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June 27, 2010

Sunday Book Thread: Back to Nature

I generally read much more non-fiction than fiction, and my particular tastes run to history, economics/finance, astrophyhsics and astronomy, and information technology and cognitive science. I read the occasional baseball book, like George Will's Men at Work. I even enjoy nature and earth-science writing when it isn't composed of barely-hidden Gaia-worship or Rousseauian "noble savage" crap. (Or, in Al Gore's case, nobel savage.)

More after the jump.


Nature writing has suffered a lot of indignities in the Al Gore era. There are whole shelves of books on how human beings are raping and pillaging Mother Earth; on "sustainable" living; and dreamy treatises of how humans can "bond" with Nature (do note the capital "N"). Most examples of the latter are trying to ape Henry David Thoreau's Walden, and usually without much success.

In fact, Walden is a good place to start because it is one of those books everyone has heard of but few have actually read. It is considered by many the avatar of the nature-writing genre, and it has influenced many people since it was first published in 1854 -- unfortunately. The problem with Thoreau's writing is that the books themselves give only part of the story. Consider Walden: it is supposedly a treatise on simple living, a guidebook on how to live more harmoniously with nature. Yet the truth is that Henry David Thoreau wasn't exactly living in the wilderness when he wrote it; he lived in a small shack on land his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson owned, about three miles from town. It turns out that "communing with nature" is much easier when your friend owns the land and lets you live on it for free, and you can trot down to the general store when you run out of sugar or salt.

Walden is a wonderful book, a necessary book, but context is important. Unfortunately, many "nature" writers since have missed that simple lesson and as a result of produced a lot of really bad nature writing. (My own rule of thumb is to avoid any book that's described as being "spiritual" or speaks of humans being "custodians" of the land.)

When a writer of insight and skill manages to overcome the fuzzy-headed eco-religious bent so common in nature writing, though, some excellent and timeless books can result.

You can't go wrong with either of Charles Darwin's opuses, The Voyage of the Beagle or The Origin of Species. Both books are far easier to read than people think (though obviously old-fashioned), and Darwin's probing insight is as valuable now as it has ever been.

In the modern day, two writers have cornered the market on books about evolution: Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. Both are men of the left, academics, and not particularly friendly to organized religious belief (Dawkins, in fact, is downright hostile). I found Dawkins' early work The Blind Watchmaker to be his best simply because he hadn't yet built up the load of egotism, arrogance, and hostility that would later so damage his work. Gould, on the other hand, was a Marxist historian who tended to hew to his own pet theories at the expense of accurate discussion, but his best book was Wonderful Life, a book about the weird creatures unearthed in the Burgess Shale many years ago. But I think for most people, Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True is the best place to start.

I approach the topic of evolution with fear and trembling, knowing the intellectual havoc it can wreak between those of religious belief and those who are not religious. I take evolution as a proven fact; I am also a believing Christian. Make of that what you will. Even if you disagree, it's helpful to know what you are disagreeing with. Evolutionary theory has changed much since Darwin's day.

E. O. Wilson has been writing about nature and the animal kingdom for years. A book he co-wrote with Bert Holldobler called The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies is a real standout. I'm normally not interested in insects except in the negative -- when I care about them, it's usually because I'm scared of them. (This I find is where the good nature writers are separated from bad. Good nature writers can not only make you care about stuff you didn't understand anything about before you picked up the book, but actually become interested in it.)

John McPhee is one of the best nature writers America has ever produced. He has written many fine books, but my two favorites are The Annals of the Former World and The Founding Fish. Annals in particular is a nearly mind-boggling achievement: it makes geology not only interesting, but fascinating. It's a very long book, but never tedious or overly complex -- McPhee is writing for everyday readers, not specialists. McPhee is an absolute treasere, and I wish more people would read his stuff.

Robert Pirsig's book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I've mentioned before, is a book about man and nature as much as anything. About our place in nature, how we react to it and live in it. It generally escapes the Rousseauian trap that so many nature writers fall into, and is brimming with insight.

America has produced few humorists as reliable as Patrick F. McManus. I remember reading A Fine and Pleasant Misery as a kid in my tent on hunting trips, snorting and giggling and totally relating to McManus' misadventures in the Great Outdoors.

If you must go the hippy-dippy spiritualist route, you could do worse than William Least Heat Moon's PrairyErth. I didn't hate it.

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posted by Monty at 08:58 AM

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