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Sunday, August 1, 2004

Against 'St. Francis of Concord.'

Hurray! David Gessner blows a raspberry at contemporary nature writing — "a literary form that, for all its wonder and beauty, can be a little like going to Sunday School."

As the 150th anniversary of "Walden" approaches on August 9, it may pay to remember that Thoreau's great book also has its share of fart jokes, including references to Pythagrians and their love of beans. Bad puns, too, but you get the feeling that that isn't what the anniversary party is going to focus on. Instead the same, tired old cut-out of Thoreau as nature saint will be dragged out, St. Francis of Concord, our sexless — and increasingly lifeless — hero. It makes you wonder if anyone's actually taken the time to read his strange and wild book lately. If they did they would find sentences that fulfill Emerson's epigram: "My moods hate each other." Sentences that are, in turn, defensive and direct, arch and simple, upright and sensual, over-literary (even for the times) and raw. Of course I'm not claiming that Thoreau's book is free of nature reverence, just that the pious tone is often contradicted — delightfully, thornily — by moments like his confession that, for all his reasoned vegetarianism, "I could sometimes eat a fried rat with good relish, if it were necessary." . . .

As with so many endeavors, nature writing has become specialized and polarized. On the one hand there is the generally healthy movement from the anthropocentric to the biocentric, from human-focused to world-focused, a movement that Thoreau anticipated late in his life with his more scientific writing. This movement has led to some fine objective writing, but it has also led to many dull pages, exhaustive and occasionally exhausting works. The problem is that most readers are human beings and therefore naturally interested in the human. The driving youthful question that enlivened "Walden" — "How to live?" — has been all but forgotten.

Or usurped by the opposite camp. At the other pole are writers with a too easy access to the "spiritual," writers who replace hard-won thought with idealized references to Native Americans and who repeat the word "wonder" over and over. Theirs is a cloying and simplistic philosophy of "nature is good," and they see symbols in every acorn. Nature becomes a kind of bland church, and these writers seem intent on smearing themselves with what Mark Twain called "soul butter." Long gone are the fried rats.

If you've found yourself feeling a bit oppressed by the nature-writing pious — say, if you're a Unitarian Universalist minister and just can't bring yourself to read "Wild Geese" one more time — read the rest of Gessner's essay. You'll still have to work that poem into one or two services a year, because it is Holy Writ, but you'll feel a lot better.

I used to read a lot of nature writing after falling in love with Walden: lots of Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, and Edward Abbey, mostly, even Terry Tempest Williams's Refuge and Mary Oliver's poetry (which haven't really left a lasting impression), but my most intense literary crush was Loren Eiseley, the brooding anthropologist whose book The Unexpected Universe was the subject of my over-written college honors thesis. Since then, I've had a terrible time trying to read much more in the genre. Gessner recommends Jack Turner, Joy Williams, and Carl Safina — and UU World's Thoreau retrospective reviewer Rich Higgins adds Mary Rose O'Reilly and Ian Marshall — so maybe I have some new points of entry. Gruff, edgy, and lyrical: that's what I want in a nature book. Nature isn't nice, so why should nature writing be?

("Sick of Nature," David Gessner, Boston Globe 8.1.04)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 1 August 2004 at 9:52 AM

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August 2, 2004 01:49 PM | Permalink for this comment


If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend "Crossing Open Ground" by Barry Lopez, still my favorite nature writer. Passionate stuff.


August 3, 2004 02:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'd like to add Edward Hoagland to this list (the July '04 issue of 'Harper's' magazine is a recent example).


August 6, 2004 04:51 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'll never forget how a friend made our college English teacher loose it by saying that Thoreau was very Victorian. When pressed by the teacher my friend pointed out that Henry David never talked about masturbating or what he used to wipe himself.

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