I first heard of environmentalist and writer Brenda Peterson’s memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth, from a mutual friend, Maureen Michelson, editor and owner of NewSage Press. Maureen published Singing to the Sound, a book Peterson had written about whales. Maureen and I were having lunch and talking about books one day. We did both things often, though we talked about books a lot more often than we had lunch; I have been designing books for NewSage Press for years.
So there we were, at our favorite Thai restaurant, eating Pad Thai and talking books, and Maureen said, “Brenda Peterson is writing a memoir. She grew up in a fundamentalist family. Her dad worked for the Forest Service. Did it for years.”
I dropped my chopsticks. “Whoa,” I said, looking around for our server to ask for a new pair. “You know about my family, and my dad was a logger when I was little. My first memories are of living in the woods. I’d love to read that book.”
In due course I got a package from Maureen. I opened it to find a book. On its dust jacket is a picture of a girl who might have been me, or one of my sisters, standing between two fir trees, watching a doll, tricycle, guitar, and stuffed animal being Raptured away. The girl is firmly earthbound. I was captivated before I ever opened the book.
When I did open it I saw that Brenda had signed it. “To Bodie…” she had written, “…who knew this story herself…”.
Peterson, the lone liberal in a family of conservative Southern Baptists, writes lyrically about her early childhood in a Forest Service station, about growing up and becoming a Liberal in a world where God and Satan, and the impending Rapture are as real as the forests she loves.
I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth explores the paradox of a family both deeply in love with nature and deeply committed to the belief that the true salvation will only come with the earth’s destruction. It traces Peterson’s path away from her conservative Southern Baptist childhood, through the Civil Rights era, through protests at Berkeley, a fledging career at The New Yorker, another career farming in Colorado, and then yet a third career as a nature writer in Seattle.
Peterson’s account of a transformative period in American history is fascinating, but equally fascinating is the more intimate journey she and her family take in finding paths through the deep religious and political schisms that lie between them. The climax of the book comes in an epiphany–that fundamentalists and environmentalists butt heads not because they are so very different, but because they are flip sides of the same coin. One day, Peterson lists the defining characteristics of fundamentalists and environmentalists:
1. Enraptured by doom / 1. Enraptured by doom
2. Apocalypse Now/ 2. Apocalypse Near
3. Fear of future consequences / 3. Fear of future consequences
4. Righteous anger / 4. Righteous anger
5. Thou shalt not / 5. Thou shalt not
6. Holier than thou / 6. Holier than thou
7. Humorless / 7. Humorless
8. Blame, shame, judgment / 8. Blame, shame, judgment
9. Evangelical / 9. Evangelical
Peterson continues: “This list was so startling and disturbing to me that I immediately put it in the back of my notebook, feeling disloyal to all my own environmental causes. Yet I could not help but see that both sides were so busy envisioning an afterlife, or future Eden, that they took no time to appreciate the present moment. I…began to watch myself whenever I tended to fall into the simple formulas of my heritage: black-and-white thinking, a belief that I knew all the right answers. This was a much more unsettling path; it was full of doubt, wandering a wilderness of uncomfortable gray areas. I was seeking common or even uncharted ground. Or, as Rumi says, “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I will meet you there.”
The list highlights the overall theme of the book: As long as we inhabit the far reaches of any extreme, conversation is difficult—or impossible. The list and its aftermath provide mark a turning point in Peterson’s relationships with her fundamentalist family.While discussions around the family dinner table are still passionate, increasingly Peterson seeks common ground, conversation rather than conversion. The remainder of the book chronicles her journey to the field beyond right-doing and wrong-doing—and her growing appreciation for her remarkable family.
In an time when concerns about moral and ecological decay give rise to increasingly heated, polarized debate, Peterson’s book comes as a breath of fresh air—a reminder that the earth and its inhabitants are a joy as well as a responsibility, and that the best path to our future lies in seeking, and finding, the common ground that lies in the fields beyond.
I Want To Be Left Behind, Finding Rapture Here On Earth is available through Amazon, and at bookstores everywhere.
Brenda Peterson has taught writing for 27 years, first as a Writer-in-Residence at Arizona State University, then at University of Washington, and since then over two decades of private classes. She works with people from all over the world on bringing their book projects into the world. “It’s my way of giving way and passing on all I have learned — from my first five years as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker magazine in the 1970s to all I’ve figured out in writing and publishing my sixteen books,” Peterson says. She is currently working on a book about writing, as well as the YA sequel to Animal Heart. Brenda blogs at I Want To Be Left Behind. For more on Brenda Peterson’s books check out her Amazon author page, or visit her website here:
Author photo by Chris Stuvek.