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Reading: In the Footsteps of Thoreau

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In recent years nature writing has undergone a renaissance. Several anthologies of classic and contemporary writing about nature have been published, and a number of writers--Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Charles Bowden, John McPhee, Diane Ackerman, and others--have gained critical acclaim and popular support as interpreters of the natural world.

It's not uncommon, in reviews, to see such authors compared to Henry David Thoreau--a writer may be heralded as the new Thoreau of Wyoming, say, or Arizona, or Virginia, or whatever patch of land his or her word processor has mapped for us. That's no surprise, for Thoreau seems to remain ever-fresh in the American psyche. His essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," with its radical call to a freedom constrained not by human strictures but by natural laws, has inspired generations of social activists in this country and abroad. His voluminous Journal is receiving increased critical attention as a mammoth attempt to map the author's home terrain, to live a life informed by the details of an environment (and Princeton University Press is publishing it, piecemeal, in a comprehensive edition). The Library of America recently issued a tidy, solid volume of Thoreau's selected writings on the places he lived and traveled that is destined to stand on shelves next to similarly hefty editions of Lincoln, Grant, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau's neighbor.

Most of all, Walden lives on as the book about personal experience with and interpretation of nature. In his best-known work (which, like his others, was almost completely ignored during his lifetime), Thoreau virtually invented the American nature essay, investing the natural world around him with an importance that was entirely new. With Walden he became the progenitor of a genre of which his work remains the primary model. It is as difficult for an American nature writer to ignore him as it is for a philosopher to ignore Plato.

Thoreau's working years came during the heyday of the western frontier, yet except for a few short trips to wild corners of New England he stayed at home. "I have travelled a good deal in Concord," he wrote ironically in Walden. Yet Walden, and the Journal, were explorations of a depth never before seen in this country--or anywhere else, I believe. While his contemporaries were out building railroads, chopping lumber, or establishing farms on virgin prairie sod, Thoreau explored his relations to his home, to a single circumscribed area.

He gave himself the time to do so. "I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least--and it is commonly more than that--sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements," he wrote in "Walking," the summation of his philosophy of nature written shortly before his death. He covered a lot of ground in the Concord area, maintaining that there "is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles' radius" and the human life span. "It will never become quite familiar to you."

Most important in Thoreau's patient walking and writing near home was his skill in going deep: he was a meticulous observer of detail. In his daily journal entries he noted not only bare facts, like the dates Walden Pond thawed and the amount of beans he harvested, but minutiae. His description of the frozen banks of a railroad cut thawing in early spring (a passage from Walden taken, like many others, from long journal entries) is one of the most detailed and fascinating descriptions of a natural process I've seen anywhere. It virtually lets you see the half-liquid sand slowly flowing down the embankment in the low sunlight.

Thoreau's gift as a writer and philosopher lay in his ability to make something of his observations, to draw lessons from his daily walks. His description of the eroding railroad cut, for example, with its interweaving strands of water and sand, is a brilliant set piece that explains how the movement of the ground foreshadows the plant life to come; how the human body is built of its raw materials; and even how words evolved from letters and syllables, which evolved from the sounds and forms of the world itself. "Thus it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature." Thoreau does not merely describe the place he lives--he recasts it in language, striving to get as near as he can to the roots of both nature and language. He turns Walden Pond and its environs into a microcosm, one we can all understand.

The result is a mixture of celebration and elegy, for even in the 1840s the forests were being cut down and overhunting was decimating the populations of passenger pigeons and other wildlife. "When I first paddled a boat on Walden, it was completely surrounded by thick and lofty pine and oak woods, and in some of its coves grape-vines had run over the trees next the water and formed bowers under which a boat could pass. . . . But since I left those shores the woodchoppers have still further laid them waste, and now for many a year there will be no more rambling through the aisles of the wood, with occasional vistas through which you see the water. My Muse may be excused if she is silent henceforth. How can you expect the birds to sing when their groves are cut down?"

Behind Walden and Thoreau's other writings, then, is a serious didactic intent, an effort to convert the reader to the author's own belief in the virtues of the simple life, the richness of nature, and a measure of self-sufficiency. A few select phrases outline this philosophical project: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." "The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad." "Men have become tools of their tools." "Our life is frittered away in detail." "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" "Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul." "In wildness is the preservation of the world."

For all the wisdom of his aphorisms, though, Thoreau could be--and was most of the time, one suspects--a maddening person. He was arrogant; he was self-righteous. He condemned wine, coffee, tea, music. He proclaimed the virtues of the independent life but often hiked to Emerson's house for dinner. He never married or showed much ambition. He scorned the work many of his neighbors did. Meanwhile they saw him as something of a well-educated village idiot, a romantic and a failure. They derided his ideas as useless, impractical. His books did not sell during his lifetime in part, one suspects, because the oddness of the messenger's life undercut the message.

This has unfortunately become an enduring legacy, an important element of which has been Thoreau's seeming disconnection from the economic life of Concord, a disconnection he himself underlined by writing that he was a squatter. In fact he supported himself, much of the time, as a surveyor and schoolteacher. And the fact that he squatted on the land that provided the basis of his "self-sufficient" life at Walden should not concern us, since Thoreau wrote that he could have bought an equivalent piece of land for $8.08.

Just as Thoreau's work became something of a model for later nature writers ("Wherever my feet go, it seems, so too goes Thoreau. 'Walking' moves across every page, dogs my every step," wrote the philosopher Max Oelschlaeger in a recent essay), so did his pseudo-hermetic life-style establish the writer-naturalist's public persona. The nature writer has been taken to be one who spends as little time as possible in society, who has a more genuine relationship with birds and ponds than with people, who has little connection to the economic life of the community. Those who immersed themselves in the natural world were eccentric, and so the nature writer--like most of nature itself--was marginalized. True, there were popular nature writers later in the 19th century and into the 20th, such as John Muir, John Burroughs, and Donald Culross Peattie; but their work was often considered diversion. To most readers "nature study" was a hobby to be engaged in on Sunday afternoons, not an entity that defined human lives, as it did for these writers and others.

In the literary realm, nature writing qualifies, if at all, as a genre on the far fringe of "literature." And any nature writing students get in high school or college is likely to be Thoreau. Don't get me wrong--I think time spent reading Thoreau is time well spent. But the focus on him obscures other fine writers; significantly, some of the best of them, such as Edward Abbey and Annie Dillard, have gone out of their way to say that they are not nature writers but writers who happen to write about nature some of the time.

Though that's a nice way to look at it, such genres persist, perpetuated in no small part by books like On Nature's Terms, a collection of contemporary nature writing. The 20 contributions reflect a surprisingly broad spectrum of styles, topics, and ways of responding to the world. How do their explorations of place differ from Thoreau's?

For one thing, many of the places featured in the collection are marginal--as significant as any other in the ecological scheme of things, but on the fringes of human society. Consider the places: the Arctic ice cap; a canyon on the high plains of eastern New Mexico; Minnesota's Boundary Waters; a remote Pennsylvania mountaintop; the basin and range country of eastern Oregon; the borderlands of the Sonoran Desert. These places are important, but for almost all of us they're places to visit, not home; and reading about them is likely to be less compelling than reading about the environment right outside our door. The writers of these essays don't self-consciously split themselves off from society the way Thoreau seemed to do--they don't share his disdain for much of human effort and experience--but their choice of subject matter may have much the same effect.

The emphasis on the uninhabited or sparsely inhabited (by people) brings up a question Stephen Trimble asks here in "Sing Me Down the Mountain": "How wild must the country be to nurture natural history essayists? Does a nature writer need wilderness, or will a backyard do?" Trimble recalls that Thoreau's "famous dictum--'in wildness is the preservation of the world'--is frequently misquoted as 'in wilderness.' . . . Natural history writers, and their readers, agree with Thoreau. They see the earth as a crucial key to understanding who they--and we--are. And they can turn that key anywhere. . . . While writing and journal-keeping require a certain amount of solitude, the nature writer's 'out-of-doors' clearly does not have to be wilderness."

It's refreshing, then, to see in On Nature's Terms a selection of Edward Hoagland's seasonal editorials for the New York Times, which honor the natural processes going on even in the middle of a city. I can't help but think that nature writing would enter the mainstream a little more if it profiled places closer to the homes of readers more often.

This is not to say there shouldn't be writing about, say, the Arctic ice cap, the subject of Jean Craighead George's "White Wilderness." It is an effective barrier to hubris to read about a place that tolerates human life only to a very small extent. It's good to hear that such places exist; it's also good to read that such a place can be beautiful and dangerous. Like several others, this essay is a nice glimpse into a world that most readers will never see (or want to, I suspect). It broadens horizons.

If I wish to remember the details of "White Wilderness," though, I need to go read it again, since they do not linger in my memory. If I read several of these essays on the same evening, their details ran together, as if I'd devoured a travel magazine in one sitting. This is nature writing as genre; the essay may be well crafted, but there is little reason anyone not already interested in ice, Eskimos, or Arctic wildlife would want to read it. This is nature writing as marginal literature; the writing does not universalize a place that is for most of us beyond our experience. In this sense much of On Nature's Terms will not, I believe, be of interest to the general reader. The places explored by its writers do not grow larger than themselves the way Walden Pond does in Thoreau's work.

Fortunately the anthology is rescued by the breadth of its approaches; a number of its contributors stray from that nature writing standby, the exploration of place. Rick Bass offers an adventure story about summer days in a remote Montana valley, a tale that sounds like it was lived by Hemingway and related by Kerouac. Gary Snyder contributes a mythopoetic exegesis of an ancient Native American tale about relations between humans and bears. Terry Tempest Williams contemplates the connection between bears and women. Barry Lopez mourns the deaths of the road-killed animals he encountered on a drive from Oregon to Indiana. These essays showcase a thriving genre in the process of rupturing its constraints. Indeed, the range of topics and approaches here is so broad that it brings up the question: If this is nature writing, what is nature?

The best answer comes in Charles Bowden's "Love Among the Lion Killers," in which the author attends an Arizona conference on mountain lions and listens to the shoptalk of professional hunters whose careers consist of hunting down cougars suspected of killing calves or sheep. The cougar has survived hundreds of years of this pressure--it's still found throughout much of the west.

"You can hear a kind of love in their words," writes Bowden. "Without the cats they would not know who they are, would not have a clue. For the lion is something that exceeds their grasp; they have tried everything and still he exceeds their grasp, and from this fact, the love comes. The lion has kept the world from getting too small." This is not an easy love, certainly not for the lions. "It is not a normal love, or perhaps it is, but at any rate it is not the love we normally admit to. It is not a desire to share or nurture or protect. It is much stronger than that, more powerful in its effects. It is a desire to join them.

"So of course, we must kill them, kill every damn one of them."

Bowden's essay is memorable because it vividly etches human characters--not only the hunters but Harley Shaw, a wildlife biologist whose study of mountain lions has become an obsession. He has written a book about them in which he has lost scientific objectivity. "He has gotten too close, and he knows it," says Bowden. "'I have begun,' he writes, "to dislike the ways humans view themselves.' He has begun to see the world through a lion's eyes--he cannot see that world, he has learned too much, sensed too much to ever think he can see that world, but he has a feel for its presence, and that has changed how the things now look through his eyes. Now he is there, he is so close, it is all in his notes, in his mind, in his senses as he thinks about lions, and it is not nearly enough, barely a beginning. He has about studied himself out of a profession: biologist. As he notes dryly of his work, 'You will be forced to reexamine your beliefs.' . . . 'Out there,' he says suddenly, 'out there alone without tools without shelter without food. Down deep I have an image of myself as being totally wild. And I know I never will.'"

Bowden's description of real characters engaged in a quest for something larger than themselves makes his essay a small masterpiece--compelling reading not just for those interested in wildlife but for those interested in people.

It is difficult to separate the aesthetics of nature writing from its ethics. The essays in this book have this in common: the authors believe that whatever is "out there" is worth writing about, that it is as important as the endeavors that go on indoors. This is in itself a political stance that may be subversive--in the United States, preservation of natural values has generally taken a backseat to the ideals of economic expansion and progress. There are writers who primarily celebrate nature and others who primarily elegize it, but still it's hard to find anyone who writes about nature who does not in some way speak for its preservation.

Granting importance to nature by writing or reading about it encourages morality in our dealings with nature. Diane Ackerman wrote in one of her articles on animals in the New Yorker, "There is a way of beholding nature that is itself a form of prayer." The idea that humans should expand their ethical community to include animals, plants, even mountains and rivers is so prevalent in contemporary nature writing that it seems almost an inherent quality of the genre.

Here, for example, is Barry Lopez at the end of his cross-country drive, in the course of which he has stopped dozens of times to move dead animals off the road: "I stand in the driveway now, listening to the cicadas whirring in the dark tree. My hands grip the sill of the open window at the driver's side, and I lean down as if to speak to someone still sitting there. The weight I wish to fall I cannot fathom, a sorrow over the world's dark hunger.

"A light comes on over the porch. I hear a dead bolt thrown, the shiver of a door pulled free. The words of atonement I pronounce are too inept to offer me release. Or forgiveness. My friend is floating across the tree-shadowed lawn. What is to be done with the desire for exculpation?

"'Later than we thought you'd be,' he says.

"I do not want the lavabo. I wish to make amends.

"'I made more stops than I thought I would,' I answer."

Our response to the loss of unspoiled nature, to environmental degradation, is to some extent responsible both for the writing of these essays and for the interest readers have in them. One of the authors, Jack Turner, writes that despite all the news about environmental problems concern for the environment is still largely marginal in our society. He writes that it is "at best, controversial, and at worst, improper, to have strong moral feelings about the treatment of animals, plants, and places--an emotional mistake--like being in love with the number 2. . . . Criticize the greed of the rich and you are envious; become enraged at the killing of a hundred thousand dolphins every year and you are infantile; protest the FBI's harassment of dissident organizations and you have a problem with authority; condemn the state for exposing citizens to radiation from nuclear testing and you are unpatriotic. This reduction of social criticism to private defect is incessant in our culture. . . . We end up feeling helpless, and since it is human nature to want to avoid feeling helpless, we become dissociated, cynical, and depressed."

What was remarkable about Thoreau was that he felt no compunction about standing up for his beliefs (such as going to jail for a night to protest a poll tax, the experience that was the basis for "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience") and about being an oddball. He was not afraid to be angry, to provoke his readers into questioning long-held beliefs. His writing is aggravating precisely because it hits home; it raises questions we'd rather not think about. I would suggest that the contemporary nature writing that will be worth reading time and time again will probably do the same thing. It will raise questions like "Love Among the Lion Killers" does: What do we love about nature? How does it affect our lives? Do we love it enough to fight to protect it? What, finally, is nature writing all about?

I would suggest, as Turner does, that it is about celebration of the wild, the stuff out there, and mourning its loss. "What, exactly, is the 'it' we are trying to save in all the national parks, wilderness areas, sanctuaries, and zoos?" Turner asks. "What are we traveling abroad to find? I suggest that part of the answer is this: something connected with our home."

I think people write about nature as a means of hanging on to the natural world, of striving for--as Thoreau wrote about the Maine mountains--"rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact!" It is an attempt to mimic in language the experience of being "out there," an effort to create a modest sort of permanence out of transience.

The current popularity of nature writing may be attributed partly to the great impermanence of our landscapes. Childhood woods are turned into shopping malls, fields become subdivisions, rivers are dammed. There are few places where natural processes retain the upper hand. Writing, and reading, is a way to hang on to a place. It is to be hoped that its effects may be seen not only in our minds but "out there," in the natural world over which we have acquired such power.

On Nature's Terms edited by Thomas J. Lyon and Peter Stine, Texas A & M University Press, $35 (cloth), $14.95 (paper).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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