I wrote a story collection and named it Man V. Nature. I've noticed some people are drawn to the collection because they think it will be about people in the wilderness and they are shades of surprised (and some are disappointed) that it isn't. Happily many are able to parse that, though the book features some natural disasters, dark foreboding forests and is inspired in ways by nature, when it comes down to it, the book is really about the nature of people. And the conflict is really with ourselves. I find that the best books are many things at one time. And I think the best books about the natural world have just as much to do with us. Because as much as we like to pretend we're all civilized, we're really just wild things with furniture, hair products and shoes. I'd say rules too, but animals have rules. Perhaps we just have what seems like more of them.
One of the best and most interesting books to read if you are thinking about how humanity and nature collide is Walden by Henry David Thoreau. It's interesting for many reasons, one of which is how widely it is misunderstood, by romantics and haters alike. Walden is not an argument for solitude, it's an experiment in living. Thoreau lives by himself in a small shack from where he can hear the train pass and can go into town and can have visitors of both the human and critter kind. People who haven't read the book or who have read it poorly like to call him a hypocrite. But he writes exhaustively about his very human interaction with both the natural world and the community he is still very much a part of. He went to the woods... of Concord, Massachusetts; he didn't homestead in Alaska. He thought about a lot of things in Walden, but extreme wilderness survival wasn't one of them. People often overlook that he left the woods. Or they think that by leaving he failed in some way. Near the end of the book, he writes:
I left the woods for as a good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels.
It's as if he knew what bad readers would try to say, and was like, "Don't even." That's why he's my guy and this is my book. It's the definition of a book that isn't always what you want it to be, and why should it? Thoreau is an argumentative bastard. So let him spar with you, and then let him teach you something about life, dreams and trying.
Where Thoreau might like to grapple and interact with the reader, reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard is more like going to church -- hushed and reverent. The narrator in Pilgrim not only observes the natural world, she also observes herself observing and interacting with it, seeming to gather intel on how to be a person, on how to live. Pilgrim is clearly descendent from Walden in ways. But I find Dillard sucks out all the marrow of life along Tinker Creek in a more inviting way than Thoreau does from his perch on Walden Pond. Perhaps because hers doesn't read like a life experiment. It's just daily life, seen through a keen eye, boiled down to something remarkable. If Dillard is tough like Thoreau can be, she hides it in some of the most gorgeous writing around, and in her ability to somehow pinpoint all the things you're floundering with. Reading Pilgrim feels like Dillard dropped the book into your hands and said, "You're welcome," maybe even a little smugly but you don't care. It's the kind of book you highlight until every page is neon yellow. But it's by no means light reading. It is complex and philosophical while being grounded in observation of what is beautiful and grotesque in the world around us and within us.
Now let's go way across the country and talk about a book that does look at extreme wilderness survival in Alaska. John McPhee's excellent Coming in the Country is a chronicle of the Alaskan Frontier life in the mid 1970's. It is a fascinating time capsule of a hard life in a time gone by. And yet, the same issues in the book are ones still in play today. His writing is just so good. He's such a great reporter and he's so human as a character. The middle section is about life in the town and bureaucracy, and at first I skipped this section. I didn't want to read about civilization, I wanted to read about wilderness! But in going back to read, I was reminded what McPhee does best and does in so many of his books. He sutures people back into the natural world and shows how they affect and change one another. Read any McPhee. He's the master of Man V. Nature if ever there was one.
One of the books I recommended most this year was Jon Mooallem's Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. The subtitle is long but important. Jon Mooallem is curious and big hearted and smart. The book explores generally how our civilization affects animals in the wild, even as we try to protect them. And this book does what my favorite books do: it takes something complicated and makes it even more complicated by viewing it through the right lens and asking the right questions. The book looks at conservation efforts for three different endangered animals in America. The people we meet are well-meaning, passionate, and empathetic environmental stewards. But the book reveals the flaws in their efforts, either because there is no way around them, or because, hey, they're human. It lays bare something well-intentioned but messy. Which is often how our better interactions with the natural world are. But we aren't brought to our knees by what we see in the book. Instead we're, well, just read the subtitle. I said it was important. In general, journalism about the natural world, that aims to bridge the science and experience of living on earth right now, is better than ever. I'm so busy reading books of nonfiction nature writing that I barely have time to dig into the wonderful fiction inspired by the natural world. But...
Let me insist on an oldie but a goodie, a book I read as a 35 year old woman and which I urge you to read if you haven't. The Call of the Wild by Jack London is a wonderful take on the conflict between man and nature since it's told from the perspective of a dog. Did you know this? I never did. It wasn't a book pushed on me as a child because, I think, it was deemed a boy's book. So many books were, sadly. I know it's fun for women to talk about how influential Sweet Valley High was for them, and I know, I read them all too. But what I wouldn't give to have been reading about Buck, newly wild and howling the song of the pack, instead of reading about popular blond twins who were a perfect size six and wondering why I wasn't. The ending to The Call of the Wild is one of my favorite endings in literature. There is a raw, wild, exuberant beauty to it, a desire for belonging and deliverance to a natural state that every being, human or animal, yearns for, and when I recall it I am instantly inspired and get choked up. I cannot say the same for Sweet Valley High #3: Playing With Fire, a book I read multiple times in my youth.
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