Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau...not bad company at all

If you are an author, there are many reasons to avoid the reader reviews on your Amazon page. Most importantly, what you've written is in the past, and there's nothing you can do about it now.  You write something, send it out into the world, and what the reader sees in it is up to them.  There's also the comfortable truth that not every book is for every writer.  Three of my favorite authors are Howard Frank Mosher, John Irving, and Tom Robbins, but I've not liked everything they've written. And lastly, it's human tendency to pay more attention to the negative than the positive, even if the positive far outweighs the opposite. 

Recently, though, when a friend informed me Following Atticus attained the Amazon milestone of receiving 1,000 reviews, I went to the page and read a few of the comments.  The one that caught my attention was not negative, but rather a mediocre review. The woman gave it three stars out of five. She wrote about how tough it was to rate our story. She called it "well written" and "an obviously loving story about a man and his remarkable dog". But in her opinion the Following Atticus "was WAY too pantheistic for me".

A smile spread across my face as I read this, and again later while contemplating her words during a lengthy walk in the frozen woods with Atticus while we kept company with the Swift River.

When a hardcore, Bible-toting politician in Newburyport once noted to me that I mentioned God in my writing but didn't go to church, she stated she was confused and wanted to know what religion I practiced.  I told her I didn't practice any religion. But she pushed, and she pulled and she demanded an answer.  Finally, I conceded by telling her while I refuse to claim any religion, if I was forced to choose one I'm closest to being a pantheist.

Madame Politician then stalked off in utter disgust, (to pray for my soul, I imagined at the time). A few days later her husband approached me with the same disgust in his face and voice to say he couldn’t believe I told his wife that I worshipped panties.  And this, in part, should tell you why I stopped covering politicians and went to the woods, where I feel a sense of God in everything around me.  Including during a walk along the Swift River with Atticus by my side.

Earlier this year, when Pete Seeger died, a popular quote of his circulated and it sums up how a lot of people who love the White Mountains feel. He said, "Every time I'm in the woods I feel like I'm in church." 

Can I get an "amen"?

There's is not a person who loves the woods who cannot relate to that sentiment.  Many of the prophets of old found God while submerged in nature.  It was Emerson, who along with his peers Thoreau and Hawthorne knew this region well, pointed out that we need not rely on the thoughts of prophets of old, but on our own senses and sensibilities to see a personal God. He wrote: "The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.  Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?  Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?"

hat personal experience is where I find my religion.  It's while walking an earthen path deep in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, standing atop lofty Mount Lafayette while being tossed to and fro by a strong wind, sitting by a crystal clear stream tucked away somewhere in the magical Sandwich Range, or encountering a bear in our backyard. 

Raised a Catholic, it took me a while to trust my personal experience. Being a political reporter, it took me a while to see the same divisions that bring out the petty in our politicians, bring out the petty in various religions.  I despise that people use God as a reason to argue or fight or to go to war over.  This has led to my decision to leave out the middle man and find God on my own.  (At this point, I have to add that I have no issue with the route others choose as long as they hopefully attempt to practice the Golden Rule – treat others as you wish to be treated.) 

While I have read the Bible, I also read the poetry of Wordsworth, Whitman, and Oliver; the essays of Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir, and most importantly, I pay heed to my own feelings as Atticus and I continue to tramp through this special place we call home. 

How fortunate are we to have our own Garden of Eden, recognized as such by many of the great White Mountain Artists who flocked here in the 1800s? 

The White Mountain National Forest takes up more land than does all of Rhode Island. That’s one heck of a big church. 

I’m not a theologian. If you were to call me anything, you could say I am a
nemophilist. I love the forest for its enchantment and serenity, and everywhere I look in the natural world I see and hear the song of God.  And that, by rough definition, is a pantheist.

I like that I keep company with the likes of Lao Tzu, Spinoza, Heraclitus, Georg Hegel, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ludwig van Beethoven, William Jennings Bryant, Claude Debussy, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, D.H. Lawrence, and Ansel Adams, just to name a few who are associated with pantheism.  More importantly, I like that I can see the Divine anywhere, and not just because I was conditioned to.

Now, as the temperature climbs into the twenties and that, in combination with the lack of wind, has it feeling even warmer during this incredibly frigid winter, you’ll have to excuse me.  Will (and his poor ancient skin) needs his bath.  Later I will escape with Atticus to church.  We’re off on an eight mile woods walk today, where every step will be a prayer, and we’ll be filled with the grace of nature.



Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

Enjoy your walks and your journeys in life. I always find inspiration in your words. I always say I feel the closest to God at the ocean. Embraced with his warmth and love! Love to all!

Unknown said...

I LOVE the panties story. I nearly spit coffee on my laptop screen. Thank you for a chuckle and a longing to walk on the beach.

Anonymous said...

Standing up, clapping and repeatedly saying Amen..amen..amen! You are so admired by this reader!

Unknown said...

I realized that I was typing almost exactly what was Anonymously said above and so I will say 'Ditto' adding a large smile and a thank you to the powers of the universe for this wonderful world which we live in.

Deb Pultorak said...

You will undoubtedly receive a lot of "amen's" from us today and going forward! I couldn't agree more with you. My "church" is the water... the lake, the ocean...doesn't matter... even a small pond.... Thank you, as always, for your words of wisdom. Hugs to the boys!

Carter W Rae said...

Wellll Pack you have got the Amen on that !!! I really enjoy your thoughts here!! We have so much around us in nature especially, that give the feedback if you will the comfort and joy of the Creator to us to be renewed ... I really look forward to your posts here It is such a comfort to us... Blessings to you and the boys there as we Follow Atticus with you in spirit!!! Thanks Tom Carter & Stacy

Peter McClelland said...

Nice job of chucking some really nice Newburyport folks under the bus! And you expect a parade in your honor down State Street.

God is found in the mountains. How blind would a person be not to see Him there?

In the Bible there is a verse that starts, "I will be with you always..." That God is with you in the boat when there are storms and when it is calm.

The visuals are great in opening my eyes to the Creator. But there is more than that available. Wise men still seek Him.

BTW: I am still willing to play myself in the "Following Atticus" movie. Let me know.

Lynette Gaslin said...

AMEN from me too. Tom your perspective is priceless. Onward by all means.

Betty Fagen said...

Hi Tom,

As much as I love the beauty of mountains my knees make it difficult to navigate them. My "Amen" is said every time I walk the trails at the Wetlands Preserve. It is there that I find my peace and center. I'm invigorated with each visit as I observe and photograph (for my own pleasure) the birds and the new life they create in their nests.

By the time you read this your eight mile walk will be completed and I hope you enjoyed every moment. Nature is a gift that just keeps giving all we have to do is open our eyes and listen with our ears ... I am grateful always.

Feel the hugs from here to there!


Ann and the Boys' Baja Adventures said...

Yet another AMEN coming from me!!!

Lin said...

AMEN!! Our beautiful Oregon woods are indeed my church, and my long walks are my soul soothing attitude balances. Well written, Tom.

Lis Boucher said...

Your thoughts and beliefs mirror my late Mom's...she went for daily walks in the woods and taught me a deep love of nature. I am happy to say my kids and their kids embrace this as well.

Anonymous said...

I've often thought of the woods too, as a church, and at times, more beautiful than any cathedral made by man, especially in the fall, with sun lighting the leaves like uncountable shades of stained glass

carolyn bonier said...

I share your sentiments about God and about Nature but can not express them as beautifully as you do. I live in a city with just a few acres of woods in a park out my back gate..When I am out there early each morning with my 4 legged companions and see the low sun coming through the trees, I feel I am on Sacred Ground. I can onli imagine how it must be on the top of a mountain!

Ellen Snyder said...

We walked along the Swift River last weekend. A wonderful place to lose yourself and find yourself. It was lovely. And I love what you said about the White Mountain National Forest being a big church. Amen.

Happy Trails Tom and Atticus and Hi to Will too.

Sandy said...

The best place of worship, I have always felt, is the one nature, not humans created. The wonder of a snowflake, the sun in "russet mantle clad" leaving its farewell beams on a woodland lake, a mother duck proudly sailing across our pond followed by her newly hatched ducklings with protective dad guarding the rear all symbolize more spirituality to me than any edifice created by man or women. To fight over land, religion, or any other idea is horrible. This is why I love to read your posts. Onward!

Jennifer said...

Thank you for teaching me a new word today. I feel quite ignorant having never heard the term pantheist before.... and pleased to discover that it describes exactly how I feel. Thank you as well for all your wonderfully well written posts :)

Nancy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nancy Jackson said...

Hello, I have recently become interested, in reading your blog and your facebook page. I have just begun reading your book, fascinating! I am not quite sure, but it seems now, I cant leave comments to your facebook posts. Is there a reason, that I am unaware of..? My name on facebook is Nancy Lundrigan Jackson. I have a schnauzer named Libby. I a, 63, married and live in Southern NH.

Anonymous said...

Well said. I thought of Joseph Campbell, and my own experiences, as I read this. Your blogs are so thoughtful.


Unknown said...


Nancy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
1HappyHiker said...

A big "AMEN" from me Tom about several points in your posting. Am in particular agreement with your sentiments about loathing the use of religion as a reason to argue or fight or to go to war. And I certainly concur that life on this planet could be enhanced if the human race eliminated their religious paraphernalia, and simply practiced the principle of 'treating others as you wish to be treated'.


Anonymous said...

Hello Tom and Atticus,

I'm glad to see that you are posting periodically. It helps dispel a bit, the sense of loss one feels after
finishing a much-loved book. You are blessed with the ability to put into words feelings that most of us struggle for.

Thank you for sharing some
of your life with us. I hope you will keep doing it.


Kay in Va. said...

Dear Atti:

Today is March 12, 2014, your 12th birthday! Happy Birthday!

love, Kay

hi to Will & Tom :)

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to wish Atticus M Finch a very Happy Birthday!!

Mike said...

nature is an amazing thing.

Anonymous said...


Joan and her dog, J, love you guys. Your book was so wonderful. Thank you both.

Ruth said...

Hallelujah to that ! Forests are spiritual gardens, where ones own spirit can be at one with nature in all her glory x