly wise topography of his own, where language and landscape create a confluence of native rapport.
Bill McKibben
What a grand book this is! It's too full of life to be confined to a genre--it's memoir, natural history, and literary criticism, but it's also much more than the sum of its parts. Reading the Mountains of Home is one of the great classics of the American East.
Richard Nelson
Elder mixes his experiences on the land with wide ranging reflections. Ashe observes his external world, he also looks inward, examining how thelandscape has become meaningful to himself, his family, and his neighbors. John Elder is a fine writer, a knowledgeable and insightful guide, a livelyand engaging companion, a man of remarkable depth, sensitivity, andgentleness. What a pleasure, to share in this man's loving, thoughtfulexploration of Bristol and the surrounding mountain country.
David M. Robinson
John Elder's Reading the Mountains of Home blends mountain hiking, Robert Frost, Vermont history and lore, and meditations on family into a thoughtful depiction of living with nature in the late twentieth century. Lovers of Frost's poetry, of New England's landscapes, and of the rich tradition of American nature writing, of which Elder is a leading authority, will be drawn to this engaging volume.
Ann H. Zwinger
John Elder has interwoven a dazzling series of odysseys, of heart and head, place and people, composed them in the framework of Robert Frost's 'Directive,' and produced one of the most beautiful books of natural history I've ever read. It is seldom that the elegance of one writer's soul, mind, and style have combined to give us such insights into the relationship of people with place and with each other, and the epiphany of riding your own fragile handmade canoe through whitewater rapids.
Noel Perrin
Here is a very unusual piece of nature writing. John Elder makes his way simultaneously through Robert Frost's greatest poem and through one of Vermont's wildest places. His double journey produces a whole book of illuminations.
Wild Earth - Jamie Sayen
A sure sign that the Northern Forest region is in the early stages of cultural renewal is the development of a Northern Forest literature, 'a dialogue between wilderness and culture.' John Elder's...book Reading the Mountains of Home is a wonderful contribution to this dialogue...[The book] is a deep, lyrical, celebration of living very locally. Yet, its focus on such a small plot of land leads the writer and reader to ponder universal questions of living lightly on Earth.
Chris Bohjalian
[This book] is deeply personal and prfoundly moving -- and an eloquent challenge to some of the principal assumptions that guide the environmental movement in this country... Elder is an immensely gifted writer, whether he's describing the way a glacier halved a mountain 20,000 years ago or explaining why in his opinion, [Robert] Frost was one of New England's great naturalists. --Boston Globe Magazine
Thomas Curwen
John Elder turned to Frost's last great poems and has written a beautiful study of its complicated narrative... More than literary criticism, Reading the Mountains of Home is an extended homage, a memoir and meditation -- Los Angeles Times
Kirkus Reviews
A slight memoir celebrating the natural wonders of the Vermont mountains. Elder (Following the Brush), a professor of English and environmental studies at Middlebury College, has clearly read the approved canon of nature literature, and much of this book reads like a heavily annotated syllabus. When he describes a place at first hand, he more often than not relates what another writer—especially Robert Frost, the dean of writers in those parts—has had to say about it, too. His glosses on those writers, Frost included, are seldom helpful ('In Frost's landscape, things are always changing, but the change is never random'); and his bookish leanings often obscure what is meant to be his subject, the 'hirsute' landscapes (the metaphor derives from Dante) of northern New England, which, Elder points out, is 'far wilder today than it was a century and a half ago.' Elder traces this renascent wildness to a combination of factors; whereas, he notes, Vermont was the fastest-growing American state up to the War of 1812, it fell victim to economic stagnation, farm failures, and industrial collapse, leaving it a hard-pressed and hard-bitten placeþone that is now being yuppified, he writes, thanks to the telecommunications revolution, which 'turns quiet little worlds like this into targets for settlement, and for exploitation.' Elder's immediate observations on both that land and its crusty Yankee occupants are often perceptive and well-made. Would that his book had been given over to such direct reportage, and not to lit-crit and green pablum, such as 'Wilderness offers a realm for human activity that does not seek to take possession and that leaves no traces; it provides abaseline for strenuous experience of our own creaturehood.' Frost would have cringed.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674748897
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/1999
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 268
  • Sales rank: 985,146
  • Product dimensions: 0.56 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

John Elder is Stewart Professor of English and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and the author of Following the Brush and Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature.
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Table of Contents

"Directive" by Robert Frost

Introduction

South Mountain

A Wilderness of Scars

Hiking by Flashlight

Bristol Cliffs

The Plane on South Mountain

Succession

Someone's Road Home

Interval

In the Village

North Mountain

North Mountain Gyres

The Ledges

Coltsfoot, Mourning Cloak

The Stolen Goblet

A Confusion of Waters

Notes

Selected Readings

Acknowledgments

Index

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2000

    On the Trail with Frost in Vermont

    For those wishing a deeper comprehension of Robert Frost's poem 'Directive' Elder's book is the wise selection. John Elder, a resident of Vermont graciously grants readers insights into the natural history of the region while illuminating both the human and natural history below the surface of Frost's poem. Elder is familiar with geological history, local history, and familial history. In investigating this Frost poem Elder leads us on a hike through terrain familiar to both writers; Frost and Elder. In the process Elder tackles both familial exhileration and exuberence inspired by Vermont's natural world. - Daniel Picker

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