Clinton author finds the good life in ‘The Circumference of Home’
April 27, 2010 · Updated 4:25 PM
His motivation to take an active stance against climate change is spurred on by the looming fate of future generations.
Clinton writer Kurt Hoelting is a commercial fisherman, wilderness guide and meditation teacher whose “The Circumference of Home, One Man’s Yearlong Quest for a Radically Local Life” reveals not only a cultural, historical and geographical look at the 60-mile radius that encompasses his island home, but also is a revelation in what it means to take responsibility for one’s personal effect on the planet.
In the introduction to the book, Hoelting grapples with the overwhelming questions presented by climate change.
He writes: “This much is clear to me. If I can’t change my own life in response to the greatest challenge now facing our human family, who can? And if I won’t make the effort to try, why should anyone else? So I’ve decided to start at home, and begin with myself. The question is no longer whether I must respond. The question is whether I can turn my response into an adventure.”
With the goal of recording his life throughout the year of 2008 in which he shuns the use of a car and airplanes, traveling only on foot, bicycle or by kayak (and sometimes with the help of public transit) within a certain “circumference of home,” Hoelting succeeds on several levels.
“The Circumference of Home” could easily have become just an informative and interesting travelogue of one man’s quest to counteract his own carbon footprint and take action against climate change, all while intimately reacquainting himself with the lands once traversed by the Salish people.
But the book goes well beyond travelogue and simple climate-change protest into the territory of the author’s heart — his personal connection to the earth, his family, friends, strangers, other writers, his childhood memories, places he loves, his own body and the responsibility he feels more intensely with each step, pedal and paddle through his earnest quest.
On a cold, rainy January morning, Hoelting describes how he sets out on foot to the ferry to begin his first 130-mile hiking expedition through the river deltas of the Cascades in Skagit County. He runs into some friends on the ferry and encounters his first hurdle: how to explain such a wacky-sounding plan to spectators.
“I’m still working on an elevator speech that cuts to the chase about what I’m up to this year; and I botch my attempt at a short answer. They nod their heads politely and back slowly away as I try to explain what I’m doing on this walk. There isn’t a big tradition of going on long hikes to Everett from Whidbey Island, especially early on a wet January morning.”
So begins what sets the tone for the rest of the book.
Hoelting’s self-deprecating good nature combined with an environmentalist’s knowledge of science and a well-read appreciation for nature writers and poetry, draws the reader in immediately, so that one feels a sense of being on the road with a friend.
Hoelting’s book combines the gritty reality of walking to get somewhere with an historical eye for the land, how it was formed, its wildlife and the cultural history of the Salish tribes.
There are also the battling inner voices of Hoelting’s romantic side which includes poetic excerpts in the beginning of each chapter and his realistic “what the hell am
I doing walking on this asphalt in the rain” side; his practical self.
The book is broken down into three sections titled “The Boot,” “The Spoke” and “The Paddle” in which the reader follows him through a series of hikes, such as those through the Skagit County farmlands and the 50-mile getting-back-home trek from Deception Pass to the Maxwelton Valley.
On the bike he rides through the coves and inlets of the Olympic Peninsula, to Zen temples, to Victoria, Bellingham and Enumclaw and through the industrial hustle of cities, among other places.
Finally he boards his kayak crossing the uncharted waters of the straits, spits and inlets of the Inside Passage, testing his gumption through storms and squalls along the way.
The book is peppered with the voices of Hoelting’s literary heroes such as the beat poet Gary Snyder, Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Merton who were influential to his young-adult mind when he formed the bulwark of his environmental spirit and to whom he refers to as writers of his personal Bible, along with other scientific and nature writers such as Charles Darwin, John Muir and Rachel Carson.
Hoelting holds up the examples of great men of history who walked as a mode of transport, such as Thomas Aquinas and the native tribes of the Pacific Northwest.
He’s influenced not only by the urgency of doing something to combat climate change, but also by reading authors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau who revived the lost art of walking at the start of the industrial revolution and in turn inspired such poets and thinkers as Wordsworth, Kierkegaard, Thoreau and Muir, who used walking as an experiential past-time to inform their works.
His life as a commercial fisherman and as a Zen practitioner of meditation also informs much of the book as he knows intimately the ins and outs of the salmon runs of Alaska as much as he does how to steady his mind and where to find the best local monasteries.
All his knowledge of the sea, of Native American culture, of Northwest wildlife and the yin and yang of hooking fish while desperately wanting to save the environment come into play, but without any tone of condescension or lecture.
In his down-to-earth account, Hoelting brings up personal issues and the logistics of not using a car or a plane for a year, while his wife picks up the slack and his inner battles about the cost of activism and its impact on the daily life of a family.
He considers every thing, both logistical, historical and romantic. The reader follows him through moments when he realizes things he never considered would happen on the journey such as a more intense love and respect for his wife; a re-discovery of the affinity with his bike and what riding does for his body; an uplifting new connection with his adult son and daughter; and the realization that, even after traveling the wide world, home is the best place he’s ever been.
In the epilogue, it’s the winter solstice and Hoelting has come full circle. The journey is finished and he throws a big party at Thomas Berry Hall at the Whidbey Institute after one of the biggest snowstorms on record. Fittingly, the guests have to walk, not drive, to get down the long forested road to the hall.
In the quiet, snowy landscape of Chinook, Hoelting feels a sharp sense of satisfaction. It’s a description that illustrates Hoelting’s ability to capitalize on the profundity of his quest by allowing the reader to be privy to his most personal and spiritual thoughts.
By this time, all incredulity of the author’s “wacky roadtrip” is gone and one feels a slight shame at getting in a car, and there’s the bonus. Hoelting succeeds in getting one’s mind around making a basic change on a personal level.
In end of the book, Hoelting describes how, although the quest has ended, he doesn’t return to his original lifestyle.
“I have not banished cars from my life, or travel to distant places. But the experience has fundamentally altered my relationship with transportation options.”
He uses his bike and public transit a lot more than he ever did, and a car much less frequently.
“It isn’t that hard to do. It isn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” Hoelting writes.
Ultimately, “The Circumference of Home” proves to be not just a documentation of one man’s active response to climate change, but a highly personal and eloquent account of one man’s self-induced transformation to become a better keeper of the planet.
The book was published this year by Da Capo Press and is available at the Moonraker Bookstore in Langley. Also, to visit Kurt Hoelting’s Web site, click here to buy the book or to find out about readings and events.