The New Naturalists
by Thomas Rain Crowe
Here is his library, but his study
is out of doors.
(from Thoreau's Journals)
With issues such as development, zoning and land-use legislation, toxic waste, and air pollution almost constantly in the news these days here in western North Carolina, I've been thinking about this business of the desecration of the environment, and who might lead us out of this self-destructive paradigm that was set into motion with the Industrial Revolution and has continued to gather momentum in the last century and a half with the rise of free-market capitalism. Where are the "dirt-doctors," the earth healers? I keep asking myself. Where are the great charismatic voices in government that might begin the work of turning things around? And if not in government, then in the culture in general--where are our leaders? Looking in all the obvious places, it seems there is no one addressing the really pressing questions of our day: overpopulation, development, preservation and free-trade-capitalism.
It seems to me that it has always been the naturalists who have led the way toward more progressive thinking where questions of balance and sustainability are concerned, that it is the nature writers who have positioned themselves on the front lines of the myriad battles to save and preserve the environment. And through their writings, they have sown the seeds that would sprout as ecological movements, private foundations and governmental programs focused on the long view where the welfare of the country's and the planet's natural landscape is concerned. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, I think of nature's emissaries such as John Burroughs, John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau--a pantheon, really, of nature writers that not only set the stage, but also set the standards for those who would follow in their footsteps, such as Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Loren Eisley, Frank Waters, and Teilhard de Chardin...followed in the next generation by such writers, mid-century, as Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry. All these writers, over the past one hundred years, have made an indelible impression on human consciousness and the American landscape. In fact, it was Loren Eisley who wrote: "If we turn the pages of the great nature essayists we may perceive once more the role which the gifted writer and thinker plays in the life of man--pure observation giving way to awe, and the obscure sense of the holy." In Eisley, as in ecologian Thomas Berry, author of The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work, I hear a call for a spiritual "conversion experience" as a possible solution to our more tangible ills regarding the environment.
During the winter months this year, I've spent a great deal of my time wedded to my old Amish rocker--reading the work of America's nature writers. I have reread much of the Riverside Press set of John Burroughs' writings--twelve books in all--almost all of which were written in the barn of his rural home in the Catskills. His Indoor Studies, Breath of Life, Under the Apple Trees and Field Study are my favorites in that collection. In a chapter "Phases of Animal Life" from Field and Study, which was published in 1919, Burroughs speaks with perceptive hopefulness, yet almost naively, about environmental balance. "The natural balance of life in any field cannot long be disturbed. Though Nature at times seems to permit excesses, yet she sooner or later corrects them and restores the balance. The life of the globe could never have attained its present development on any other plane. A certain peace and harmony have come out of the perpetual struggle and warfare of opposing tendencies and forces. When one force pulls down, another force builds up."
While things look, today, a little more ominous with regard to the global environment than they did in 1919, one would hope that Burrough's observations and predictions might, in the long run, be correct--that nature can hold her own against the destructive forces of industrial expansion and human failings as they exist at this, the other end of the century.
Along with Burroughs and his prolific output, there were other prolific writers of his era who also made their mark on this century's collective consciousness. Emerson's essays on "Self Reliance," "Nature," and "Prudence" were cornerstones upon which Thoreau, Muir, and later Leopold, Eisley, and Carson would build their word-based temples to Nature, and which Theodore Roosevelt would use as a "bully pulpit" platform from which to extol his governmental programs to leave large tracts of American wilderness undeveloped and undisturbed for posterity. Emerson stands as a citadel--a lighthouse on the rocky shores of the American psyche--where ethics are concerned with regard to the preservation of the environment. His writings are the launchpad for Thoreau's fireworks that would come soon thereafter, as well as for the elevated message of Thomas Berry who would emerge on the forefront of the spiritual--environmental movement over a hundred years later.
In 1836, in his first book entitled Nature, Emerson was already preparing us for the dilemma we find ourselves facing today regarding sustainability, commerce, and environment. "Broader and deeper we must write our annals,--from an ethical reformation, for an influx of the ever new, even sanative conscience,--if we would trulier express our central and wide--related nature, instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride to which we have too long lent our eyes. Already that day exists for us, shines in on us at unawares." The idiot, the Indian, the child, the unschooled farmer's boy, stand nearer to the light by which nature is to be read, than they did to those during Emerson's own lifetime, as the world's and this country's population have far exceeded nature's carrying capacity, and unchecked commerce has ravaged the land, air, and waters. Able to see for himself our current situation, Emerson would be appalled, yet would have earned the right to say, in response, "I told you so."
John Muir quite literally "walked the walk," hiking and traveling thousands of miles in his lifetime across this continent and through uncharted wilderness. How many pairs of boots this man must have gone through! His "Thousand Mile Walk" alone, trailblazing a path down the entire east coast of the country (which brought him through western Virginia and within a stone's throw of Jackson County, North Carolina, where I live) when he was twenty-nine years old, is statement enough of his exuberance and dedication to the cause of the environment, much less what he would go on to do for the remaining forty-six years of his life. "Such an ocean of wooded, waving, swelling mountain beauty and grandeur is not to be described." Muir would write--reminiscent of Bartram before him--of his first impressions of the Blue Ridge Mountains. "Countless forest-clad hills, side by side in rows and groups--all united by curves and slopes of inimitable softness and beauty. Oh, these forest gardens of our Father! What perfection, what divinity, in their architecture!"
It was largely Muir and Thoreau who would become the godfathers of the American environmental movement that was quite literally spawned by Muir's Sierra Club, founded in 1892. Rachael Carson's Silent Spring, first published in 1962, would later enjoin the whole bioregional movement on the west coast--with poet-activist writers such as Gary Snyder, Peter Blue Cloud, Peter Berg, and Lee Swanson leading the way. Snyder, in particular, with his Zen approach to, especially, wilderness terrain, has taken the torch of deep ecology and has run with it through the 60s--and a generation of protest marches and social actions--on into the present day. In such seminal works as The Practice of the Wild, he has, in a sense, handed the torch of sustainability off to a whole new generation of activist nature writers, whom I call the "New Naturalists."
"If you would learn the secrets of nature," Thoreau wrote, "you must practice more humanity than others." That credo, more or less, sums up the ethos of the New Naturalists. They are not only talking the talk, they are walking the walk. They are not only writing an engaged prose and poetry that evokes the spirit of the "Old Naturalists" and their tenets for a premeditated and sustainable future, but are quite literally engaged in a kind of activism that is, at once, journalistic and/or literary and biographical. They are, through their work and deeds, inspiring, organizing, and participating in nonviolent "actions" and activities that provide alternatives to community apathy and destruction of the natural habitat.
There are many such voices that have manifested in my generation, appearing across the width and breadth of the country. Rick Bass has emerged as a voice of stewardship in the Plains region of Montana. A little further south and east, Wes Jackson, in Kansas, writes about sustainable agriculture (New Roots for Agriculture, published by Friends of the Earth) and earth stewardship. In Kentucky, Wendell Berry, who is more of Snyder's generation, is writing about the preservation of rural community and family farms. These are but some of the New Naturalist voices that have emerged in recent years to stretch the paradigm of protection and proper proportion out into the direction of the twenty-first century.
Closer at hand to my Tuckaseegee River home, and our Southern Appalachian Mountains bioregion, there are a handful of 60s generation writers who are distinguishing themselves as New Naturalists. Over in Swain County, in the environs of Bryson City, George Ellison has already established himself as part of the new breed of nature/activist writers with his poetry, prose and journalism. If there is anyone who has embraced and embodied the writing of Thoreau and Kephart, it is George Ellison. As someone who lived for some time without electricity and running water--in a cabin only approachable by foot--his knowledge of nature lore and Native American history in this region is approaching the level of being encyclopedic. His newspaper columns, his frequent nature-walk workshops, and his contributions to the living folklore of the region continue to be invaluable in educating the public about its past as well as its invasive present.
Here in Jackson County, whitewater enthusiast, wilderness and recreation writer, and poet John Lane has taken up part-year residence in a remote cove off John's Creek Road in the Caney Fork section of Cullowhee in a beautifully reconstructed one-room sawmill shack built by Macon County native Keith Monteith. Lane is actively involved in water and land development issues in the region, while writing a book on the Chatooga River, to be published in early 2004 by the University of Georgia Press. His journal-entry book Weed Time, which was written in Whittier during his years residing up Camp Creek Road at the old Jim Smith nursery, is a snapshot, or better yet, a petroglyph of place-based awareness. His investigative journalism on behalf of ecological issues, here in the mountains and down on the other side of the Blue Wall in the South Carolina piedmont in Spartanburg County, are written thoughtfully in attack mode, leaving no stone unturned. While his journalistic work is brash, aggressive and unmovable, his poetry written in and about these mountains is equally, in the other direction, gentle, sensitive and fluid, as exemplified in the following poem.
WAKING IN THE BLUE RIDGE
By John Lane
In the animal light of early morning
Dreams persist but I am quickly
Victim to the world's precision--
How oaks become one
In a web of blue above,
And the fox bursts
Toward the nested quail,
Or in tricks of color
Where they could not be.
All this in the hour
Before breakfast, in the heaven
Of unnoticed verdancy and light.
Then there is Christopher Camuto, whose writing on fly--fishing, red wolves, and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the stuff of supernovas. His rise to prominence as a Southern Appalachian nature writer: meteoric. His whip-cracking intellect and inspired vocabulary have been a wake-up call for other writers and for readers of regional and natural history. His mix of autobiographical and objective writing is the next best thing to "being there," at least in my experience. The visual images he creates with language go way beyond being merely "photographic." They linger and last in the mind's eye--for months and years on end.
Hunting from Home, Camuto's third book in the last decade, is set in and around his two-hundred-acre farm "tucked into the rumpled upper end of what used to be called the Valley of Virginia about halfway between the trim-and-tidy college town of Lexington and the rough-and-tumble factory town of Buena Vista." In Hunting from Home, Camuto takes the reader through a year of intense experiences: hunting grouse with his setter through snowbound forests in winter, wading trout streams in spring, closely observing birds and wildlife through summer, and exploring the backcountry cutting wood and hunting deer in autumn. While Camuto writes incisively about the hunter's paradoxical love of the game he pursues, he also hunts in the broadest sense possible, searching out and witnessing the life of the things he loves--brook trout and black bear, hawks and warblers--with the idea of sharing the pleasures and preoccupations of a pastoral life lived with deep satisfaction on his Highland Farm residence in the shadow of the Blue Ridge.
Never far from home, and with the sensitive insight of Emerson and the rapier-like thrust of Thoreau, in Hunting from Home Camuto is firing on all cylinders--synapses crackling, connected, and engaged. "Perhaps staying is a way of passing through," he says, sage-like and paradoxical, before continuing: "The world is sacred because it is, not because it is a sign of something else...You take what wildness from a river you bring to it. The wildness is there in many forms without you, but you must practice discovery to find it...Give yourself over to it and a river leads you to the fish. What makes you a fisherman over time is being interested in the same things as fish. Being in a river gets you thinking like a fish!...The sound of the big river below sorting stones like a shaman..."
While Camuto can write wisely with the best of them ("I like things the way they are--tangibly mysterious, the known and the unknown set out in the open side by side"), he can also dance rings around a soapbox. And watch out if he should actually climb up on one! "When the news fools chatter on television about the human genome, they miss the point. I don't need to hear that they have unlocked the secrets of fingers and toes, so that some biotech firm can clone more movie stars and athletes. I want to hear that they have found imprints of the Tigris and Euphrates in our genes!"
This may sound a lot like other well-known patrons and protectors of the environment--such as Thomas Berry and Gary Snyder--but Camuto is nobody's clone. In fact, for my money, Camuto is, pound for pound, word for word, the heavyweight champion of Southern nature writing. Another Country (Henry Holt, 1997) is, in my mind, the canon and the standard by which all other nature books are gauged. Hunting from Home simply raises the bar for this man's vault into literary history.
In this new book, with blackbirds "bursting," waxwings "gusting," buntings "clinging," kestrels "slicing," and swallowtails "festooning," he doesn't need anyone in the background chirping about his talents and accomplishments, as his song is all too evident in the text itself. Champions don't need champions, they can speak for themselves. "The pinky-wide yellow beauties are the platonic form of the mayfly, their diaphanous yellow wings as pale as the pale evening into which they disappear. Unless, of course, a plump trout should slurp that diaphanousness down before dorothea takes flight."
Hunting From Home ends rightly, if not prophetically, with these words: "Perhaps we are whatever we are doing when sunset catches us, working, walking, the ends of the earth all around us--on Highland Farm and on this hard-used planet--everything aspiring to be and to show us what it would. Either everything matters or nothing matters. Either we are all always at home or all everywhere homeless."
Then there is Janisse Ray, a Georgia "cracker," struggling to save the southern Long Leaf Pine from extinction. Author of the award--winning book The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, and most recently Wild Card Quilt (Milkweed Editions, 2003), Ray is the youngest of our regional cadre of New Naturalist writer/activists, but may be the rising star of the group. Her charisma, her immutable will, her strong sense of the feminine, her gaminess and grit coupled with a very disciplined and poetic relationship with language make her the kind of show-stopper the environmental movement needs in order to bring attention to important issues. In a literary world of nature-writing dominated by men, she has turned many heads not only with her striking good looks, but also with her poems, such as the one set off here, which pays tribute to the place of her origins.
Finally, there is an ever-expanding core group of cultural and environmental activists here in the mountains working alongside one another to create some sort of bioregional awareness as well as a sense of responsibility for our regional ecosystem. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the beast-of-burden of this movement was a publication called Katuah Journal and its loyal, hard-working heart which consisted of such western North Carolina resident writers as David Wheeler over in Whittier, Marnie Muller and Rob Messick in Haywood County, and J. Linn Mackey up in Watauga County. Espousing the values, ethics and hands-on particulars of the Bioregional and Green movements, Katuah's main emphasis was on teaching and its main vehicle was the newspaper--which, until its demise in the early 1990s, had a focused mixture of articles on plant lore, environmental issues, gardening and farming tips, regional geographic history and Native American culture.
More recently, however, the movement for a sustained environment has been enjoined by botanist/writer/activist Harvard Ayers at Appalachian State University--whose work on behalf of clean air coalitions here in western North Carolina has been influential, if not monumental. And let's not forget the Smoky Mountain News team of Don Hendershot and Scott McLeod, whose diligence and thoughtful writing, week in and week out, on the subject of the environment have served to not only educate but also focus attention on the many issues that have appeared here in the region where the health and balance of things natural are concerned.
So, while the times are a-changin', as Bob Dylan correctly predicted back in the 60s, there are forces (writers) at work in our midst hoping to, if nothing else, slow the rate of escalation and desecration down to a tolerable pace, if not bring it to a screeching halt. While the amount of work to be done in cleaning up our environment might, at times, seem overwhelming, these New Naturalists and others like them are, I'm convinced, equal to the task. This is a focused and dedicated bunch that have taken on the heavy mantle of unchecked "progress," "growth," and "development" with strong shoulders and are wearing it well. In that sense, the welfare of the natural world notwithstanding, we owe them our attention and our support as they continue in their caring and careful work. Meanwhile, here in Tuckaseegee, I go on about my daily business, as we all must, of taking care of the little world around me--planting an organic garden, feeding the birds, challenging the developers next door, and supporting and nurturing the continued well-being of my local newspaper as an active voice for our region, through my writing. "May it continue," as the old Apache ceremonial chant goes: this nature-activist tradition, this place, and these people who live here well.
By Janisse Ray
When I am dead, put my bones in Georgia
that made them. Give back the calcium,
phosphorus, the holy manganese that serve
me well--keepers of this unruly flesh.
When I am dead, let me honor land that
struck fire within and offered to hot and
hungry air a skeleton piece of earth
that holds me aloft in the spinning and
spiraling of this world. The elements of
bones compel me. I return time and
again to feel the soil, wondering what I
search for, what hauls me back: Ossein of
day-myths, compound of marrow percolating
subterranean veins, debt that will be freed.
Thomas Rain Crowe is the author of eleven books of original and translated work and editor of the acclaimed anthology, Writing the Wind: A Celtic Resurgence. His second book of translations of the Persian poet Hafiz (Drunk on the Wine of the Beloved) was released in August 2001 by Shambhala. Crowe lives in the mountains of western North Carolina.