Guterson goes foraging in the forest … for faith |

Guterson goes foraging in the forest … for faith

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Divine revelation is very much a thing of the past, right? Those blessed enough to receive words from on high a few thousand or a few hundred years ago were considered prophets. Nowadays, you go around telling people God has been in touch, and the funny looks you get are the least of your troubles.

Which means what? That God isn’t talking anymore? That, as with rock ‘n’ roll, it’s got to be old to be worth anything? That religion is a moldy relic, so brittle that the slightest jarring threatens its integrity?

In David Guterson’s “Our Lady of the Forest,” Ann Holmes has a series of visions of the Virgin Mary in the remote, eternally dank woods of North Fork, Wash. Her acquaintance and fellow mushroom-picker Carolyn Greer witnesses Holmes having the second of these visions. Greer, who doesn’t believe in anything but her annual trips to Mexico, scoffs, but makes casual mention of the news to a friend. Within two days of her first encounter, Ann is being followed by a small group of locals on her daily trek into the woods. Two more days and, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, believers from all over the West have descended on the woods, and struggling North Fork is having a modern-day gold rush. Make that God rush.

Ann is not a likely prophet. (Who is these days?) She’s a waif-thin pot smoker and magic mushroom eater, a runaway who lives in the woods. And there’s that flu that gets worse and worse, but which doesn’t seem to concern Ann. The visionary, as Guterson often terms her, has much bigger things on her mind: Mother Mary has handed her a short to-do list.

Ann’s troubled personal history doesn’t dissuade a corps of a few thousand from following her every step. Not among the believers, naturally, are two representatives of the Catholic Church. Young Father Collins, the local priest, isn’t convinced. But then Father Collins, with his history as a pothead, his ambivalence about the priesthood ” and his lust for a certain skinny, young would-be prophet ” doesn’t even believe all too much in his Bible. And Father Butler, sent by the diocese to investigate, is a church bureaucrat so set in his views that his examination of Ann’s vision is a formality.

Watching from a close distance is fellow North Forker Tom Cross. A down-on-his-luck former logger, Tom has strayed far from his religious teachings. But with his son paralyzed, his financial situation gone from bad to worse, and the law breathing down his neck, Tom sees Ann as, maybe, the answer to his prayers. Tom, whose story is told parallel with Ann’s, is stumbling toward a collision.

Guterson tells these stories with spare strokes, suggesting a lot of small things: That the holy spirit may be as close as a walk in the forest. That faith is just that, and not a certainty. That the Catholic Church is staid and inflexible to the point of weakness. “Our Lady of the Forest” doesn’t insist on any one big thing, but its view of religion isn’t meant to comfort the faithful. Not when the novel ends with a group of pilgrims standing in the chill of the Washington woods, straining to hear the holy words of the dedication of a new church over rainfall and static. “The pilgrims looked up at the sky without hope,” concludes Guterson. “It was going to keep raining in all probability. What could they do? Where might they go? God had chosen, for this day, rain.”

It’s not meant to be uplifting. But Guterson gives his characters such a human feel that we are moved, even by their weaknesses, greediness and criminal tendencies. From the devastated North Fork economy to the professional vision-seekers to Ann’s end, “Our Lady of the Forest” is a tragedy. And perhaps the biggest tragedy is faith.

Guterson’s language is beautiful. The setting of the failed logging town is vivid. Ann is unforgettable. “Our Lady of the Forest” makes believers of us readers.

David Guterson will speak April 3 at Paepcke Auditorium in the final event of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series.

Also appearing in the Winter Words series are Daniel Glick, author of “Powder Burn: Arson, Money and Mystery on Vail Mountain” (Jan. 15); Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn (Feb. 6); “Fast Food Nation” author Eric Schlosser (Feb. 28); Pulitzer Prize-winning Middle East expert Judith Miller (March 11); and Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov biographer Stacy Schiff (March 25). Tickets to Winter Words, including a season subscription, are available at the Wheeler Opera House box office.

The Writers’ Foundation, in collaboration with The Aspen Institute, is also presenting An Evening with Madeleine Albright on Dec. 22.

For further information, call 925-3122, or go to

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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