Brenda Peterson’s memoir I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth begins with an account of a conversation that exemplifies a larger question that has preoccupied Peterson for much of her life: how can those who believe in the Rapture be responsible and good stewards of the natural world? While Peterson keeps a watchful eye on a seal pup on a beach outside of Seattle, a neighbor, an evangelical Christian, announces that September 11th inaugurated the End Times and that he does not expect to be long for this world but, rather, to ascend from it while it undergoes cataclysmic changes in preparation for Christ’s return.
Peterson has little patience for this sort of talk. She grew up in an evangelical family where discussion of the Rapture was commonplace and though she remains close to her parents, siblings, and other relatives, her own spiritual journey has led her far from the faith in which she was raised. What fascinates Peterson and prevents her from simply dismissing her neighbor is his real care and concern for the seal pup and its safety. He and Peterson have devoted many hours and much energy to the protection of seals and other sea life and this prompts her to wonder why anyone would care about a world he believes to be doomed.
This conundrum is not new to her. Her father is a very successful administrator in the Forest Service and Peterson spent much of her youth living in proximity to forests and wildlife refuges, oceans and nature preserves. Her experiences in these places along with her rigorous religious instruction in the Southern Baptist church establish the essential tension of Peterson’s life: an allegiance to this world in all of its physical splendor and the insistence that there is another, better, indeed perfect, place that is humanity’s true home.
I Want to Be Left Behind is at its best in passages where Peterson describes her appreciation of the natural world, even ecstatic communion with it. For example, Peterson writes movingly but also matter-of-factly of an encounter with a mother whale and its calf in Baja:
Balancing on her mother’s belly, the calf was practically in the boat with us, inquisitive but shy. She was brand-new—no more than a few weeks old, with short baby whiskers and no barnacles. At fifteen feet long, the calf was nursing on milk so rich she would gain one hundred pounds a day. When the calves are two to three months old, they embark on the perilous 2,500-mile round-trip journey between Baja and the Arctic, an obstacle course of orca attacks, super-tanker boat propellers, Russian and subsistence hunters, and other hazards. Thirty percent of the calves do not survive.
Petersen’s acknowledgment of the vulnerability of what she finds so beautiful saves the passage from sentimentality while also allowing the reader a glimpse of a world of epic endeavor on the part of these animals she admires so much.
One would like, however, for more passages like this. For the most part I Want to Be Left Behind records the fairly mundane experiences of a life. There is the tedium of sitting through Sunday school, the difficulties of being accepted by classmates when one is a perpetual “new kid” (her father’s career keeps the family nearly constantly on the move), a sense of estrangement and alienation from one’s family and its values. These are not, of course, trivial matters but Peterson describes them less adeptly than her experiences in nature.
This is so partly because for all of their growing differences—differences that reflect not just personal idiosyncrasy but also larger cultural tensions (the memoir spans the 1950s to the present)—Peterson and her family are generally cordial with one another if not always understanding. No doubt one aim of the book is to commemorate this human decency but people politely disagreeing with one another doesn’t make for a very gripping read. This is most apparent in the extensive but often clunky dialogue.
The memoir would also benefit from more consideration of what its jacket description labels “apocalyptic Greens,” i.e., environmentalists whose despair over the condition the planet leads them to repudiate the notion that human beings have a place in it. The notion that some evangelists and environmentalists are deeply alike in their sense that the world is not our home is an important one and deserves more than the glancing attention it gets here.
Still, if I Want to Left Behind is neither topnotch nature writing nor memoir nor any combination thereof (as is the work of, say, Annie Dillard) it deserves credit for capturing the persistent depth of one individual’s religious sensibility even as that sensibility undergoes profound change.