“While I’ve been living here, on and off, all my life, I’m still ignorant of the names of most of the sedges and grasses and trees around me. Spending time in nature produces, among other results, a general feeling of stupidity, constantly reminding you of the thousands of obvious facts you don’t know. I never hunted as a kid, never tramped around swamps searching for salamanders or toads. Now I worry that there’s a bit of the drawing room nature lover in me, more familiar with Thoreau than tree frogs. Sometimes I suspect that, at my worst, I like reading about nature more than nature itself.
But this season will be different. It’s time to go out into it and get my hands dirty. In my favor is the simple fact of curiosity. I want to learn, want to know more. My daily walks remind me that I’m perhaps less of a phony than I imagine in more self-accusatory moods.”
–David Gessner, Return of the Osprey
I belong to contiguous communities of writers, readers, and naturalists. Like many of us, I have struggled with, and bathed in the tension between plein-air living and indoor creative assembly. I write outside, edit inside, and read wherever I can haul my books.
Whenever that indoor-outdoor divide starts feeling too much like an actual binary (rather than the fallacy, or at most the unnecessary distinction I believe it to be), I take comfort in the trance-like capacity of words to sing “cultured” humans back into communion with the “nature” from which we have supposedly fallen. Words can certainly block, dull, or over-mediate one’s experience of more-than-human nature, but in my experience the fault for this lies in poor composition, rather than the mere fact and existence of the words. And while the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional power of language dwells first in the choices and incantations of the writer, the reader too plays an important role, and there is at least one “proper” way to read wildly.
For me, reading wildly has always meant reading widely. I read with focus and attention, but also with the soft-edged whimsy of a flaneur, eager to cross-pollinate one reading by chasing down additional leads and threads in all directions and genres. I’ll start in on a memoir or natural history classic then pick away at its bibliography, epigrams, and references. Or I’ll go off on a sister topic, finding its leading voices and reading up on their inspirations: favorite poets, criticisms and analyses, placed-based literature from their home terrains.
This method stands in contrast to my more strucure-loving personality. But to me, it offers a truer, more organic reckoning with the written word: rhizomatic, exploratory, ecosystemic, and messy around the edges. Random as these wanderings begin, a thread always emerges, and although my humanities training (and basic humanity) steers me toward pattern-making, I am convinced that the connective tissue exists, unmanufactured, prior to my discovery of it. It lies in wait, whispers clues to prospective wild readers, and encourages them to explore the proper texts in sequence.
To read wildly, one must linger in the company of the text at hand while also indulging the wonder and curiosity that nip at the edges. In this it is not unlike the practice of the field naturalist, who through sensory experience (and the perfect balance of attention and curiosity) perceives (rather than creating or summoning) evidence of beauty and connectivity.
“Sometimes we think in our egotism that nature has provided these beauties as a special act on our behalf. If I may be allowed a harmless bit of fantasy, I shall imagine a conversation you might have with Nature on this point. After hearing you patiently on the subject of Beauty, Nature would perhaps say something like this:
“I see the source of your error. It derives from your very limited knowledge. You are thinking that I have a Department of Beauty, that I deal with beauty as one of my activities. Really, I do not intend beauty. I am beauty. I am beauty and many other things, such as you are trying to express by your abstractions like Order, Harmony, Truth, Love. What you see in my scenic manifestations is the glamour behind which lies an Absolute Beauty of which I myself am an expressive part. You do not understand? Naturally it is difficult. But you are trying: I do like that in you, little man.”
-Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage
I work, perpetually, to improve my skills as a reader, writer, and naturalist. Boiled down, the requirements are the same: pacing, and attitude.
For all the wealth of love and story I find in my fellow human beings, solitude helps. In company I hike too fast. Solo, I can reach the glacial pace I need in order to surrender to my surroundings, to render myself penetrable enough to notice, then gather, then write. In company my words are jumbled and cheap, but alone, with quiet, I can weave.
I need time outdoors, notebook-free and wide-eyed, but also time in the library, surrounded by scratch pads, Audubons, Rumi and the Romantics. As an observer and a story-conduit, it is my job to possess both the wonder of the naturalist, and the resilient, put-together understanding of the literate-scientist-historian. I do not believe that one must get in the way of the other. Honoring the written word honors the previous field experience, loving and astute, of generations of naturalists before me, and the act of appreciating and participating in wild nature ought to include an appreciation of the work of previous appreciators.
As writers, artists, dancers, we acknowledge rightly that we cannot write the wind, or sunset, or a bird’s song, despite our most strenuous and attentive observation. But as writers, artists, dancers, poets, and rangers, what we can do is offer back a gift of song, of prose, to the more-than-human inhabitants with whom we share our biotic soundscape.
Writing can dull us to the particular amazements of our respective homes in wildness. Or, it can sing us back into communion with them. Our challenge as writers and readers is to script and support the latter, not the former. I cannot believe in the failure of words.
Here, short-listed, is my canon of inspirations.
In turn, I would love to know: what words, writers, books, articles, songs, films, podcasts, crusty old guidebooks, or other crafted journeys have inspired, augmented, or informed your own appreciation of wild nature?
Please respond in the comments. Thank you!!
-The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, by Alexandra Fuller. A gutwrenching, exquisite, fictionalized biography of a young man employed in the oil fields of Wyoming. As much a biography of place, as of person.
-Why I Came West, by Rick Bass. This personal manifesto might well be titled ‘Why I Became Wild.’ A true love letter to place.
-Rumi. When I lose my way he brings me back, usually with a poetic tongue in cheek. Makes me want to spin Sufi circles.
-Nature, Man and Woman, by Alan W. Watts. While heteronormative, this text did well at laying back the Western human within her/his natural surroundings.
-The Practice of the Wild, by Gary Snyder. This book (well introduced and processed by my graduate school cohort-mates) helped me to understand “place” as a skill set, as a practice.
-Pinhook, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, and A House of Branches by Janisse Ray. Ray is a voice for southern Georgia and northern Florida, some of the deepest, most biodiverse biomes in North America. She speaks embodied, place-based truth.
-The Walk, by William DeBuys. A Thoreau for the 21st century.
-My Antonia and O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather. I somehow escaped an environmental humanities education without having read Willa Cather. Luckily, shortly after graduation I realized my mistake. Cather’s characters are woven and born, and die, within the land that is also a character in her stories.
-Refuge, When Women Were Birds, Coyote Country, and The Hour Of Land, by Terry Tempest Williams. Gutsy and playful, Williams never takes shortcuts. She loves her places.
-Gone Wild, by David McLimans. This glorious children’s book features an alphabet of lesser-known wild beasts, illustrated in luminous woodcut-style letters.
-The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, by David Abram. These were, and are, foundational to my understanding of humans-in-nature, and the idea of “more than human nature,” and the role of human language in re-booting us within it.
-H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald. Here I enjoyed the honest conversation about escapist, one-way, therapeutic ‘use’ of wildness. Also, an incredibly raw, honest, personal (and thus, universal) story of grief and healing.
-The Big House, by George Howe Colt. This is a history of constructed place and culture, more than a natural history. But Colt breaks it down so that you see the latter in the former, in this love letter to his family’s sprawling old seaside house on Cape Cod.
-Interpreting Our Heritage, by Freeman Tilden. Basically required reading for any docent, interpreter, or storyteller. Tilden masters keys like playfulness, wonder, humor, and understatement.
-Return of the Osprey, by David Gessner. Gessner learned birding much as I’m now doing so myself: by watching swallows and ospreys through a nesting season on a salt marsh. His was Cape Cod and mine’s Jamaica Bay, but his sentiments so gelled with my own that I wrote him a fan letter.
-A Field Guide to the Birds of New York City, by Leslie Day. My favorite local guide, it has led me to fascinating places, like a cormorant nest across the water from the UN Building.
-Green Metropolis, by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. Another guide to green wildness within my own city. Rogers was instrumental in the restoration and conservation of Central Park.
-Carolyn Casey: Casey is a shaman-storyteller whose spastic style and honest delivery (which includes woofs and howls) has made me weep when I needed to. Check her out
-On Being, Krista Tippett: Tippett’s radio show, on NPR, demonstrates the possibilities of compassionate civic discourse. She focuses on spirituality and religion, but more generally explores what it means to be human.
-The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson. This will be my second adventure with Carson, the clearest demonstration of a writer’s potential to evoke real, positive, and lasting environmental change.
-Sketches Here and There, by Aldo Leopold. This will be an upcoming read for me, having come across passages from this lesser-known work while scanning a wetlands anthology in my workplace library.
-The Literary Women Who Raised Me. This blog, a project of one of my former newspaper editors, blends fiction and memoir in a touching fashion. http://www.theliterarywomenwhoraisedme.com/