The Understory

An Invitation to Rootedness and Resilience from the Forest Floor

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Pub Date 21 May 2024 | Archive Date 7 Jun 2024

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"Walk in the woods with me."

That's the invitation award-winning author Lore Ferguson Wilbert extends to readers in The Understory.

On this journey, Wilbert shares her story of alienation and disorientation after years of religious and political unrest in the evangelical church. In doing so, she looks to an unlikely place--the forest--to learn how to live and even thrive when everything seems to be falling apart. What can we learn from eroding soil, the decomposition process, the time it takes to grow lichen, the beauty of fiddlehead ferns, the regeneration of self-sowing seeds, and walking through the mud? Here, among the understory of the forest, Wilbert discovers rich metaphors for living a rooted and flourishing life within the complex ecosystems of our world. Her tenderness and honesty will help readers grieve, remember, hope, and press on with resilience.

"Walk in the woods with me."

That's the invitation award-winning author Lore Ferguson Wilbert extends to readers in The Understory.

On this journey, Wilbert shares her story of alienation and...

Advance Praise

“We need to set down roots before we can grow into whatever light the world offers; this is a remarkably acute and resonant account of what those roots might look like. We can move from our home soil, but we can’t leave soil behind altogether!”—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

“The Understory is part Wendell Berry, part Eugene Peterson, and part Madeleine L’Engle. The result is sheer magic. Wilbert writes with a kind of desperate longing—hungry, thirsty, and violently pursuing the truth of God in our stories—and the result is glorious. Read this book and be ever changed.”—A. J. Swoboda, associate professor of Bible and theology, Bushnell University; author of After Doubt

“We need to set down roots before we can grow into whatever light the world offers; this is a remarkably acute and resonant account of what those roots might look like. We can move from our home...

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Featured Reviews

First, I should say "The Understory" is a thoughtful, insightful look at nature and human nature. I was drawn in by the invitation to *walk in the woods* with Lore ("Lori") Ferguson Wilbert, and I love the botany and biology lessons, mingled with theology and introspection. Here is a young (almost 40) woman struggling with the loss of her brother, the pandemic, and the door-slammings of friends and family due to political differences.

In the end, her conclusion appears to be that we may all be diverse, but we are all one, and despite all our differences, we can get along. The plants of the forest work together as one, so why shouldn't we?

I feel like a schmuck, saying it fell short of my expectations. What did I expect? More time in the forest, less of the political landscape in America? I'm still reading Sajah Popham's "Evolutionary Herbalism: Science, Spirituality, and Medicine from the Heart of Nature," a much longer book with a lot more of the magic of plants, so maybe I'm making an unfair comparison.

This book is a series of excerpts from other books, along with some cool botanical stuff and a lot of introspection.

Of all the books she mentions, Annie Dillard's "For the Time Being" is nowhere to be seen. "The Understory" seems to follow the same blueprint.

Again, maybe I was comparing this author with another and judging a bit harshly. I like the mix of current events, some horror, some history, and pithy insights from other writers, but in this book, it was page after page, quote after quote from other writers.

Dillard and Popham managed to deliver awesome books minus the political commentary. In this one, "Orange man" ruined the country and created all the division, but we can be diverse and still live in harmony. I know, I know: I'm oversimplifying what Wilbert is really saying.

I love all the pages about the forest, the fallen trees, the "nursemaids," and the interdependence of plants. Who doesn't appreciate #Resiliency and being #Rooted?

Yes, humans should operate more like plants, all these separate species working together as a whole. We all would benefit from a walk in the woods. Some may need to read a book like this one to get inspired to go, get to the woods, and walk, and wonder, and commune with nature. And cut each other more slack, and be more tolerant of one another.

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What a beautiful writer Lore Ferguson Wilbert is, her writing with sensitive insight into human nature is just glorious. Lore knows deep grief intimately, she’s grieved the loss of her brother at a very young age, she’s faced the crushing pain of not being able to have children, she’s faced alienation from friends and family because of her political and pandemic opinions and more recently she was shunned by her local church for highlighting child abuse within its midst. She has faced more grief and loss in her 40 years than most of us face in a lifetime. Through examining the understory of the forest and drawing on her own love of nature she finds soul restoration. Surveying how the forest survives, regenerates and flourishes under harsh conditions becomes a metaphor for survival in her own life. Her honesty about her struggles is deeply moving and brought me to tears at times but ultimately it’s a book about hope, community and love. I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough!

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I really enjoyed reading Lore Ferguson Wilbert’s newest book, The Understory. This is part nature, part memoir, part Biblical. Now I will tell you I may not agree with all her political and Christian views, but she really gets you thinking, and that is what makes a great writer! I loved how she intertwined the lessons on trees and nature into her story. I, for one, find it peaceful to go for a walk in the woods or sit out and watch a sunrise and sunset. So many reminders and lessons of our Creator are found in nature.

I also related to her trying to find connections and being rooted after so many moves. So, I understand her struggle. So if you’re in a season of loss or grief, I think you will find this a timely book to read. I will reread it again just for the lessons on trees.

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A lovely, quiet book that reflects on how the author has grown and changed over the years in faith and friendships, weaving in stories of her life in the Adirondacks.

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Many American Evangelicals have found themselves reeling over the past decade as what used to feel like a relatively stable institution was swiftly ripped asunder. The 2016 election, the 2020 election, Covid, racial injustice, economic uncertainty, faith deconstruction, Christian Nationalism... sometimes it feels like we're living a lyric from Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire. A few years ago it all still felt fresh and disorienting, and in some ways it still does. In other ways, though, it seems like the turning of time has led us to a new moment where we now must simply figure out how life works on the far side of the fracture.

In her latest book, The Understory: An Invitation to Rootedness and Resilience from the Forest Floor, Lore Ferguson Wilbert invites us to join her in her contemplative wanderings through the forest. Sometimes that's a literal forest, and she asks us to reflect on the ways that a fallen tree becomes a sort of "nursemaid" for new life to take root—and how that's a metaphor for our moment. Other times the forest is figurative; we wander together through the tangle of this past decade and process through the grief of lost friendships, politically-corrupted churches, and the possibility of faith on the other side of disillusionment.

There's a difference between a forest and a freeway; you get on the freeway because you're trying to get to a destination as quickly as you can, but you walk through the forest because you want to be in the forest. You want to see, to smell, to touch, to hear, even to taste the forest. So it is with Wilbert's latest: don't read it because you're looking for a quick fix for Evangelicalism, or because you're looking for someone to tightly and cogently explain how to navigate through the mess. That's not what this book is. At times I did find myself wishing that the book was less meandering, that there was a straighter through-line connecting all the dots, but at the end of the day it feels much like the kind of conversation you'd have with a friend where you're trying to process through it all together.

In the end, it's a beautifully written reflection on what this moment has been for so many of us, how Wilbert has processed through it herself, and suggestions for how to grow roots again after everything has been torn up and shaken.

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Wow! What a profound and vulnerable book! I'm sure I disagree with some of the views this author holds but her honesty in sharing her heart and her life, her challenge to pursue unity rather than uniformity, and how that helps to cultivate good soil was SO GOOD! I love learning more about nature, and especially trees, and how they have to do with our walks with Jesus so this book was right up my alley. The work nature does to cultivate good soil and continuously produce new life is so analogous to how we can live as followers of Jesus whose goal is to propagate the life Jesus has come to give. Again, I definitely don't agree with some of her theology and social positions, but it felt more like a refreshing civil discussion and invitation rather than an argument. Definitely recommend! Thanks for the advance copy!

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One of the things I appreciate most about this book, and Lore's writing in general, is her commitment to being "in process" and writing faithfully about what she is learning without pretense. The Understory is an exploration of what it means to come home to yourself, wherever that may be. It invites the reader to envision belonging, community, interdependence, and connectedness in a cultural climate where individualism, isolationism, and self-reliance are predominant. Lore is a kind companion throughout and leads the way with her own personal archaeology.

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Lore Wilbert’s latest book, The Understory: An Invitation to Rootedness and Resilience from the Forest Floor, is a collection of reflections on the way we grieve and grow. Using the undergrowth of a forest as both spine and central metaphor, Lore traces the way we struggle, grieve, and share our lives while accepting where we are, whether we would have chosen it or not. This book is about the interconnectedness of natural life, and, no matter how awkward or painful it feels, of our communities.

I have always loved Lore’s writing. Her books Handle with Care and Curious Faith were both beautifully written and thought-provoking, and this one is possibly her best yet. I read this one very slowly, savoring her language and her imagery, trying to let her words settle in me and see how they resonated. I have never agreed with her on everything, but that’s one of my favorite things about Lore’s writing: she never expects me to. Her books are a conversation, and she is not afraid if people don’t always agree. She invites discourse and the reader’s own reflections.

This book reminded me of Andrew Peterson’s book The God of the Garden, both because of its lovely language and its use of trees and nature as a metaphor for our lives. This book provides space to reflect on your own grief and suffering, as well as the glimmers of hope and grace that also shine through our lives. I think it’s going to be a book that also rewards re-reading. It’s contemplative, nuanced, and would be perfect for a book study, one where you could read and think and discuss over time. I loved it.

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Understory by Lore Ferguson is an interesting mix of memoir, environmental commentary and politically influenced thoughts from one Christian's perspective. These elements are accompanied by an examination of faith (specifically evangelical) through the unique lense of nature, more specifically the forest, with some Bible verses, literary quotes and many other books referenced.

I enjoy reading naturalist literature, and reading in this genre from a Christian perspective was a unique experience.

This book was like a meandering stream with some rivulets branching off here and there, rather than a pipeline of information running direct from one place to another. I'm admittedly conditioned to books and articles with a certain number of bullet points and bam-bam-bam, you're done. Rather than rush through and nod at each of the points and instantly move on to the next thing without much thought, I found Understory to be taken and relished in smaller doses to give more time to ponder the things that were said and how I might apply it to my own faith and life. Once this book is published, I would love to get a paper copy of my own to read through again and underline, bookmark, and otherwise mark up.

This could be a good book to read through and discuss with a group of friends who know ahead of time what it's about and are willing to have an open mind and think beyond what we may have been told or raised to think. We could all learn and grow if we seek to listen and understand, but we need to talk about issues (and work out solutions) sometimes, rather than ignore them. This could be a start.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing an advance digital copy of this book. All opinions and commentary I've posted here are my own.

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The first thing that struck me about this book is the lovely poetic style. The author uses this & weaves her naturalist observations with her spiritual struggles & growth. The next thing that I realized as I was reading was she was quoting a lot. While that's all good to show that these ideas aren't original with her, it did get a little clunky at times to have all of these inserted so often throughout the book. Maybe just some footnotes at the end instead of so many interruptions would have made for a smoother reading experience. Beside all of that, the book itself has merit. Somewhere in the early chapters, I was worried it was going to be a deconstructionist, navel-gazing complaint. I almost quit. But around the middle, there was a change toward the hopeful, upward look that Christians should have. She looked down again, but it was to look at the foundation she was building her life on, the roots that were connecting her to something bigger. Christian books can tend toward this very meditative attitude, but it is important for it not to be all inward. It's important for us to remember that our hope isn't found inside ourselves. It is found in Christ alone!

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This is worth a good sit-down. Ferguson-Wilbert’s writing is a slow hike into a land we love but do not know. She forces the reader to slow down, to walk—not run—through love on paper. There is the pain that accompanies the forming of a more comprehensive perspective on any season of life. And it is always hard to believe there is more to come, but if properly put into perspective, there is a peace; peace is very evident here. And peace means hope to anyone who is looking for it.

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