Nature Writing in All Its Diversity

By Gregory McNamee,
author of "Gila: The Life and Death of an American River," "The Mountain World" and other books
Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Edited by Bill McKibben

Library of America. 1,047 pp. $40

Colonial Americans didn't have much use for the wild, for what one Puritan leader characterized as a "savage, howling wilderness." The territory beyond the fall line was inhospitable and dangerous, fit mostly for bears, Indians and wolves, as to the destruction of which, wrote one observer in 1634, there was "little hope . . . the country being so spacious and they so numerous." If there was any good in the New World, those Colonials thought, it would be found in the settled places they had wrested from the obdurate ground, cities on hills surrounded by the hostile woods.

A couple of centuries later, with hundreds of thousands of people settled in the Ohio Valley and westward to the Mississippi, the backcountry was both an abstraction of empire-building politicians and a concrete thing to be subdued by lesser beings. Only a few oddballs, Henry David Thoreau notable among them, seemed to miss the Indians and the wild woods much. As Rebecca Solnit has observed, Thoreau "spent a lot of time imaginatively repopulating with Indians the woods around Concord, and even prepared quantities of notes for a never-attempted history of Native America."

Today, many environmental historians consider Thoreau and his 1854 memoir, "Walden," to mark the beginning of the environmental thought that would flourish with the arrival of John Burroughs, John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson in the coming decades. Thoreau was not the first writer to celebrate the American land -- his intellectual ancestors include John and William Bartram, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Garden -- but he is our watershed, and Bill McKibben's wide-ranging anthology of modern American nature writing rightly begins with him, even if the canonical Thoreau is among the most heavily anthologized of American writers already.

McKibben brings solid credentials to the work as both a nature writer and an anthologist (of John Burroughs). Moreover, he is a reader, and even a glance at the table of contents of "American Earth," a volume in the estimable Library of America, indicates he has labored hard in the vineyards of the nation's literature to make it. Thoreau has been reprinted again and again, to be sure, but Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791-1865) has not. The opening line of her largely forgotten poem "Fallen Forests" is enough to suggest her place in the genealogy: "Man's warfare on the trees is terrible." And if her language is a little musty by modern lights, it merits a fresh hearing all the same.

Sigourney is not the only writer whom McKibben rescues from obscurity; it's always good to hear from Howard Zahniser, Kenneth E. Boulding and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, who still have much to tell us. More, he reintroduces writers such as Walt Whitman and Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of James, as ecological pioneers -- in Cooper's case, for having been perhaps the first American writer to call attention to the remaking of the landscape by invasive species: "The burdock and nettle, and thistle, &c., &c. are growing too plentifully under fences, and in waste spots; chickweed and purslane, &c., &c., spring up in the paths and beds so freely and so boldly, that it is the chief labor of the month to wage war upon their tribe." The anthology contains work by the usual suspects: Muir, Carson, Edward Abbey, Barry Lopez and lately Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver. They have been seen before, but they are particularly at home here.

What truly sets the anthology apart is not the mix of the obscure and the familiar but McKibben's habit of enlisting voices whom we are not accustomed to thinking of as environmentalists or ecologists. I'd be willing to bet that this is the first work of nature writing to feature the drawings of R. Crumb, of Zap Comix fame, alongside lyrics by Marvin Gaye ("Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas/Fish full of mercury") and a lively poem that should put Don Marquis, of "archy & mehitabel" renown, on any government watch list of eco-radicals ("america was once a paradise/of timberland and stream/but it is dying because of the greed/and money lust of a thousand little kings"). A note to the watchers and listmakers out there: Marquis died in 1937.

Well selected, full of surprises and informed by McKibben's thoughtful commentary, "American Earth" is the first anthology of American nature writing to come close to the standard Thomas Lyon set two decades ago with " 'This Incomperable Lande': A Book of American Nature Writing." Ours is an incomparable land indeed, and McKibben's collection is a welcome reminder.

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