Imagine this: You meet her in the middle of the trail, a lithe bird watcher all aflutter as she fondles a standard-looking field guide. What makes her chest heave more deeply now than under the strain of the climb, you wonder? Why do rivulets of perspiration still trickle down her trembling thighs?
Easing the book from her caress, you realize that this field guide takes an unusual approach to the birds and the bees. It may look identical to the classic Audubon encyclopedia of flora and fauna, but "The Field Guide to Outdoor Erotica" gives fresh meaning to the term nature lovers.
Iver Nelson and his wife, Patricia Hart, came up with the idea for a book of outdoor erotica a couple years ago, while making the long, dull drive from Seattle to Moscow, Ida., where they run a small publishing house.
Till then, the raciest volume their Solstice Press had published was probably Myrna Oakley's guide "Bed & Breakfast: Northwest." But the Nelsons knew that recent books such as the collection of women's fantasies, "Ladies Own Erotica," Nancy Friday's "Forbidden Flowers," and Lonnie Barbach's "Pleasures" had stimulated a hot little market for safe but steamy fare.
At first, the writers contacted for the guide were a bit nervous about exposing themselves so completely in print, Nelson said. But assured that only non-oppressive, nonviolent, nonsexist work would make the cut, about 75 contributors were persuaded to send in sensual stories set deep in the folds of hidden canyons or atop pinnacles, in pounding waves or--stretching things, perhaps--in the back seat of a '63 Buick Wildcat convertible.
Diana Armstrong, editor of the University of Idaho's alumni magazine, was one of the 17 uninhibited authors and poets whose work was finally chosen for the guide.
"I figured my story was only a 2 or 3 on the tingle meter," she said of her fictional encounter with a stranger who stirs her passion "because the late sun has struck him golden, because his chest is scattered with bright water drops and his eyes are the color of bosque, lichen, moss. . . . "
But a friend of Armstrong's, whose two stories plunge quickly from the lukewarm--"the grass was velvety under her hips"--into prose that would ignite the blood of a glacier-entombed mountaineer, chose to use a pseudonym. The writer's husband, Armstrong explained, is a scholar in the staid English department of a local university--where, apparently, ribaldry is tolerated only in the work of a Shakespeare or Rabelais.
Elsewhere, though, there seems to be increasing respect for art and literature that successfully hikes a fine line between the mainstream and smut.
Readers of such highbrow periodicals as Harper's and the Atlantic, for instance, have for several months now been thumbing past ads for "Yellow Silk," a Berkeley-based Journal of Erotic Arts, which has tempted writers the likes of Ntozake Shange and feminist Susan Griffin to express themselves between its stylishly illustrated sheets.
"It's time to re-eroticize sex," psychologist Stella Resnick writes in the July issue of Self magazine, where she speculates that the increased popularity of the genre may stem, in part, from growing fear of AIDS.
Still a Gimmick
For their part, the folks at Solstice Press readily admit that their "field guide" approach is a gimmick. But "there is something erotic about the outdoors," Nelson said.
"Natural beauty . . . arouses erotic energy," said contributor Rita Speicher, a novelist living in Provincetown, Mass.
And conversely, "Wild nature . . . is enriched by sensuality," Michael Frome, a well-known conservationist, writes in his story of love and lust on a horse pack trip through the mountains of Yellowstone National Park. Whether sex occurs or not, he said in an interview, a canopy of stars draped over a forest or canyon is "a great arena for human companionship."
"Exploring eroticism outside is kind of fun and daring, since we all live behind four walls and do things so privately most of the time," contributor Lin Colson said by phone, as she stirred up a pesto dinner for friends in her Moscow, Ida., home.
"But then, I think it would be equally fun to do a guide to kitchen erotica," she said. "In fact that's a great idea. I think I'll call (Solstice Press) right now. "