September, 2008

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
Author: Bill McKibben

Review by: PHILIP TERRIE

Library of America, 2008 Hardcover, 1,047 pages, $40

Library of America, 2008
Hardcover, 1,047 pages, $40

The written word has been fundamental to the story of how Americans have interacted with the natural world. Nature writing comes in a diverse range of genres, from travel and exploration narratives to poetry, from the literature of contemplation and reflection to polemics.

In a new anthology, American Earth, editor Bill McKibben has collected the subgenre of nature writing that he calls the “literature of American environmentalism.” His selections are largely about conflict, about people challenging the status quo, raising an alarm.

Environmental writing shares with nature writing the awe for and delight in nature’s wonders, but it also displays shock and anger when nature is violated. It issues a call to arms to prevent the assaults of greed and indifference on what remains of our rapidly diminishing natural heritage. Alas, as McKibben laments in his introduction, “the war goes badly.” All the grace and passion and power, so well represented here, “have proved insufficient against the forces of expanding commerce and daily habit” that threaten to destroy what is inspiring and sustaining in the American land, air and water.

McKibben suggests that North America environmental writing is especially poignant because it developed just as our culture was beginning to question what it was doing. At the same time that we were draining the swamps, felling the giant trees, plowing up the ancient prairie, fouling the air, and polluting the rivers (a list that barely scratches the surface), some Americans were asking, Is this a good thing? What are we giving up in return for “progress”?

The Library of America gave McKibben plenty of room to work with (this hefty volume has over a thousand pages—it’s not something to slip into your backpack for reading around the campfire), and all the usual suspects are here. He starts with three pieces from Thoreau: from the Journals, Walden and the essay “Huckleberries.” All are apt and show how the great American tradition of environmental writing truly begins with the eccentric, iconoclastic genius of Concord. Thoreau loved the American landscape, and he didn’t hide his disappointment when American arrogance violated its integrity.

There’s George Perkins Marsh, whose warning about the catastrophic consequences of clear-cutting mountain forests was instrumental in the establishment of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. There’s John Muir, high priest of the Sierras, whose incantations, published in book after book, made him the first nationally popular defender of the natural world. New Yorkers Theodore Roosevelt and John Burroughs of course make it, as do two more Adirondack writers, William H. H. Murray and Robert Marshall. Murray wrote the best-selling Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks (1869), which lured the first flood of tourists, forever after known as “Murray’s Fools,” to this region. Robert Marshall, who along with his brother George and their family’s guide, Herbert Clark, dreamed up the idea of climbing all the Adirondack peaks over 4,000 feet, went on to explore in and write about the remotest corners of northern Alaska, helped shape a century of federal land-management policy, and (along with Benton MacKaye and Aldo Leopold, both also represented here) founded the Wilderness Society.

The ecologist Leopold, who practically invented the discipline of wildlife management, is best remembered for his posthumously published classic Sand County Almanac (1948), where he wrote lovingly about a family retreat in rural Wisconsin. In that book (and in this anthology), we also find his magnificent essay “Thinking like a Mountain,” a passionate account of his discovery of the value of predators in any ecosystem, as well as his timeless statement of what he termed “the land ethic”: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise.” What an admirably economical turn of phrase!

An excerpt from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which raised the alarm about the deadly consequences of the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides, caught the eye of President Kennedy and the Congress, and may be the most important environmental book of the past century, is naturally included. Carson possessed that rare confluence of scientific expertise and the verbal dexterity of a gifted poet. Many historians trace the origins of the modern American environmental movement to Silent Spring.

Selections from a host of writers track the incremental raising of the national environmental consciousness: Loren Eisley, Howard Zahniser (who first spoke of a national wilderness system while camped at Flowed Lands in the Adirondack High Peaks), Edward Abbey, Garrett Hardin, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Bill McKibben himself (and rightly so), Linda Hogan, Al Gore (who also provided a foreword), Sandra Steingraber, Barbara Kingsolver and Julia Butterfly Hill. The list is long, and these are but a few of the best known. Every exquisite word they wrote is worth a slow, thoughtful read.

What is equally fascinating about this volume are the names one may never have heard of as well as those well known in some other context but surprisingly and appropriately included here. Of the former, how many of us have read the verse of Lydia Sigourney, a popular poet of the mid-19th century (and known throughout the land as the “Sweet Singer of Hartford”)? Her poem “Fallen Forests,” published in 1845, begins, “Man’s warfare on the trees is terrible.” Though more than a little saccharine to modern taste, her verses suggested to a nation smugly certain its forests were infinite that conservation and respect would be better in the long run than the plunder and waste that characterized her time.

Who knew that an early and incisive critique of the intrusion of advertising into natural places where it did not belong issued from the pen of P. T. Barnum? His diatribe predated by nearly a century a similar pronouncement from Lyndon Johnson about the degradation of the nation’s roadsides. (Perhaps that’s not too surprising when you consider that Barnum was a frequent visitor to Paul Smith’s hotel on Lower St. Regis Lake.)

McKibben has rescued a prescient 1905 statement from Harvard geologist Nathaniel Southgate Shaler about the thoughtless consumption of the Earth’s finite resources, one that rings unnervingly true today: “We may be sure that those who look back upon us and our deeds from the centuries to come will remark upon the manner in which we use our heritage, and theirs, as we are now doing, in the spendthrift’s way, with no care for those who come.” Just think what our world might be like had our grandfathers and grandmothers, not to mention their elected representatives, carefully pondered Shaler’s admonition.

Some of McKibben’s most startling inclusions come from writers, entertainers and others we probably do not associate with an environmental consciousness. During the age of the Dust Bowl, comic writer Don Marquis, for example, had his fictional but famously articulate cockroach “Archy” (who couldn’t reach the shift key on the typewriter) wax lyrical about the relentless human disposition to turn every green niche on the planet into desert:

america was once a paradise of timberland and stream but it is dying because of the greed and money lust of a thousand little kings who slashed the timber all to hell and would not be controlled and changed the climate.

That dystopian vision was echoed a generation later by Motown’s own Marvin Gaye, who limned his regret over the desolation around him:

Where did all the blue skies go? Poison is the wind that blows From the north and south and east Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no no Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas Fish full of mercury.

Throughout our culture—high, low, mass, or popular— American voices have been raised to protest the despoliation of our environmental riches. Brave, committed Americans— from Rachel Carson to David Brower, from Susan Cooper (James Fenimore’s daughter) to underground cartoonist R. Crumb—have lent their eloquence to the cause. It’s a tough, endless battle. And though the news is often grim and it can be disconcerting to see how similar the polemics are from one century to the next, suggesting that environmental victories are seldom permanent, we can still be inspired by the dazzling fluency of our predecessors, the passion of their commitment, and the certain knowledge that they did in fact win some big ones (10 years after the publication of Silent Spring, DDT was banned in the United States).

Nature’s enemies can appear impregnable and tireless; despair beckons. But once joined, it’s a battle that associates you with good, articulate people, and you’ll probably spend a lot of time outside. As Rebecca Solnit reminds us in American Earth’s concluding entry, environmental activists need not be austere or self-denying; they can have fun and take delight in what they do and whom they share their passions with. Alife of activism on behalf of nature should be one of “beauty, sensuality, and delight. … Any step toward connection and communion is a step toward paradise.”