(Illustration: Daniella Ferretti)

Why I Can’t Stop Reading Books by Adventurous Mothers

Having a child doesn’t mean the end of exploration outdoors. These women writers modeled that for me—and taught me new ways of thinking about risk and reward.  

Daniella Ferretti

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A friend who, like me, birthed her first child into a pandemic-constricted world, recently said something I can’t forget: one of the ways a woman learns to recognize herself as a mother is for others to see her playing this new role. She was lamenting the early loss of that self-recognition, trying to describe why it was so difficult to carry a newborn through such a profound moment of upheaval.

She got me thinking about other ways of seeing and being seen, and about reading as a reciprocal act—how it grounded me when so much else did not. Sometimes a character is so stunningly familiar they hold up a mirror to the reader. That reflection can clarify while also opening the door to thinking about oneself differently, perhaps more expansively. Something like: If my literary doppelganger can do it, perhaps so too can I. 

I have long been drawn to books by adventuresome women, mothers in particular. I like the way they tend to mix details of quotidian life—the pungent tang of sizzling garlic, the quietude that comes from folding clothes, the creak of floorboards beneath socked feet, all the day-to-day care that makes creation possible—with a keen attention to the external world—the pitch pines bending in the storm wind, the glossy dew dripping from sphagnum moss in the swamp. I like that they nest these two seemingly distinct worlds alongside one another, insisting that they need not be separate, despite all we have been taught about where a woman belongs. But perhaps what I appreciate most is how they teach us to consider mothering as action: the task of expanding the child’s world so that they can encounter risk in a controlled way, before having to navigate the unknown on their own. This lesson is increasingly important to embrace as our earth tips ever more towards the uncharted.

When I was 23 years old, I rode my bicycle from Seattle, out the Olympic Peninsula, over to Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands, then up the Cassiar Highway to Skagway, Alaska. It took me a little under two months, and for most of the time I was alone, except for the company of the books that rotated through my overstuffed panniers. Every evening I would rip out the pages I finished the day before, sometimes using them to start a campfire. By the time I’d reached Prince Rupert I had incinerated all of Anna Karenina. In the Museum of Northern Canada I was lucky enough to encounter The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet, who, when widowed in 1927, packed her five kids onto a 25-foot boat and cruised the coastal waters of British Columbia summer after summer.

I was nowhere near ready to have a child back then, but something about this book made me realize that I might one day. To be a mother didn’t have to mean ceasing to explore, nor does it mean the end of dish duty: in The Curve of Time they take care of theirs—one cup, one plate each—by dunking them over the side. With their boat Caprice serving as home base, Blanchet and her gaggle navigate the white water roiling around the infamous Deception Pass; they encounter cougars and shiners and even an orca they nickname named Henry. The world they inhabit is, she writes, “both wide and narrow—wide in the immensity of the sea and mountain; narrow in that the boat was very small, and we lived and camped, explored and swam in a little realm of our own making.” A mother is above all else, a world creator, the boundaries of which expand with every day the child grows.

One afternoon Blanchet fishes for trout using an unripe huckleberry as bait while the children play on a nearby beach. Suddenly, she realizes they are beyond what Samanta Schweblin, another adventuresome author-mother, calls “rescue distance.” Blanchet rushes back through thickets of dense devils club. The children report that a man has been watching them for hours. The mother turns to look and the being drops to all fours and starts ambling towards them, a she-bear, guarding her own cubs. Blurry are the boundaries between human and the more-than-human in this book. Blanchet abandons the trout she procured, ushers everyone into their skiff, and rows back to Caprice where together they take up the task of fishing for supper. There is no space where risk is absent in The Curve of Time—not for Blanchet and her children, not for the Red Snapper they pull from the deep.

Blair Braverman, den mother to dozens of happy huskies that dog sled enthusiasts know as the Ugly Dogs, tackles the question of how to survive in a perilous world in her third book, Small Game. I read Small Game nearly two decades after I read The Curve of Time. I was staying at Timberline Lodge, a Works Progress masterpiece, with a dear old friend; the two of us taking a short break from tending to our own growing broods. Our days filled with the quiet ecstasy of snowshoeing or skiing in feet of precious powder, our evenings spent reading luxuriously alongside a massive fireplace that looked like it belonged in Game of Thrones.

The characters in Small Game have none of these luxuries. Instead they are whisked by a helicopter to an undisclosed location in a northern forest and tasked with building a new civilization from the ground up. They’ve been selected for a survivalist reality television show, where each person has one tool—a pot, a knife, a bow drill for starting fires—and a canvas tunic. The idea is that their single greatest resource is each other, that is, if they can learn to get along despite being hungry, and cold, and tired, and more than anything else, scared. The book grew from Braverman’s real-life experience on Naked and Afraid, the weeks she spent in a South African desert trying to wrest calories from the dirt while elephants and hyenas circled their camp. At night the camera crew would leave, which left her wondering, What if they never come back? 

One morning, the characters in Small Game wake into the world Braverman most feared. It takes them days to accept that the rules have shifted; they are no longer performing for an imaginary audience and surviving is no longer a game. As I read, Mount Hood moved in and out of the fog. Back home, my husband cooked raviolis for two, cooked pork chops for two, reheated leftovers for two. I appreciated how stripped-down the world of Small Game was, how it emphasized the relationships between people as they navigated something difficult that at first seemed like something they elected then later did not. Some part of that felt like an analogy for parenthood: sometimes the ground shifts irrevocably beneath your feet, and how you weather that change has everything to do with who is on your team. Stay alert, the book urges, and open, otherwise you lock out those you most need.

Months later, as snow softened into snowdrops, I cracked open Camille Dungy’s Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden. In 2013, Dungy accepted a position at Colorado State University, which meant relocating her husband and young daughter to Fort Collins, a town where only 1.5 percent of residents are Black. They buy a home, and Dungy decides to change the monochromatic lawn-scape that the previous residents left behind into something brighter, less reliant on damaging pesticides, and more resilient to the area’s fickle weather. She rips out sod and replaces it first with a lasagna of compost and cardboard (to cut back on weeds) then with purple gossip, Nattall’s larkspur, prairie mallow, wine-cups and little bluestem grass. She is trying to teach her daughter something about how to cultivate, if not safety exactly—since a life free from harm is just another story we like to tell ourselves—then an intricate network of care in which great flourishing might unfold.

Soil is a direct response to a centuries-long environmental literary tradition that Dungy paraphrases as: La la la! Walking through the woods. Nobody to think about but me! This  tradition treats nature as something external to a human, which must be sought out and experienced separately from the daily drone of maintaining life. If I am being honest, it is a mindset that I, at least partially, sought when I set out for Alaska alone: time to be in my body without playing any other roles. Dungy gets it: “Maybe I don’t see mothers in the canon of environmental literature” she writes, “because it’s impossible for most mothers to create a world where they have nobody to think of but themselves.”

Dungy’s writing is regularly interrupted—by the cloy imperative, What’s for dinner; by the coronavirus; by the sudden need to clean corrupted smoothie juice off the cabinets; by white friends and colleagues who regularly insist on being blindsided by our country’s deep and continuous commitment to racism as one of its defining logics; by the mid-week delivery of a mound of soil needed to get her effort to reclaim the garden underway. Each interruption felt revolutionary. It was all so familiar, and yet I couldn’t think of many other places where I had encountered such a plain accounting of the mother-writer’s life, the many concurrent threads woven through it that together create a strong—but perhaps not impervious, perhaps sometimes frayed—fabric.

There were many passages in Soil that reminded me that some of the most motherly things—getting on hands and knees to bring a new baby into this world or to minister to what grows up from the loam, the shepherding of all matter of being through unprecedented downpours and killing heat, the ongoing search for sustenance, both physical and spiritual—are, quite literally, some of the most challenging and enchanting experiences a person can conjure. To put perhaps too blunt a point on it: in the garden, Dungy ventures into the unknown, exploring the risky work of trying to “grow something beautiful from what might seem like dirt.” Sometimes she labors with someone—her daughter, her husband—sometimes she doesn’t. Always she is a mother. Soil quietly insists that mothering is among the most constant and impossible, most perilous and rewarding adventures a person can undertake. That even though we may wax philosophic about unaided attempts to cross Antarctica on foot or summit K2, no life is possible without the generous gift of others’ bodies and time, and that the idea of being alone in the forest is, above all, a farce. Our mothers brought us here.

Lead Illustration: Daniella Ferretti