Here is a description of perfect bliss: “A new anthology underneath the bough,/A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou/Beside me, reading of the wilderness/From “Nature Writing: The Tradition in English,” aloud.” Apologies to “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.”
Actually, it isn’t necessary to be sitting underneath a bough to savor this splendid new edition of “The Norton Book of Nature Writing.” It isn’t even necessary to like nature. The essential thing is to relish good prose, with which this marvellous anthology teems.
English literature began in England and so, unsurprisingly, does nature writing in English. I hadn’t heard of Gilbert White, but his “Natural History of Selborne” (1789), which begins “Nature Writing,” is a sort of fountainhead, according to the editors. Succeeding names are more familiar: Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet’s sister, walking over the Somerset hills with Coleridge; the rural poet John Clare; Darwin riding a tortoise in the Galapagos Islands; Charles Kingsley, most exuberant of Victorians, affirming that even a “black, slimy, knotted lump” of a parasitic worm shows forth the glory of God; Virginia Woolf musing on the death of a moth; D.H. Lawrence rhapsodizing over the flowers of Tuscany. Surprisingly, there is not much from the rest of the British Empire. Didn't Stanley or Livingston keep a journal?
In a poem to his mistress, Donne calls her “my America, my new-found land!” When English literature arrived here in Eden, nature writing reached its apogee. The first third of the anthology contains a string of excerpts from American classics of the genre that together make up a kind of national narrative. Emerson returns from walking the Concord woods to record sublime thoughts in his journal, as well as some earthy ones, like: “ All the thoughts of a turtle are turtle.” Thoreau immortalizes an epic clash of red and black ants. Lewis and Clark paddle up the Missouri River, amazed by “immence [sic] quantities of game in every direction around us.” John James Audubon celebrates the strength and fierceness of the bald eagle, apt symbol of “a great people living in a state of peaceful freedom.” Whitman, always questing after America’s soul, argues that for all the glories of Yellowstone and Yosemite, “the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.”
Mark Twain looks back at life as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, glad to have mastered the language of the water but sorry that in the process “all the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river.” John Wesley Powell runs the Colorado River rapids and watches clouds playing in the Grand Canyon. Near the end of the century, at the end of the continent, John Muir climbs a tall Douglas spruce to watch a windstorm in the Sierra Nevada and sees “light running in ripples and broad swelling undulations across the valleys from ridge to ridge, as the shining foliage was stirred by corresponding waves of air. Often these waves of reflected light would break up suddenly into a kind of beaten foam, and again, after chasing one another in regular order, they would seem to bend forward in concentric curves, and disappear on some hillside, like sea-waves on a shelving shore. The quantity of light reflected from the bent needles was so great as to make whole groves appear as if covered with snow … .” With this ecstatic description, a large chapter in the history of American imagination comes to an end: the encounter of European Americans with this continent’s peerless natural beauty.
In the twentieth century, a soberer tone creeps in. While some Americans had been studying or singing nature, others had been subduing and even pillaging it. It began to dawn on thoughtful Americans that nature was taking a beating. The disappearance of the buffalo was the first shock, followed by the destruction of Hetch Hechy Valley in the Sierras for the sake of Los Angeles’ water supply, the damming of the Colorado and Columbia Rivers, the dust bowls, strip mining, clear-cutting, overgrazing, air pollution, acid rain, and the near extermination of wolves, grizzlies, mountain lions, eagles, and the continent’s original human fauna.
This sad history has produced a literature of lament and protest, well represented in the anthology. Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” (1949) is a milestone in this literature, with its influential advocacy of a “land ethic” and an “ecological conscience” and its famous meditation on how mountains feel about wolves. Rachel Carson is here, with a lyrical excerpt from “The Edge of the Sea.” Wallace Stegner’s great elegy for Glen Canyon (now beneath Lake Powell) is here, along with his quietly eloquent “Wilderness Letter.” Gary Snyder mourns the redwoods of the Northwest; and Edward Abbey growls at the rest of us to stay away from his beloved Southwest. Wendell Berry – our Thoreau, brooding in his native Kentucky woods – observes bitterly that “ours is a ‘civilization’ of which the work of no builder or artist is symbol, nor the life of any good man, but rather the bulldozer, the poison spray, the hugging fire of napalm, the cloud of Hiroshima.” At the end of “Nature Writing,” a thousand pages after Emerson’s “Nature,” comes Bill McKibben’s deeply wise “The End of Nature.” It will bear comparison with its great predecessor, though infinitely sadder.
There’s plenty of fun, though, on the way to the anthology’s tragic ending. There’s genial William Bartram, an 18th-century traveller in the Carolina swamps, slapping away voracious, 20-foot-long alligators from his canoe. There’s Farley Mowat, stumbling and tumbling in the Yukon, watched by the bemused wolves whom he’s supposed to be observing. There’s Archie Carr’s account of a courtship of sloths in Costa Rica, and Noel Perrin’s account of psychological warfare with his pigs in Vermont.
There’s horror, too: Franklin Russell’s day on Funk Island off Newfoundland, a large rock covered with hundreds of thousands of filthy, screaming auks. And there’s simple joy of writing: Nabokov on his love of butterflies and, even better, Norman Maclean on fly-fishing in Montana.
In “Walking” – perhaps the best thing in “Nature Writing” and one of the summits of American letters – Thoreau asks: “Where is the literature which gives expression to Nature?” Look no further; it’s here, in this magnificent anthology.