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A Distinctively American Genre : THIS INCOMPERABLE LANDE: A Book of American Nature Writing , edited by Thomas J. Lyon (Houghton-Mifflin: $29.95; 495 pp.; 0-395-48312-3) : PENGUIN NATURE LIBRARY, Edward Hoagland, general editor , (Penguin: varying prices and lengths , paper)

June 04, 1989|Bill McKibben | "The End of Nature," McKibben's book on the greenhouse effect, will be published by Random House in the fall. and

John Burroughs was an odd sort of nature writer. Disdaining exploration and adventure, he stayed put in the gentle Catskill mountains of his birth. He would venture forth occasionally--Teddy Roosevelt asked him along on his presidential visits to the western parks--but he was invariably unimpressed. Yellowstone's geysers struck him as "out of place, as if nature had made a mistake," he suggested that their power be harnessed to heat the nearby hotels. When he visited Yosemite, he sulked till he spotted a robin, "the first I had seen since leaving home."

But Burroughs was the most popular author of his day. He wrote with splendid joy about the small and common sights that mark the outdoors for most of us--the chipmunk looking nervously about as he forages, the first warbler of spring. "Two or three woodchucks, which I bagged with my eye, completed my afternoon's adventures"--that's a typical entry in his book of days. He led a normal life, at least compared to naturalists like Thoreau. He had a wife, a house, children. Decent, balanced, sensible, he should be the patron saint of anyone with a cottage in the mountains, blessing each Friday night rush out of town with a fat jay out the cabin window on Saturday morning.

He is little read, now, though, his cozy domestic epiphanies forgotten. Indeed, they sound quaint. As Thomas J. Lyon's sterling new anthology of American nature writing, "This Incomperable Lande," makes clear simply through its chronological order, Burroughs is about at the fulcrum point of the American response to nature. More than the early explorers and taxonomists, he understands that man does not necessarily improve the wilderness by his presence. But he does not want to part company with human society, in the fashion of his great contemporary John Muir and the many writers who followed Muir's lead.

So it is tragic to read Burroughs and realize that his rational vision of a world where normal, advanced human society would nonetheless understand and respect nature represented a way out, a reasonable choice between ceaseless plunder and living in a teepee. His message, though it created, in the words of Paul Brooks, "an army of nature students," did not carry the day. Our relentless growth in numbers and prosperity inexorably placed more weight on the human side of the scale, inexorably reduced the area of the wild.

And inexorably produced an ever more militant argument in favor of nature and against man--an argument that, at least in Lyon's anthology, reaches its high-water mark in the recent writings of Edward Abbey, the Arizona author who died this spring. Abbey was in some sense a misanthrope; he looked forward to some environmental cataclysm that would dramatically reduce human numbers. Burroughs once remarked on his joy that a neighbor had cleared a field, that land "whose slumbers had never been disturbed with the plough was soon knee-high with Hungarian grass. How one likes to see betterment of the land like that." Abbey, who advocated destroying bulldozers before they could build new roads, had a different view; he loved the desert precisely because it had "no meaning but its own existence."

Along this time line, from early awe to late rage, one finds much of the best writing America has produced. The nature essay is the most distinctively American form; it is largely unknown in much of Europe, those places where the subjugation of the wild preceded the development of literature. Lyon's anthology--the finest collection of nature writing ever assembled--includes a 77-page bibliography. It is by no means exhaustive (Lyon says bibliography of literature about the Adirondack mountains alone runs 354 pages--and that's only through 1955) but I have no complaints with it. All the giants are listed: Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Wood Krutch, Barry Lopez, George Perkins Marsh, Peter Matthiessen, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and so on, page after page, classic after classic.

Lyon's selections from these writers are equally sound. Thoreau (the great anachronism in the time line I've drawn, a writer more interested in human than environmental redemption) is represented by "Walking," an essay as wide-ranging as "Civil Disobedience" or the first half of "Walden." Muir's contribution, "The Water Ouzel," limns that bird with happy precision.

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