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The New Naturalists : In a High-Tech World, a Generation of Writers Yearningly Looks to the Environment as a Key to the Human Condition

January 03, 1988|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.

--Aldo Leopold, from "A Sand County Almanac"

A lot of people got their first feel for the land by pushing Tonka toys over knee-high mountains in an orange grove or vacant lot. But when many look back on the landscapes of their childhood, the most potent image that comes to mind is often of a full-sized yellow monster, growling ominously within a cloud of dust.

Wild space--whether it's a vacant lot or the Alaskan tundra--becomes an extension of a child's imagination, so the bulldozers that mow trees from a kid's stomping ground also rip at memories rooted in the only contact with pure freedom most humans ever have.

In the 1980s, a new generation of writers has found fertile creative turf in what's left of America's wild-land, and readers have developed an increasingly voracious appetite for what they produce.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 10, 1988 Home Edition View Part 6 Page 10 Column 3 View Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
In a Jan. 3 story about naturalist writers, a 1980 Mentor New American Library anthology of nature writing was incorrectly identified. The correct title is "The Wilderness Reader," edited by Frank Bergon.

Last fall saw the release of a 25th anniversary edition of Rachel Carson's landmark alarum of environmental danger, "Silent Spring." This spring, a 20th anniversary edition of Edward Abbey's pivotal "Desert Solitaire" will arrive in bookstores.

Those masters and the writers following in their footsteps are receiving a lot of attention right now. The literary journal Antaeus devoted an entire issue to nature writing in 1986; the Sierra Club's 1987 collection, "Words for the Wild," and the New American Library's 1980 "Voices in the Wilderness" are reportedly selling well; nature literature will be examined in at least two new anthologies scheduled for publication this year, including "Listening to the Land," edited by nature writer and photographer Stephen Trimble; and a Norton Anthology of nature writing--an important milestone for a genre--is due out next year.

Finding a 'Connection'

"I think our ecological and social situations have gotten serious enough that people are looking to writers who've made a connection, who've found a healthy relationship with nature," said Tom Lyon, who teaches nature literature at Utah State University in Logan and is editing one of the coming anthologies.

"My ambition has been to offer some small moments of constructive disorientation in the way nature is seen and thought about," David Quammen says in his collection of essays, "Natural Acts." So he writes tributes to the intelligence of crows, the durability of cockroaches and "the miracle of blubber."

"For insulation against heat loss, the pinnipeds rely on blubber. As an energy supplement during times when food is scarce, they metabolized their stored blubber. Giving them high buoyancy in the water, blubber; padding out their roundish shapes to reduce surface area and in that way further minimize the escape of their body heat, blubber; for hydrodynamic streamlining, blubber," he writes.

To compress the point he is making to generations of readers infatuated with technology--a central point of new naturalist writing: "You can't even do that with PolarGuard."

Drawing from a common heritage, the new naturalists--a dubious but functional title many of these writers dislike--have scattered in all directions to explore the natural world in all sorts of ways, and with various levels of talent.

In the modern tradition of Ann Zwinger, Edward Abbey and John McPhee, the latest generation of writers--a generation defined more by sensibility than age--make expeditions down rivers, reporting straight-ahead on who and what they find, as in Dean Krakel's "Downriver, A Yellowstone Journey," or with the river as foil for more cosmic explorations, as in neurobiologist William H. Calvin's "The River that Flows Uphill--a Journey from the Big Bang to the Big Brain."

In almost novelistic fashion, they scrutinize the environmental problems of a particular piece of turf, as in Alston Chase's "Playing God in Yellowstone," a painstaking account of how the National Park Service, through badly bungled wildlife management, is allegedly destroying "the birthplace of wilderness preservation."

If this new breed of naturalists has anything in common, other than a passionate enthusiasm for nature, it's a belief that modern people, like their ancestors, need to be grounded--that one figurative foot need be kept on the psychological, spiritual and intellectual terra firma of the natural world.

"We are lost on Earth unless we decide what we will call home," writes Oregon essayist Kim Stafford in "Having Everything Right." A lot of folks today share one NASA scientist's view that Earth is merely "an overnight campsite . . . an untidy place to be abandoned and forgotten," as the evolutionary voyage into the universe continues. But Stafford prefers to think that space travel will "help us to see what we have on Earth by seeing what the cold void lacks. . . ."

A succession of stories elicited from everyday people and small observations, Stafford's book adds up to a view of life and a primer for appreciating it.

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