“In Nature,” said Coleridge, “there is nothing melancholy.” I don’t know about that. I suppose there are lots of people who will greet American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau with joy, but both politics and temperament predisposed me against the book. I had agreed to review it in a moment of weakness, but when it thumped down onto my desk — 115 extracts from 101 authors in close to a thousand galley pages of almost nothing but text (“80 pages of color inserts” will be included in the finished product, the publisher assures me), melancholy is what ensued.
Politics. The presence of that foreword by Al Gore, and the later inclusion of his 1997 speech at the Kyoto conference on climate change, alert us to the fact that writing about nature has nowadays largely been taken over by leftist scolds and prophets of doom, urging us to REPENT! or the end of all things will be upon us.
What we are called upon to repent turns out to be free-market capitalism and our deplorable attachments to consumer goods, to suburban living, and to individual liberty. Environmentalists, one cannot help thinking, do not like human beings very much as we are. Some of them seek to improve us along the lines of New Soviet Man; some — Les Knight’s Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, at least — sincerely believe that the universe would be better off without us altogether.
Temperament. An innate, unprompted interest in the natural world is, like other aspects of the individual human personality, strong in many, weak in many others, intense in a few, utterly absent in a few. I would place myself at the lower end of the scale, along with Dorothy Parker (“Every year, back spring comes, with the nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off, and the ground all mucked up with arbutus”) and Alexander Portnoy:
Greenery I leave to the birds and the bees, they have their worries, I have mine. At home who knows the name of what grows from the pavement at the front of our house? It’s a tree — and that’s it. The kind is of no consequence, who cares what kind, just so long as it doesn’t fall down on your head. In the autumn (or is it the spring? Do you know this stuff? I’m pretty sure it’s not the winter) there drop from its branches long crescent-shaped pods containing hard little pellets …
I suppose, therefore, that I am not really in the target audience for a book like this. Yet I found many things to enjoy in American Earth; and this is not actually very surprising, because neither on the social nor the personal scale does the environmental issue cut neatly left-right.
Certainly environmental concerns have largely been taken over by the bossy Left. The line of development here goes far back. American nature writing and social-reforming zeal are old companions, as the presence of Thoreau’s name on the title page of this volume reminds us. Conservatives still hold some of the ground, though. The words “conservation” and “conservative” have, after all, the same root. Some of the fathers of modern American conservatism — Russell Kirk and Barry Goldwater come to mind — would have found much to agree with in American Earth. You don’t find many Republicans out there on the hiking trails, but you find a few. And at the personal level, one’s political inclination and one’s degree of fondness for the natural world are orthogonal variables, neither depending predictably on the other.
The Left survives and flourishes because, as well as there being plenty of people whose satisfaction in life is to boss others around, there are even more who are willing to be bossed. Those who are not so willing — persons of a prickly-libertarian temperament — often head out to the wild places, to end up as lovers of the raw creation. There is, too, that aspect of the conservative temperament that abhors sentimentality and wishful thinking, and greets with happy recognition the cycles of death and mayhem that comprise most of the natural world’s activity. I am thinking here, in both cases, of the Western writer Stephen J. Bodio, whose 1998 memoir On the Edge of the Wild offers an eloquent hunter’s perspective on nature.
The Left undoubtedly has the best of it, though. They certainly have the best of this volume, which contains nothing of Stephen Bodio’s at all — nothing at all sympathetic to hunting, except as carried out by American Indians. Bill McKibben, the editor of American Earth, has been a keen propagandist against global warming and an apostle of “sustainability.” In his prefatory note to the lyrics of Woody Guthries’ song “This Land Is Your Land,” McKibben tells us that: “Were I in charge of such matters, [Guthries’ song] would alternate weeks with ‘America the Beautiful’ as our national anthem.” I’ll confess I’ve always liked the song; but given Guthries’ stint as a columnist for The Daily Worker, I doubt it will ever be a favorite at Republican National Conventions.
Woody Guthrie is not the worst of it. Here is white-hating, man-hating, and most particularly white-man-hating — or, as McKibben says in his preface to the extract, novelist of “the struggle against racism and patriarchy” — Alice Walker, railing against “Indian killers and slave owners Washington and Jefferson and the like.” Here is “literature of social justice” novelist Barbara Kingsolver, though rhapsodizing un-politically, for the most part, about her Appalachian cabin. Here is liberal New York Times editor Joseph Lelyveld at the first Earth Day observance in 1970, quoting ultraliberal New York City mayor John V. Lindsey with approval: “Beyond words like ecology, environment, and pollution there is a simple question: Do we want to live or die?” (Probably the victims registered in the near-tripling of New York’s homicide rate on Lindsey’s watch would have preferred to live.)
Here are Carl Anthony and Renée Soule yoking together, with all necessary rhetorical violence, the diversity of the natural world and the great modern cult of “diversity” that pays the salaries of a million talentless sub-intellectual busybodies like themselves:
Ecologists and social justice advocates both promote respect for diversity. That respect depends upon a mature capacity to embrace and even celebrate apparent contradictions. This internal stance of inclusivity is the key to ecopsychology, where a healthy multicultural, multibiotic, multiregional and multifacted psyche merges and blends gracefully with Earth’s ecology.
The leap from the social to the ecological, from our injustice to each other to the insults we inflict on the natural world — from, as it were, “man is wolf to man” to “man is wolf to wolf” — seems to come very readily to writers of the multicultural-left tendency. The palm here must go to Alice Walker:
Some of us have become used to thinking that woman is the nigger of the world, that a person of color is the nigger of the world, that a poor person is the nigger of the world. But, in truth, Earth itself has become the nigger of the world.
Gee, I never looked at it that way before.
Here, in fact, are all the intellectual pathologies that have attached themselves to the modern environmental movement like barnacles to the hide of an elderly whale. We get the doomsters striving to make our flesh creep with talk of “mass starvation … in a decade or so” (Paul Ehrlich, writing in 1968). The anti-natalists chime in, Stephanie Mills keening that “the most humane thing for me is to have no children at all,” and Garrett Hardin thundering that “Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.” Hard on their heels comes Jonathan Schell with nuclear winter — “everyone in the earth would die” (buttressing his arguments with extended quotations from, of all people, Edmund Burke).
Noble-savagism is rampant, N. Scott Nomaday to the fore with a parade of soulful Indian braves practicing “reverence for the natural world” — a reverence they apparently did not extend to the prisoners they took in battle and tortured for fun, the little children they sacrificed to their gods (in the case of the Sioux, if memory serves, by driving a sharpened stick up the nostrils into the child’s brain), the women they dragged away in raids on each others’ camps, etc.
Inevitably in all this silliness and error, there is a lot of bad writing. Hard as it may be to believe, the Anthony-Soule passage I quoted above is not the worst specimen, though I think it is the worst piece that is not merely purple.
To be sure, nature writing has always been hospitable to purple prose. Plenty of these extracts might well have issued from the pen of William Boot, the hapless hero of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop. Boot writes the nature column for a London newspaper. Mistaken for a more worldly relative, he is sent off to cover a war, but not before we have been given a sample from his nature column: “Feather-footed through the splashy fen passes the questing vole …”
There is rather a lot of that sort of thing in American Earth. Edwin Way Teale describes a sunset:
During one time of strange and eerie beauty, all the curls and billows of the mist glowed red, rising like slow tongues and sheets of fire above the treetops tinged by the flames of the western sky.
Lydia Sigourney bemoans deforestation (though in purple verse, not prose):
[Man] entereth to the scared groves
Where Nature in her beauty bends to God,
And lo! their temple-arch is desecrate;
Sinks the sweet hymn, the ancient ritual fades,
And uptorn roots, and prostrate columns mark
The invader’s footsteps.
Eliot Porter paddles the Colorado River:
In the winding canyon dark and light reflections replace one another in slow succession. The gentle wake of the boat breaks these images into undulating spots and patches, each wave for a moment holding a fragment of sky mixed with golden globules of sunlit rock.
And so on, and on — the kind of writing that you feel could be cut off and sold by the yard.
What, then, is there to like in American Earth? Quite a lot, actually. The best pieces here are straightforward descriptions of natural phenomena, especially those that show nature in all her gruesome cruelty.
Barry Lopez’s description of the 1979 mass stranding of a pod of sperm whales on the Oregon coast, for instance, is absolutely gripping. The poor creatures were doomed as soon as the sea retreated, the sheer weight of their own flesh causing internal bleeding. Lopez’s account of their slow death agonies, and of the behavior of the accompanying veterinarians, state troopers, spectators, and souvenir hunters, is beautifully done, full of arresting images: “By evening the beach was covered with more than a hundred tons of intestines …”
Annie Dillard goes furthest into the dark territory: “Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me … we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die — does not care if it itself grinds to a halt … space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death.” She offers several illustrative examples, some of them not to be read on a full stomach.
Best of all, to my taste, was E.O. Wilson (yes, the sociobiology man), writing about the social insects of Surinam. Nobody that I know — certainly nobody else in this volume — conveys so well the fathomless complexity of the living world:
After the sun’s energy is captured by the green plants, it flows through chains of organisms dendritically, like blood spreading from the arteries into networks of microscopic capillaries. It is in such capillaries, in the life cycles of thousands of individual species, that life’s important work is done. … During the long span of evolution the species divided the environment among themselves, so that now each tenuously preempted certain of the capillaries … Through repeated genetic changes they side-stepped competitors and built elaborate defenses against the host of predator species that relentlessly tracked them through matching genetic counter-moves. The result was a splendid array of specialists, including moths that live in the fur of three-toed sloths.
Moths in sloths! What an unforgettable mnemonic for the miraculous fitting together of the whole astonishing schema of life!
I made some discoveries, too — writers I had never heard of, but whom I am glad to have encountered. Edward Abbey gives a clear and witty — actually quite funny — account of a Park Ranger’s life, with some thoughtful suggestions for reform of the national park system. (His first idea is to ban cars: “We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, …”) John Burroughs’ essay “The Art of Seeing Things” breathes the spirit of the true-born biologist — reminded me, in fact, of a walk I once took with a biologist friend in the San Bernadino National Forest, he pausing every few yards to show me some insect, leaf, or worm, and to tell me its story. Burroughs calls this “the fine print on nature’s page.”
Caroline Henderson’s plain, restrained narrative of surviving as a farmer in the Oklahoma dustbowl brings that dreadful episode vividly to life. On the more academic side, William Cronon’s comparison of the two quite different approaches — English and native Indian — to making a living from the New England ecosystem packs a remarkable quantity of explanation into twenty-six pages. Janisse Ray’s gopher tortoise held my attention, as did Mary Austin’s buzzards.
Contrariwise, it is the famous names that often disappoint. I shall go to my grave never having read to the end anything by Buckminster Fuller. Gary Snyder — I hope Steve Bodio will forgive me here — still seems to me a complete poseur. Teddy Roosevelt is as annoyingly bumptious in his prose as he looks in his photographs. Theodore Dreiser should have stuck to fiction. William O. Douglas’s argument, if I have understood it correctly, that mountains, rivers, swamps, “or even air” might be assigned legal personalities, like corporations, for purposes of litigation, strikes me as preposterous. Thoreau I find as unreadable as ever.
On balance though, I must say, I was slowly won over by this book. For all the left-wingery, all the canting in defense of savages, all the snobbery towards the preferences of ordinary folk (Jane Jacobs is here, fulminating against my beloved suburbs), all the log-rolling on behalf of government — preferably world government — power, and all the sheer bad writing, there is something here to hold the attention, something to be interested in. There is, after all, much in nature to delight even the most incorrigible townie. We have been, and are, often heedless in our uses of the world. And to the degree that ordinary folk disengage from nature, we shall be less able to evaluate what we are told by the Al Gores of the world, nature’s self-appointed custodians, and their legions of tax-eating experts.
That disengagement does seem to be happening. While reading America’s Earth I came upon a report just issued by the Nature Conservancy, telling us that people are spending less time in the Great Outdoors than ever before. Activity in this zone has been declining for twenty years, the researchers tell us. The annual per capita rates of decline have been from one percent to one and a quarter, depending on the type of activity measured — camping, backpacking, fishing, hiking, hunting, or trips to national and state parks and forests. This phenomenon is seen in all advanced countries — the Nature Conservancy report includes statistics from Japan and Spain.
I don’t suppose anyone will be much surprised by this. It is a common grumble of the middle-aged and elderly that young people have not much interest in anything that doesn’t have a glowing screen attached. The glowing screens seem to make the young ones timid and soft. We wonder what kind of future they will build.
Aldo Leopold was wondering something similar back in 1949, when the glowing screens were quite new, in the extract from Sand County Almanac quoted in this book:
We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.