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Book Review

Anthology goes from Walden Pond to global warming

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Chuck Leddy
August 4, 2008

American Earth: Environmental
Writing Since Thoreau

Edited by Bill McKibben;
Foreword by Al Gore
Library of America, 997 pp., with illustrations, $40

Author Bill McKibben, a leading voice in the fight against global warming, has collected pieces from more than 100 writers in an eclectic anthology of the best environmental writing from the early 19th century to the present. He begins at Concord's Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau lived in a cabin observing nature and learning the lessons it had to offer: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach." McKibben asserts that Thoreau pioneered American environmentalism and "seems to be speaking directly to our moment."

Other environmental pioneers are well-represented, from John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club) to Rachel Carson (whose "Silent Spring" revolutionized the public's view of hazardous chemicals) to John Steinbeck (his novel "The Grapes of Wrath" publicized the tragic 1930s plight of Dust Bowl farmers). Muir viewed exposure to nature as essential for human fulfillment: "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike." Muir denounced those who would exploit nature for profit, "eagerly trying to make everything immediately and selfishly commercial."

Muir found a champion in President Theodore Roosevelt, who promoted a policy of preservation through the National Parks system. McKibben includes a 1903 speech Roosevelt gave at the Grand Canyon: "Leave it as it is," said Roosevelt, "You cannot improve on it . . . man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children, and all who come after you."

Carson is another essential inclusion in this anthology. Her 1962 book "Silent Spring" (which McKibben excerpts) described the devastation pesticides like DDT were unleashing on animals, humans, and the environment. It was Carson, McKibben writes, who challenged the idea that economic development was unquestionably a good thing and showed that "modernity was not as problem-free as we might have imagined."

McKibben also fills his anthology with several quirky, surprising selections. We get song lyrics from Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, and Marvin Gaye. There are poems by Walt Whitman and Robinson Jeffers, and terrific essays from E.B. White and Alice Walker. There are even a few comics by Robert Crumb. Most surprising, McKibben includes a piece from circus impresario P.T. Barnum speaking out against the blight of billboards that pockmark the natural landscape: "It is an atrocious piece of vulgarity," writes Barnum, "to flaunt the names of quack nostrums, and the coarse stimulants of sots, among the beautiful scenes of nature."

For anyone seeking to understand the historical and intellectual roots of today's environmental movement, "American Earth" is the best resource between two covers. "The fight continues," writes McKibben, "the words of this anthology are still in play."

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

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