Sick of nature
Today's nature writing is too often pious, safe, boring. Haven't these people re-read Thoreau lately?
I AM SICK of nature. Sick of trees, sick of birds, sick of the ocean. It's been almost four years now, four years of sitting quietly in my study and sipping tea and contemplating the migratory patterns of the semipalmated plover. Four years of writing essays praised as "quiet" by quiet magazines. Four years of having neighborhood children ask their fathers why the man down the street comes to the post office dressed in his pajamas ("Doesn't he work, Daddy?") or having those same fathers wonder why, when the man actually does dress, he dons the eccentric costume of an English bird watcher, complete with binoculars. And finally, four years of being constrained by the gentle straightjacket of the nature-writing genre; that is, four years of writing about the world without being able to use the earthier names for excrement (while talking a lot of scat).
Worse still, it's been four years of living within a literary form that, for all its wonder and beauty, can be a little like going to Sunday School. A strange Sunday School where I alternate between sitting in the pews (reading nature) and standing at the pulpit (writing nature). And not only do I preach from my pulpit, I preach to the converted. After all, who reads nature books? Fellow nature lovers who already believe that the land shouldn't be destroyed. Too often when I flip through the pages of contemporary nature books the tone is awed, hushed, reverential. The same things that drove me away from Sunday School. And the same thing that drove me, unable to resist my own buffoonery, to fart loudly against the pews.
As the 150th anniversary of "Walden" approaches on August 9, it may pay to remember that Thoreau's great book also has its share of fart jokes, including references to Pythagrians and their love of beans. Bad puns, too, but you get the feeling that that isn't what the anniversary party is going to focus on. Instead the same, tired old cut-out of Thoreau as nature saint will be dragged out, St. Francis of Concord, our sexless -- and increasingly lifeless -- hero. It makes you wonder if anyone's actually taken the time to read his strange and wild book lately. If they did they would find sentences that fulfill Emerson's epigram: "My moods hate each other." Sentences that are, in turn, defensive and direct, arch and simple, upright and sensual, over-literary (even for the times) and raw. Of course I'm not claiming that Thoreau's book is free of nature reverence, just that the pious tone is often contradicted -- delightfully, thornily -- by moments like his confession that, for all his reasoned vegetarianism, "I could sometimes eat a fried rat with good relish, if it were necessary."
In fact one of the interesting subplots of "Walden" is the fight between Thoreau the prude and Thoreau the crude. For a ringside seat, open to the chapter called "Higher Laws." Here Henry's dainty shudders rise off the page as he bemoans our "reptile and sensual life," the messy side of existence that would include the sex he rarely -- if ever -- had. But if we tire of this schoolmarm railing against the sins of the flesh we need only flip back to the chapter's opening lines, where we encounter Thoreau almost overcome by his urge to mug a woodchuck. In fact he is so aroused by the furry rodent that he feels "a strange thrill of savage delight," and is "strongly tempted to devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for the wildness he represented."
It is precisely that wildness that is missing from so much of our contemporary nature writing. There's lots of wilderness, sure, but one of the things that is lost is the element of quest -- of personal wildness -- or what we might call the Montaignean aspect of Thoreau's book. Strange that a book like "Walden," so outside of genre and driven by such a boldly personal and idiosyncratic quest -- "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. . ." -- should have created a genre that is so often dry and impersonal.
As with so many endeavors, nature writing has become specialized and polarized. On the one hand there is the generally healthy movement from the anthropocentric to the biocentric, from human-focused to world-focused, a movement that Thoreau anticipated late in his life with his more scientific writing. This movement has led to some fine objective writing, but it has also led to many dull pages, exhaustive and occasionally exhausting works. The problem is that most readers are human beings and therefore naturally interested in the human. The driving youthful question that enlivened "Walden" -- "How to live?" -- has been all but forgotten.
Or usurped by the opposite camp. At the other pole are writers with a too easy access to the "spiritual," writers who replace hard-won thought with idealized references to Native Americans and who repeat the word "wonder" over and over. Theirs is a cloying and simplistic philosophy of "nature is good," and they see symbols in every acorn. Nature becomes a kind of bland church, and these writers seem intent on smearing themselves with what Mark Twain called "soul butter." Long gone are the fried rats.
Of course I am loath to name names, lest the nature-writing mafia turn on me. But this tendency afflicts even the genre's best and most original writers. Wendell Berry, for instance, the prolific essayist and Kentucky farmer who has truly taken up Thoreau's mantle of both quest and nonconformity, slips at times into a kind of high-priest tone, a too certain voice in this wildly uncertain world, one that begins to sound a lot like agrarian bullying. Farming, he tells us (in one admittedly beautiful passage), "is, in an ancient sense, the human lot." But there are those of us who are more in touch with our ancient hunters -- our inner woodchuck muggers -- than with our inner farmers.
And while Barry Lopez's much-revered "Arctic Dreams" displays a remarkable empathy with the nonhuman, at times the book seems written by and for a creature other than a human being, as if Lopez has forgotten that people, not polar bears or narwhals, are his readers.
. . .
Meanwhile anyone who writes about a bug or tree is called the "Thoreau" of this or that place. Edward Abbey, who celebrated and fought for the southwestern desert and won fame for his 1975 novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang" (about an activist plot to blow up the Glen Canyon dam), once complained that nature writers, "like vacuum cleaner salesmen . . . scramble for exclusive territory on this oversold, swarming, shriveling planet." It's only gotten worse in the years since Abbey's early death in 1989. As the world grows more crowded, our fiefdoms shrink. No less than the much reviled developers, we nature writers scurry to make a living off the land and scenery, subdividing and developing new areas.
And it's not only our plots of land that are smaller. Observe that freakish character -- The Incredible Shrinking Nature Writer. If you drew us to scale and made Thoreau a giant, and placed Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson at about his shoulder, you could keep drawing us smaller and smaller until you sketched in me and my crop of peers at insect size. It may be, as some suggest, that our time marks a renaissance of nature writing. But it's a renaissance of ants.
If nature writing is to prove worthy of a new, more noble name, it must become less genteel and it must expand considerably. It's time to take down the "No Trespassing" signs. Time for a radical cross-pollination of genres. Why not let farce occasionally bully its way into the nature essay? Or tragedy? Or sex? How about more writing that spills and splashes over the seawall between fiction and nonfiction? How about some retrograde essayist who suddenly breaks into verse like the old timers? How about some African-American nature writers? (There are currently more black players in the NHL than in the Nature Writing League.) How about somebody other than Abbey who will admit to having a drink in nature? (As if most of us don't tote booze as well as binoculars into the back-country.) And how about a nature writer who actually seems to have a job?
Perhaps Abbey, who worked for years as a fire lookout and park ranger, provides a hopeful example. Despite his tendencies toward bumper-sticker humor, or maybe in part because of it, his best books, like "Desert Solitaire" (his classic 1968 memoir of Utah's canyonlands), display a personality -- by turns angry, self-righteous, rapt, gruff, delighted and just plain silly -- every bit as varied and ornery as Thoreau's. Though Abbey had his obvious (macho) flaws -- and led a very un-Thoreauvian life, with many offspring from many wives -- he wrote sentences that had the advantage of being alive on the page: there is a sense of quest and, furthermore, of something urgent at stake in that quest.
Consider this passage on snakes, from "Desert Solitaire": "I'm in the stifling heat of the trailer opening a can of beer, barefooted, about to go out and relax after a hard day of watching cloud formations. I happen to glance out the window and see two gopher snakes on my verandah engaged in what seems to be a kind of ritual dance." Typically he doesn't waste any time getting down on the ground: "I crawl within six feet of them and stop, flat on my belly, watching from a snake's eye level." After some fretting about anthropomorphizing (a label often pasted on any writer who dares to stray from the strictly scientific), the passage turns into a consideration of the kindred spirits of man and animal. And it only works because he has gotten down and dirty.
Were Abbey alive today, he wouldn't be entirely without good company. For instance there's his vital and prickly Western heir, Jack Turner of Wyoming, whose book "The Abstract Wild" thumbs its nose at much of the current accepted biological dogma, including the need for biological controls and radio collaring in the name of science, with real gusto. And there's the delightfully unsentimental Joy Williams, whose recent collection "Ill Nature" rants joyfully against hunting and baby-worship and in favor of a radical animal-rights agenda. And, not to ignore the more biocentric writers, there's Carl Safina, whose "Eye of the Albatross" has plenty of paragraphs on primary feathers and lice and breeding habits, but who also conveys a constant sense of why these things matter, not just to the birds but to us, and how -- in the words of another chronicler of the albatross, Samuel Taylor Coleridge -- "we are all one life."
Which is the point after all. By cordoning nature off as something separate from ourselves and by writing about it that way, we kill both the genre and a part of ourselves. The best writing in this genre is not really "nature writing" anyway but human writing that just happens to take place in nature. And the reason we are still talking about "Walden" 150 years later is as much for the personal story as the pastoral one: a single human being, wrestling mightily with himself, trying to figure out how best to live during his brief time on earth, and, not least of all, a human being who has the nerve, talent, and raw ambition to put that wrestling match on display on the printed page. The human spilling over into the wild, the wild informing the human; the two always intermingling. There's something to celebrate.
David Gessner, who lives part of the year on Cape Cod, is the author of four books, including the newly published "Sick of Nature" (Dartmouth), a collection of essays.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.