At the mouth of the Bit River in California a timber company recently erected an immense, carved sign proclaiming, "Only God can make a tree -- and trees were made for use." That the earth and all creation exist solely to supply the needs and whims of man is a basic tenet of Judeo-Christian civilization, in contrast to the polytheistic, or pantheistic, cultures it supplanted world-wide. (Witness the metamorphosis of Christmas from a pagan solstice celebration of rebirth and renewal to its present orgy of unbridled consumption.) The plundering pioneer spirit that dispossessed North America's original inhabitants, created the Dust Bowl, Exterminated the passenger pigeon, poisoned the Great Lakes and carved the vast, eroding clear-cuts of the Northwest has its antecedents in a biblical philosophy which still prevails in western civilization:

"And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered . . . even as the green herb have I given you all things." (Genesis 9:2,3)

In a new land of seemingly limitless resources, this pre-Copernican view of man's place in the universe vindicated a greed that in the name of freedom spread like an unchecked virus over the North American continent, laying waste its soil, water, forests, plains and shores. Ingenious technologies capable of ever more efficient waste and destruction thrived on the Puritan premise that whatever is not useful to man is by definition evil, or at best superfluous. Early in the nation's history, however, a few eloquent souls rejected this doctrine which exempted man from the laws, checks and balances of the natural world. Most influential among them was Thoreau, whose prophetic sensibility inspired a powerful literature in defense of all vulnerble, non-human creation.

Speaking for Nature chronicles the evolution of that literature during the century between Thoreau's death and the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring -- a subverssive literature that radically altered this society's beliefs and introduced the novel concept of conservation as a function of government. Nineteenth-century science had not yet divorced itself from the broad realm of classical tradition, nor had it fragmented into narrow specialties. A naturalist then commanded the same respect due today to a nuclear physicist or microbiologist. In the urban society that flourished after the Civil War, the tremendous popularity of John Muir and John Burroughs stimulated a generation of "literary naturalists" (Thomas Starr King, Wilson Flagg, Sidney Lanier, Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, Ernest Thompson Seton, John Wesley Powell).

Author Paul Brooks examines the personal history of each in the context of his time, contemporaries and predecessors, and reviews the impact of his work on social values and public policy. This was a considerable and cumulative impact; to it Brooks attributes the creation of our first national parks ("a radical concept, unique to America, later imitated all over the world"), the establishment of our national forests, and the election in 1901 of a naturalist, Theodore Roosevelt, to the White House.

This period also saw the birth of Audubon Society, "conceived by a big-game hunter in the womb of a sportsmen's magazine," and the emergence of the Sierra Club from John Muir's Yosemite Defense Association. Women writers (Olive Thorne Miller, Mabel Osgood Wright, Florence Merriam, Gene Stratton-Porter) broke from a traditional role that confined their involvement with nature to flower study their books, essays, children's literature and active participation in the first Audubon societies had "an immeasurable impact on the whole conservation movement." Through the efforts of sportsmen to preserve and perpetuate their quarry and of literary naturalists to have something of unquantifiable value, conservation became a popular cause and a matter of public policy.

The 20th century brought two world wars, a burgeoning technology, the soul-numbing threat of nuclear annihilation, and the specialization of science into mystic realms inaccessible to the common citizen. Such immediate concerns presented a crucial challenge to the conservation movement. American writers met that challenge, among them Joseph Wood Krutch, William Beebe, Robert Cushman Murphy, William Vogt, and two remarkable Forest Service employees, Robert Marshall and Aldo Leopold.

They not only kept the cause alive, but elevated it to the status of a new ethic, the natural right of land and life to existence for its own ineffable sake. Their writings supplied a demoralized nation with much-needed ballast against technologies beyond its knowledge and control. "At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things," Thoreau wrote, "we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable . . . We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander." A Concord eccentric's vision was fulfilled by Congress in 1964 with passage of the Wilderness Act. A century of literature established finally the value of wilderness.

Brooks concludes his book with a brief, moving profile of Rachel Carson, portraying her not as an isolated phenomenon, but as a confluence of 100 years of science and literature that prepared the world for her message. In The Sea Around Us, Carson made accessible again the awe and excitement that have always been the pulse of science. "Poetry will never fail, nor science, nor the poetry of science," Sidney Lanier wrote a century ago. In Carson's Silent Spring, that poetry of science would alert the world to the Pandora's box that science itself had opened. "She was not only questioning that indiscriminate use of poisons but declaring the basic responsibility of an industrialized, technological society toward the natural world. This was her heresy. In eloquent and specific terms she set forth the philosophy of life that has given rise to today's environmental movement. . . . She managed to make this book about death a celebration of life."

Speaking for Nature portrays the conservation battle less as a conflict between exploiters and preservationists than as a "race between unbridled technology and public education." The achievements of literary naturalists in educating the public over the last 100 years have been extraordinary, but the race is far from done. Chemical and nuclear wastes, persistent toxic contaminants in our environment, the prospect of nuclear war, and the prodigal habits of a consumer society present greater threats than ever before to the only planet in the universe known to be capable of sustaining life. Paul Brooks' gracefully illustrated text, in the very tradition it honors, offers hope that reason and reverence -- the poetry of science -- will prevail.