The New Naturalists : In a High-Tech World, a Generation of Writers Yearningly Looks to the Environment as a Key to the Human Condition

Times Staff Writer

Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.

--Aldo Leopold, from "A Sand County Almanac"

A lot of people got their first feel for the land by pushing Tonka toys over knee-high mountains in an orange grove or vacant lot. But when many look back on the landscapes of their childhood, the most potent image that comes to mind is often of a full-sized yellow monster, growling ominously within a cloud of dust.

Wild space--whether it's a vacant lot or the Alaskan tundra--becomes an extension of a child's imagination, so the bulldozers that mow trees from a kid's stomping ground also rip at memories rooted in the only contact with pure freedom most humans ever have.

In the 1980s, a new generation of writers has found fertile creative turf in what's left of America's wild-land, and readers have developed an increasingly voracious appetite for what they produce.

Last fall saw the release of a 25th anniversary edition of Rachel Carson's landmark alarum of environmental danger, "Silent Spring." This spring, a 20th anniversary edition of Edward Abbey's pivotal "Desert Solitaire" will arrive in bookstores.

Those masters and the writers following in their footsteps are receiving a lot of attention right now. The literary journal Antaeus devoted an entire issue to nature writing in 1986; the Sierra Club's 1987 collection, "Words for the Wild," and the New American Library's 1980 "Voices in the Wilderness" are reportedly selling well; nature literature will be examined in at least two new anthologies scheduled for publication this year, including "Listening to the Land," edited by nature writer and photographer Stephen Trimble; and a Norton Anthology of nature writing--an important milestone for a genre--is due out next year.

Finding a 'Connection'

"I think our ecological and social situations have gotten serious enough that people are looking to writers who've made a connection, who've found a healthy relationship with nature," said Tom Lyon, who teaches nature literature at Utah State University in Logan and is editing one of the coming anthologies.

"My ambition has been to offer some small moments of constructive disorientation in the way nature is seen and thought about," David Quammen says in his collection of essays, "Natural Acts." So he writes tributes to the intelligence of crows, the durability of cockroaches and "the miracle of blubber."

"For insulation against heat loss, the pinnipeds rely on blubber. As an energy supplement during times when food is scarce, they metabolized their stored blubber. Giving them high buoyancy in the water, blubber; padding out their roundish shapes to reduce surface area and in that way further minimize the escape of their body heat, blubber; for hydrodynamic streamlining, blubber," he writes.

To compress the point he is making to generations of readers infatuated with technology--a central point of new naturalist writing: "You can't even do that with PolarGuard."

Drawing from a common heritage, the new naturalists--a dubious but functional title many of these writers dislike--have scattered in all directions to explore the natural world in all sorts of ways, and with various levels of talent.

In the modern tradition of Ann Zwinger, Edward Abbey and John McPhee, the latest generation of writers--a generation defined more by sensibility than age--make expeditions down rivers, reporting straight-ahead on who and what they find, as in Dean Krakel's "Downriver, A Yellowstone Journey," or with the river as foil for more cosmic explorations, as in neurobiologist William H. Calvin's "The River that Flows Uphill--a Journey from the Big Bang to the Big Brain."

In almost novelistic fashion, they scrutinize the environmental problems of a particular piece of turf, as in Alston Chase's "Playing God in Yellowstone," a painstaking account of how the National Park Service, through badly bungled wildlife management, is allegedly destroying "the birthplace of wilderness preservation."

If this new breed of naturalists has anything in common, other than a passionate enthusiasm for nature, it's a belief that modern people, like their ancestors, need to be grounded--that one figurative foot need be kept on the psychological, spiritual and intellectual terra firma of the natural world.

"We are lost on Earth unless we decide what we will call home," writes Oregon essayist Kim Stafford in "Having Everything Right." A lot of folks today share one NASA scientist's view that Earth is merely "an overnight campsite . . . an untidy place to be abandoned and forgotten," as the evolutionary voyage into the universe continues. But Stafford prefers to think that space travel will "help us to see what we have on Earth by seeing what the cold void lacks. . . ."

A succession of stories elicited from everyday people and small observations, Stafford's book adds up to a view of life and a primer for appreciating it.

"Solitude is the scientific method of the human spirit," he writes in one essay. "If you decide not to take a map or to follow a trail, the path you take through broken country will be a chain of sensations." In a society in which it's fairly easy to live a lifetime in continuous proximity to television and telephone and climate control switches, without ever experiencing real cold, heat, thirst or hunger, simply recounting sensations can carry readers a long way.

And the physical discomfort, physical exertion--even danger--that accompanies exploration of the wild somehow seems to sharpen perceptions, writers say. This heightened awareness leads some to spiritual epiphanies. Others find inspiration in the miracles of natural science.

"The biggest change in (nature writing) since the second world war comes from the fact that science has grown so much," says author David Rains Wallace. "It necessitates library burrowing. It's a new responsibility."

As Wallace sees it, a key function of his work--which includes a large format companion to last fall's "Life in the Balance" series on PBS--is to "imbue natural places with as much meaning and significance as possible, so people realize the enormous amount of genetic information stored in them."

To that end, in "The Klamath Knot" Wallace describes such wonders as "a huge, glistening mass of tiny, pot-bellied toads shuffling nose-to-tail out of the lake like rush-hour traffic"; he raves about flatworms; and he explains that "a migrating newt is awesome, a rubber toy of a creature waving spindly legs as though it's a clockwork toy, but persistently climbing almost vertical slopes through a tangle of leaf litter and herbage that soon would exhaust a man of comparable size. . . ."

Like many of his colleagues, he reallly gets into his work. "As the afternoon drifted on, I began to feel pleasurably newtlike, lounging on the warm gray log with limbs dangling and head empty," he writes.

Humankind is not ignored in the new naturalist writing, but the authors do put humans in their place. "True, we have an elaborate brain capable of memory, foresight, iambic pentameter, and malice," David Quammen writes. But in his tribute to "a plump, homely gob of living matter known as the sea cucumber," Quammen offers a convincing argument against the notion that humankind represents some "evolutionary culmination."

Like people, the sea cucumber is susceptible to "forced entry by small parasitic fishes." But unlike humans, who tend to die when these fish set up house inside them, "those poor stupid fat little cucumbers" have devised an ingenious coping mechanism:

"They turn themselves inside out. They blast their own gut and internal organs out . . . cast the whole smear away into the ocean, evicting in the process a single surprised pearlfish. And then . . . the sea cucumber regenerates a complete new internal anatomy. Mere humans are not so deft."

Despite the naturalists' antianthropocentric bias, however, none underestimate Homo sapien's role in changing Earth's ecology.

James Conaway, whose "The Kingdom in the Country" is prominently displayed in bookstores this season, may be the least likely to wear the naturalist mantle. But his six-month van tour through the American West warrants comparison to the classic explorations of the country, if only because of the contrasts it illustrates.

When Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) led the U.S. Government's Corps of Discovery westward, he saw "innumerable herds of Buffalow . . . attended by their sheppards the wolves," and grizzlies, and wide open country too threatening to be tamed.

Conaway finds the legacy of the pioneers: millions of acres of public land managed by a complexity of acronym-wielding bureaucracies. GS-9 Forest Service personnel balance the Animal User Months (AUMs) needed by modernized sheepherders with Recreational Visitor Days (RVDs); an Interagency Grizzly Task Force tries to manage this now endangered species and Bureau of Land Management rangers ride herd on the swarms of three wheel motorcycle (ATV) aficionados who stampede over stretches of the California desert.

In Eye of The Beholder

Up in Oregon's Umpqua National Forest, Conaway asks the owner of a logging company what he sees when he goes for a walk in the woods. "What I see is peeler number one . . . peeler number two. . . grade quality. . . . If I've got a thousand logs laying here, they're gonna be a 200 board foot average . . . if you can get 30 logs an hour, that's one log every two minutes. . . . You work 10 hours, you got a hundred-thousand board feet. See?"

Naturalist types, who tend to see other things when they walk in the woods, know that what's left of the wilds is caught in a bind. Most have had to tromp past bullet-riddled "No Trespassing" signs and wriggle through strands of rusty barbed wire to get to the nature they would protect with signs and fences. Some of them would, presumably, pull up survey stakes to thwart the people who have loved the land enough to stake it out as their own.

This paradox aside, many of the new writers are even more deeply engaged than their forebears in a commitment to the sometimes literally downtrodden wilds. In "On the Mesa," for instance, John Nichols--whose "Milagro Beanfield Wars" was recently filmed by Robert Redford--describes meeting a developer on a New Mexican plateau. "All around me I can feel panicked little desert flowers atremble," he writes.

Most contemporary writers--like their predecessors going back to Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman--are also fighting to save something inside themselves when they fight for nature.

"Space has a spiritual equivalent, and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us," writes Wyoming author and sheepherder Gretel Ehrlich in "The Solace of Open Spaces." "My grandchildren will probably use space shuttles for a honeymoon trip or to recover from heart attacks, but closer to home we might also learn to carry space inside ourselves in the effortless way we carry our skins. Space represents sanity, not a life purified, dull or 'spaced out,' but one that might accommodate intelligently any idea or situation."

But Americans, she continues, have a tendency to "fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there."

"Wild places are shrinking so much and human knowledge is expanding so much, it seems like the exploration of that inner relationship (between the human mind and its evolutionary place in nature) is the new frontier," David Rains Wallace said in a phone conversation.

Humanity is now at a "topsy-turvy" stage where what's artificial seems natural and wild nature seems alien. But the human mind obviously evolved in the heads of people's immersed in wild nature, he said. Which explains why "there is some kind of genetic circuit that lights up when a suburban animal is set down before a virgin forest," as he has written.

"I'm really sorry now for kids growing up in huge suburbs," who can't flee to a nearby field or forest or vacant lot, he said.

Over and over again, subtly or overtly, new naturalists repeat that theme.

"Whenever I walk with a child, I think how much I have seen disappear in my own life," writes Barry Lopez, whose best selling "Arctic Dreams" has made him the best-known of the new naturalists.

Lopez, who now lives in Finn Rock, Ore., moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1946 at the age of 3. He grew up in a world of hayfields and orange groves, where horses grazed in open fields and the family car often had to stop as flocks of sheep crossed the roads.

"My dominant impressions were of open space--all the way east to the mountains was just open--nothing but orchards and open fields," he said.

Lopez recalls hiking with buddies into the Santa Monica Mountains "to hang out with animals," and ranging across the open countryside to commit youthful "mischief," such as "borrowing" pomegranates from a farmer's trees.

"One of my earliest rememberances is that if an adult is chasing you, you should never head for a plowed field," Lopez said. "As a kid, your legs are just too short, while an adult could stride across the furrows. If you ran into an orange grove, on the other hand, you were home free. Adults had to run around the trees and you could run under them."

Now, when Lopez attends writers' conferences or similar gatherings, "I'm always startled by the number of us who were there in late '40s and early '50s, and who are moved by the fact that we can't find that landscape again . . . the places where we played--they're just flat gone.

'Unmanaged Landscape'

"I don't think we've begun to understand the psychological dimensions of what I would call unmanaged landscape," he said, with the mixed tone of wistfulness and urgency that permeates much naturalist writing now.

"The interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is affected by land as it is by genes," he writes in his soon-to-be-released collection of essays "Crossing Open Ground."

In his essay "Children in the Woods," Lopez explains what he hopes to instill in kids when he walks with them in open country. It's the same thing most naturalists hope to instill in readers of any age.

"In the end, you are trying to make clear to them that everything found at the edge of one's senses--the high note of the winter wren, the thick perfume of propolis that drifts downwind from spring willows, the brightness of wood chips scattered by beaver--that all this fits together. The indestructibility of these associations conveys a sense of permanence that nurtures the heart, that cripples one of the most insidious of human anxieties, the one that says, you do not belong here, you are unnecessary."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday January 10, 1988 Home Edition View Part 6 Page 10 Column 3 View Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction In a Jan. 3 story about naturalist writers, a 1980 Mentor New American Library anthology of nature writing was incorrectly identified. The correct title is "The Wilderness Reader," edited by Frank Bergon.
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