A Review of
Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets
in the Wilderness
Reviewed by Ragan Sutterfield
One way to judge a book is by how many other books it makes one want to read. On that score Nick Ripatrazone’s Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness, succeeds. My reading list increased by the dozens, both with new books by authors I’ve long loved such as Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Oliver, as well as books whose authors I’ve only vaguely known—Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, and William Everson. To read Wild Belief is like sitting in on a literature course with a master teacher– a course that draws one away from the chair or desk and out of doors to the untamed world.
Wild Belief is a book about the wilderness—what it has to teach us, the spiritual resources it offers, and the life it invites. Ripatrazone explores the reality of wilderness by introducing us to some of the voices who have best captured its power and spirit. And each of the voices he features draws from some well within the Christian faith, even if the authors do not all claim such a faith in any orthodox manner. These are “forest Christians” like Wendell Berry and mystics like Mary Oliver, renegade Mormons like Williams and troubled priests like Hopkins. For Ripatrazone, who is Roman Catholic, these writers are critical to hearing again the prophetic voice crying out from the wilderness, a voice always at the margins.
The problem is that to read a book about books is quite different than sitting in a class where texts can be read in full, mulled over, and discussed. I would love the chance to read through this syllabus, full of novels and short stories, essays and poetry, and I would love to explore them with Nick Ripatrazone as my teacher. But in book form, the task of introducing these writers becomes difficult. The strategy Ripatrozone has employed is to quote heavily from their works, but the result are long strings of quotations that make for choppy reading. All of these quotations are cited, and while I appreciate a good endnote, I found them overwhelming. In one 18-page chapter there are 109 endnotes, coming in at just over six notes a page. Though I imagine Ripatrazone is working to give us a sense of each author’s voice, the patchwork of quotations linked by Ripatrazone’s clauses didn’t land for me.
I found that the best sections of the book were both the Preface and the Conclusion, where Ripatrozone’s own voice comes through more clearly. I was captivated by the description of the forest that spans behind his house: “Bears emerge from the tree line confused. They pace along the high grass and then settle back into the brush. Deer drift across the lawn. They stare down the miniature dachshund, who barks at them from the deck. His mouth dry, he laps water from his bowl and then seems to accept their ghostly presence.” There is affection and wonder in these words and the scene that Ripatrazone sets is a perfect one for setting up the contrast between the domestic and wild.
Later, in the conclusion, he writes that “The wilderness, plainly, humbles us. Its beauty, its vastness, its fragility, and its eventual resurrection: the wilderness is beyond us and not for us.” Such lines show that Ripatrazone has evocative gifts as a writer, ones I wish were more clearly on display throughout the book without being interrupted by so many direct quotations from other writers.
Despite that complaint, Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness serves as an opening for imagination and an encounter with the world beyond human control. It is an invitation to sit, walk, and wander alongside attentive writers who draw our attention to the Spirit’s voice in the sage brush, the constant now of a river, or the dense mystery of a thicket. These are writers who know that God is present in the world, untamed like a whirlwind, and that sometimes the best way toward the divine is the one that leaves behind the pavement or even the path.