Books

They spoke for the Earth

Thoreau, Whitman, Carson, Abbey, McPhee, Dillard, Kingsolver -- the number of great American authors whose writing has focused on the natural environment is remarkable. Some people assert that environmental writing is America's single most important contribution to the world's literature. Now, at a time when human activities appear to be altering the global climate, it is especially fitting that we recall the voices who through two centuries have recognized the danger in our many insults to nature and pointed out a path to healing.

"American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau" (The Library of America) features book excerpts, articles and essays from 100 American authors writing from the early 1800s through the present day. The selections were chosen (with a little help from his friends) by Bill McKibben, author of "The End of Nature" and one of the foremost thinkers on the environment today. His excellent introduction to the book and comments preceding each entry provide essential biographical information on the authors and put their writing in context of the time and place in which they lived.

Environmental writing, McKibben explains, is distinct from nature writing in that it "takes as its subject the collision between people and the rest of the world, and asks searching questions about the collision: Is it necessary? What are its effects? Might there be a better way?"

Though we are bombarded today by countless sound bites on the environment from sources few of us could name, the books and essays these early authors penned were singularly important, often affecting the way that people thought and acted about the environment. "Without George Perkins Marsh and his writing on the dangers of deforestation, it's not at all sure that the New York state legislature would have embarked on the quite extraordinary task of protecting the Adirondacks," McKibben writes. "Without Rachel Carson sounding the alarm when she did, it seems entirely likely that many more species of American birds might have been doomed."

At 970 pages, "American Earth" is not a book that even dedicated environmentalists are likely to read from cover to cover. But there are plenty of gems for the picking. I found myself gravitating to the authors who seemed particularly insightful for their day, or who surprised me with their concern for the environment. P.T. Barnum, the famous showman and promoter, actually wrote a book in 1866 calling for the prohibition of billboards along highways. "It is outrageously selfish to destroy the pleasure of thousands, for the sake of chance of additional gain," he wrote in "Humbugs of the World."

George Caitlin, painter of the American frontier, urged in 1841 (35 years before the Battle of the Little Big Horn) that a swath of prairie from Mexico to Canada be preserved for the Indians and the American bison. Planner Benton McKay in 1928 espoused a philosophy to contain urban sprawl. "A city ... must first of all have unity," he wrote. "There must be definite geographic boundaries as with the early New England village; and no petering out in fattening, gelatinous suburban fringes."

I also enjoyed revisiting authors whom I had read in my youth, but whose exact words had dimmed in my memory. Here is Aldo Leopold, the father of modern ecology, warning in "Sand County Almanac" about the price we pay for our distancing from nature. "Your true modern [person] is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it. Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a 'scenic area,' he is bored stiff."

Annie Dillard, whom I remembered as singing the praises of nature in "Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek," was actually quite bitter about what it revealed to her. "I don't know what it is about fecundity that so appalls," she wrote upon observing the profligate breeding of plants and insects. "I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives."

Reading "American Earth," I considered how pleased the early writers would be about developments in certain aspects of the environment -- the reforestation of the landscape, the control of soil erosion, the recovery of certain wildlife populations. I also thought how saddened they would be by urban sprawl, the disinterest of youth in nature, and the threat of human-induced climate change. I found myself paying special attention to the most recent writings -- Michael Pollan's warning about the health effects of cornfed beef in "The Omnivore's Dilemma," David Quammen's prediction of mass extinctions in "Planet of Weeds." I took heart in Paul Hawken's belief that citizen-based organizations can and will rise up and challenge the status quo where it threatens the environment.

"There is much to be proud of in this literature; the movement it has inspired has won a great many fights it has picked," McKibben concludes. "But there is no closure in the struggle." And so we should continue to read and to write about the environment. In those endeavors, "American Earth" provides great inspiration.

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