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The Waning Power of Nature’s Priests

David Rains Wallace's latest book is "Beasts of Eden" ( University of California Press, 2004).

Nature writing has been one of the most socially effective of literary genres. Henry David Thoreau and John Muir articulated the basics of environmentalism, and Muir’s advocacy helped protect millions of acres worldwide early in the 20th century. Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and others shaped the explosion of concern about the planet that culminated in the 1970s. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the genre drew increased critical and academic attention; however, its social effectiveness became decoupled from its success.

The fate of my 1983 book, “The Klamath Knot,” shows this. It sold fairly well -- it’s still in print and it acquainted a generation of activists with a globally significant biodiversity “hot spot,” the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains in northwest California and southwest Oregon. But the region’s only National Park Service unit, Oregon Caves National Monument, remains among the system’s smallest: 480 acres. And although President Clinton created an “ecological corridor” national monument at the region’s edge, he ignored a proposal for a larger monument within the Siskiyou National Forest, so the corridor doesn’t connect to much. Now the Bush administration is pushing for “salvage logging” in that forest, which means it would never get wilderness or national park protection.

It’s much the same elsewhere. Nature writers have been thick on the ground in the Southwest, but attempts to restore species like thick-billed parrots there have had only limited success. Calls for a Great Plains National Park, considered crucial to wild bison survival, go nowhere. Wetlands like the Everglades still shrink despite the rivers of ink expended on them.

What has happened? It seems that nature writers aren’t reaching as many readers as they once did, and for nature books to compete with politics and economics in the debate over conservation, they need popular impact. A biologist may have gotten close to the heart of the problem recently by criticizing much of today’s nature writing for its “piety and self- absorption.”

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Certainly, the most influential nature writers of the past delivered little soul-searching or sermonizing. Gilbert White and William Bartram, who wrote nature books in the 18th century, were religious -- an English curate and a Pennsylvania Quaker, respectively -- yet White’s “Natural History of Selbourne” (1789) and Bartram’s “Travels” (1791) emphasize vivid observations of English countryside and Florida wild lands, not introspection or preaching.

Thoreau’s transcendentalism in “Walden” can be involuted, but his essays and journal generally are not. Muir was raised a Calvinist, but he devoted his writing to straightforward natural history. Carson and Leopold hewed to a tacit agnosticism that posed few obstacles to the general reader.

Since 1970, however, there have been leftist and rightist nature writers, feminist and macho ones, Judeo-Christian and Buddhist-animist ones, urban and rural ones. And though the quality of their prose is high, so is the “piety and self-absorption” quotient. Such complications might well narrow an audience.

Of course, conservation has gotten more complicated along with science and technology. It is harder to separate a naturalist’s concern for protecting landscape from other social and economic goals. When Muir advocated a national park for Yosemite Valley, he did not consider its implications for the native Miwoks or foresee the suburbanization that the park’s popularity would bring. Such considerations have a way of bending authorial vision toward more complex and cerebral approaches than Muir’s.

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“The Klamath Knot,” for example, recapitulates the region’s evolutionary story, from the Azoic to the Cenozoic, as well as describing its living landscape. To add focus, I made local Bigfoot stories a metaphor for the human presence in nature, producing an evolutionary creation myth as well as a natural history. The book found hostile readers as well as appreciative ones: One reviewer said I was turning the Klamaths into an evolutionary Bermuda Triangle.

I don’t know if I would have reached a wider audience if I hadn’t combined a creation myth with science, and I don’t wish I had written a different book. But I do wish I had reached a wider audience, and that the Klamaths weren’t still so vulnerable to plunder.

Can we recapture the glowing simplicity of Bartram’s and Muir’s books? Probably not. Decreasingly vibrant landscapes and increasingly complex ideas prevail on most of the long-suffering planet. It would be futile to pretend that Bartram’s and Muir’s worlds still exist, or that their faith in wild nature’s providential value has much meaning for today’s global power structure. (“Do We Need Nature?” was the theme posed for a 2003 essay contest sponsored by Shell and the Economist.)

Although we can’t return to their innocence, informed, direct personal observation is still the way to reach a wide public. Leopold impressed millions of readers with the need for wilderness -- for some nature untrammeled by man -- by describing the “fierce green fire” in a dying wolf’s eyes: “I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to only her and the mountain.... I thought that ... no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

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Such experiences lead to deeply felt knowledge, the kind that may push the public to move (or preserve) mountains. And writers should be able to deliver it better than, say, television, which can show spectacular footage of wolves but not what Leopold saw and sensed. It is the touchstone to which nature writing should always return.

“Talk of mysteries!” Thoreau wrote after a sodden scramble up Maine’s Mt. Katahdin. “Think of our life in nature -- daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it -- rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?”


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