City Paper is not for tourists
and Gerald Thurmond
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that we’re experiencing a renaissance of nature writing at a time when nature is under assault. Writers are usually at their best when they feel embattled, after all, though we do well to remember that writing that is merely angry or strictly polemic has a limited scope and appeal. Fortunately, with The Woods Stretched for Miles, we are given a selection of essays that, in most cases, reject eco-tirades in favor of what will always remain the best defense of the world God has made: celebrations and explorations of the delights of nature.
The collection begins with Rick Bass’ wonderful “Good Day at Black Creek.” Bass’ tone is casual and unassuming as we follow him on an excursion into the woods surrounding Mississippi’s Black Creek with the chairman of the Central Mississippi Sierra Club. “You would really like Jim Trunzler, I know you would,” Bass begins. Trunzler is a large, redheaded and -bearded man who works on foreign cars, makes a pot of coffee that tastes like “india ink,” and loves the dark woods of central Mississippi. Bass and a few others load into Trunzler’s gold Volvo and head right into the thick of things. The Black Creek Wilderness area they are going to camp in and hike through comprises “thousands of acres of swamps, hills, valleys, meadows, ridges, hardwood bottoms, and pine plantations through which the wide and deep and dark and cool Black Creek wanders, heading south, south to the Big Water.”
Stop right there. This is what makes Bass’ nature writing such a pleasure. We are happily carried along by a narrative style that reminds us of his fiction; yet when Bass lingers to observe his surroundings, he does so with accuracy. The summary sentence quoted above could have limited itself to pointing out that there were swamps and woods, but even in passing Bass strives for detail. He does so out of love for such detail, and that love is contagious and informative.
With Bass as a guide, we learn, effortlessly, about the diversity of the woods:
Broad-leaved cottonwoods and great thick sycamores line the banks of the river; the water is rich and golden black, tangy with the taste of fallen acorn tannin, and out in the still pools, behind the riffles and log jams, sulk great bull-headed catfish. Bullfrogs as big as waste baskets sit like green boulders on the banks and drum in the summertime; at dusk, cautious deer and bold raccoons can be seen coming right down to the crystal white sandbars that bound the meandering river.
The same careful attention is displayed in Jan DeBlieu’s “Hurricane,” which focuses on the arrival of Hurricane Gloria along the coast of North Carolina. Gloria was the largest hurricane ever to develop in the Atlantic Ocean, and DeBlieu gives a day-by-day account of the weather changes as she approached.
The slant of sunlight had changed in a matter of days from the direct glare of summer to the more diffused sheen of autumn, staining the sand orange and streaking the sky with vermilion and mauve….As the wind shifted from southwest to northeast and back, the ocean color changed from celadon to a cold, broody blue and then to jade.
Ah, celadon! It’s the only color that will do for DeBlieu. She could have said the ocean was gray-green, but it wasn’t—it was celadon, which Webster’s Third New International defines as: “a grayish yellow green that is yellower and paler than average sage green, yellower and lighter than palmetto, and greener and lighter than mermaid.”
One of her neighbors, who chose to wait out the hurricane, kept a diary, which DeBlieu excerpts in the essay:
Winds NE, steady 50 to 65. Gusts to 85. I feel very much alone. House shaking, pets okay….
11:30—Winds 80 to 90, gusts way past 100. House rumbling and shaking bad.
11:50—Something crashed and broke downstairs. Winds steady at 100 +. Much wind noise—whistling and shrieking….
1:12—Ears starting to pop. Must yawn to help.
1:35—Eye here, with winds at 10 mph. Seems dead calm. Barometer at 27.8….
3:22—Phone dead. House being blasted….
3:44—Big boat hitting house. Wind won’t die. Can hear lumber cracking and breaking. House might go down.
4:15—Helpless. House can’t stand the damage. I’ll have a Dr. Pepper and a cigarette.
So that’s how one rides the storm out.
Because most of these essays are driven by affection rather than agenda, surprises like this abound. The Woods Stretched for Miles is full of strange accounts of storms, wilds, animals, and people. The eminent E.O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Professor and curator in entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, tells of a childhood moment that changed the course of his life. At 7, he spent a summer in Paradise Beach, Fla., “not far from Pensacola and in sight of Alabama across the river,” where he first fell into the habit of passionate observation of the natural world.
“The child is ready to grasp…to explore and learn, but he has few words to describe his guiding emotions. Instead he is given a compelling image that will serve in later life as a talisman, transmitting a powerful energy that directs the growth of experience and knowledge,” writes Wilson. For him, such a talisman came in the form of medusas, stingrays, and the monstrous Gulf toadfish. “Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist,” he explains.
But the summer marked him in other ways:
During that brief time, however, a second incident occurred that determined what kind of naturalist I would eventually become. I was fishing on the dock…jerking pinfish out of the water as soon as they struck the bait….I carelessly yanked too hard when one of the fish pulled on my line. It flew out of the water and into my face. One of its spines pierced the pupil of my right eye.
Though the accident left him with full sight in one eye only, he continued his pursuits as a naturalist. He cannot see very far very accurately, but he tells us that he can still make out the “hairs on the bodies of small insects.” Thus his introduction to entomology. “I had to have one kind of animal if not another,” the father of sociobiology explains, “because the fire had been lit and I took what I could get.”
There are many more excellent essays. Janet Lembke writes a wonderful piece about the difference between what she calls “river time” and time as dictated by watches. Instead of rushing to group therapy at 6 p.m., Lembke knows it is
[t]ime to plant beans and squash because the moon waxes and the leaves on the sweet-gum trees are new-minted green. Time to fish because the wind blows steady out of the northeast, the bluefish are running, the spotted seatrout are in….Time to stay inside, heat on, and catch up with reading because the pier pilings wear petticoats of ice and the ice itself catches fire when the sun goes down in a blaze that stains the whole sky before it turns to soot.
Wendell Berry’s “The Making of a Marginal Farm” describes how Berry first came to learn to live off the land and in so doing to preserve it. “To spend one’s life farming a piece of earth so passing is, as many would say, a hard lot. But it is, in an ancient sense, the human lot. What saves it is to love the farming.”
Eddy L. Harris writes of his canoe trip down the Mississippi River, particularly his visit to Vicksburg. Bland Simpson gives us a first-rate piece on the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina. Stephan Harrigan writes of the bizarre poisoning of Austin, Texas’, largest live oak, a case involving black magic and a tree-saving psychic who believed that in another lifetime, “when the tree was in human form,” it had been the psychic’s mother in ancient Egypt. And I have yet to mention Barry Lopez’s fine coming-of-age story, set in Georgia, or Archie Carr’s humorous “Living With an Alligator,” in Florida.
Perhaps the essay that captures the spirit of the collection best is Harry Middleton’s “Bagpipes on Hazel Creek.” Middleton’s voice is wry, welcoming, truculent, and humorous at once—and always passionate. With a Southern combination of wit, stubbornness, and seamless prose, he seeks to make readers aware of the importance of wild places, not mere parks or gardens:
And every time I wake and find that I too am suffering from…the unsettling feeling that I have everything I want and so little of what I need, I go to the mountains, wade a fine stream, fly-fish until there is only the pure feeling of honest exhaustion and a light in the sky like that of a bed of embers, a perfection of reds, reds without names or definition or description.
What Middleton sets forth is the idea that human beings need wildness—not wildness in the sense of tests and trials and hardships, but simply confrontation with a world that is greater than our understanding, beyond our control, not made by us, beautiful without our interference. Such confrontation forces us to more honestly assess our place in the world and to more keenly appreciate nature’s wonder.
Yet there is something base and prideful in our nature that causes us to want to destroy the possibility of such confrontation. Some pave over wild places for lucre, some out of fear, some simply for convenience. Whatever the reason, Middleton and the rest of the Southerners in this anthology make it clear that we are tearing away at the work of God and, in doing so, our own spirits. CP