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Finding God in the wilderness

First slide

The sense of place and pull to the wild that inspired Nick Ripatrozone’s new book is tucked in his very name. The rip-roaring surname is the name of a mountain town in central Italy, which the 40-year-old writer has visited. 

Like his ancestors, Nick is drawn to the mountains, living with his wife and 8-year-old twins in Andover Township, N.J., in a colonial house on the edge of woods that have captured their imagination. It’s part of Bobcat Alley, a forested region with a distinct feel from urban New Jersey and a high incidence of bobcats. (He’s got the wildlife cameras to prove it.)

Paying attention — to their comings and goings, to the shifting seasons, to the winding brook — is crucial to Nick’s craft and creed, as a writer and as a Catholic. 

"The wild reminds us to be in awe of things beyond ourselves," said Nick, a member of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Sparta, N.J. "It gives us the opportunity to renew ourselves. It’s been a real influence for me as a writer and as a person of faith."

Nature softens the information age that constantly churns out notifications, headlines and soundbites, he said. "It’s not something that responds to the minutiae of daily anger or outrage that happens in the world. It transcends us."

Nick is grateful his daughters have a love of nature, fostered by their daily "pilgrimage" to what they call "the magic tree" in their backyard. Their desire to be in the woods together, as a family, warms his heart and offers the hope that it will remain as adolescence nears.

The wilderness is a powerful antidote to social media and the endless pursuit of "likes." Nick understands this well, as a high school English teacher.

His students describe their Instagram and TikTok habits as "almost an existential battle," he said. "One of the dangers of what we’re experiencing now is that our visual frame of reference is defined by the screen we’re looking at and becomes very, very narrow. We’ve become convinced that that’s where our attention should be, and it’s such a small and insignificant part of existence. When you go outside, the scope expands tremendously, along with all the layers and depth."

That expansion is a timeless phenomenon. Nick realized many of his favorite writers were inspired by the wild — great minds with varying styles and backgrounds. "What does that say about the wild as a place of storytelling and creativity?" he wondered.

The answer is in his book "Wild Belief," a new release from Broadleaf Books. It illuminates the impact of nature on Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Merton, Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver, among others.

The book began with copious research in 2019, when Nick pored over microfilm in the library for hours, producing a mound of yellow legal pads. It was completed in the early months of quarantine, which provided the time for in-depth revision. Nick holed up behind the Mac in his home office when the girls slept, fueled by coffee and the adrenaline of a night owl.

"Writing is part craft, but there’s definitely some magic when it works right," he said. "I feel like the late-night hours are when, as a person, you open up to the things you don’t think about during the day. For me it’s been a way to get into the spiritual experiences of these writers and try to inhabit their lives and how they experience the wild."

Summertime invites us to follow their lead, Nick said. "I hope my readers will be inspired by these writers and will explore outside and be like kids again. It feels like the right time."

Capecchi is a freelancer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021

@ReadChristina