- Publisher: Sacajawea Press
- Available in: Paperback, Ebook
Foreword by Thomas Moore,
author of Care of the Soul,
for Into the Woods…and
As we try to live a meaningful and individual life, some of us make a special statement that becomes the centerpoint of our entire existence. I left home at thirteen with the idea of becoming a Catholic priest. I lived a monastic way of life for another thirteen years and then got on a more conventional track. Often our inspiration doesn’t last as long we might expect, and we go through a number of key experiences that finally seem to merge into a fresh version of the human experiment.
Stephen Altschuler’s initial, life-shaping departure took the form of living by himself for a few years in a tiny shack on the side of a small mountain in an outlying section of rural New Hampshire. He brought with him the spirit of adventure, a few life principles, and an openness toward reading the signs of nature for how he should live. He found the snowy, cold winters challenging and didn’t like sharing his small ill-equipped abode with families of mice.
It doesn’t appear that Stephen intentionally copied Henry David Thoreau in retreating from the superficialities of human civilization, but sometimes his sentences sound very much like Thoreau, who in Walden says he tried “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
A spirit of radical openness saturates Stephen’s book, the worry-free willingness of a man in whom a boyish dismissal of obstacles takes him from one challenge to another. It’s thrilling to overhear the thoughts of someone who sees life as a serious adventure, worth many original experiments and risks. In the Archetypal Psychology that I follow, we call this the puer spirit, the attitude of the eternal youth who in some of us is a minor figure and in others a life-shaping passion. It is a spirit that inspires, is contagious, and would make Stephen’s narrative especially useful to any who have surrendered to reality.
Stephen confesses to the ups and downs of this daring way of life: broken bones, colds, divorces, and elusive financial stability. In myth Icarus falls to earth after rising high in the sky. Those of us who aim high have to know how to fall and fail and make something of the pieces. I like the relevant quote Stephen uses from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “We aim above the mark, to hit the mark.”
This beautiful book appears at the right time in society, when so many seem to choose not to live but to substitute technologies, entertainments and celebrity worship for real living. This book is about choosing to live, following your inspirations and imagination, daring the extraordinary, not making too much of adversity and prizing your individuality. People today look for all sorts of solutions to their depressions and addictions, when the real answer is in living your life, daring to be unique.
In this case, it is also about being close to nature, even in the city, and learning from the natural world how to be human. I was puzzled at first when I found the book going on even after Stephen left his New Hampshire home, too simple and improvisational to be called a shack, to live in the warm, comfortable city of Berkeley. My guess is that he wanted to be sure not to romanticize rural New England and to show how the lessons he took from there found subtle and sophisticated application in less arduous city life.
I relate to his crusade to appreciate the wilderness that hides behind the walls and roads and machinery of the city. This is a good way to deal with the unfortunate split we often make between city and country, nature and civilization. They need each other and benefit from each other’s influence.
Stephen’s approach to life and his writing are a rare example of quiet, soft activism, and the radical nature of his highly individual vision gains power from his willingness to suffer the blows of life as he finds a way toward grace and interior vitality. I suppose I appreciate the tough gentility in this book because I, too, have tried to start a revolution by quietly suggesting we all try living a more soulful life.
In the end, it appears that the essence of Stephen’s philosophy is an endless list of oxymorons. Drop out, but stay connected. Simplify, but never lose sight of the complexities of human existence. Put your values into practice, but never stop thinking, reading, learning and expressing yourself.
You go into the woods, as Dante did, as a rite of passage. You learn how to live the imperfect life in a devoted way. You don’t aim too high, but you aim higher than most, and so you come out just right.
This book is available now at Amazon.