Published Spring 2023
In America today, a moral chasm exists between those whose bodies and souls yearn for nature in the wild and those who need citified surroundings to feel fully alive. On the one hand are whitewater rapids, alpine precipices, primeval forests, and the unsettling awareness that the next turn in the trail might bring you face to face with an outraged grizzly. On the other is the thrill of the never-ending pursuit of wealth and position, fancy dining, and the unsettling awareness that the next block where the streetlights are kaput might bring you face to face with a homeless meth addict with a sharpened screwdriver and designs on your wallet, and perhaps your life.
One would expect some of the happiest of all the wilderness lovers to be the artists who cannot do without continual immersion in nature, and especially the writers whose lyric encomia rival in beauty the wondrous phenomena they describe. America has a rich tradition of nature writing, from Henry David Thoreau to George Perkins Marsh to John Muir, and more recently including Peter Matthiessen, Edward Abbey, Edward Hoagland, Barry Lopez, and John McPhee. Ecstatics who share their peak experiences with their readers, they are some of the most exhilarating writers our country has produced, venturing into the last remaining enclaves of pure wildness, and incandescent with gratitude for the splendor of the creation they are lucky enough to witness.
Perhaps it is inevitable that men so avid in their delights should be so carbuncular in their animadversions. Most of them — with one remarkable exception — hate ferociously the so-called “civilized” world that man has made of the incomparable pristine gift he was given; it is a wreck, a botched job, an abomination. These writers never quite manage to escape this wasteland; it festers in their minds, however far they might have fled from its physical presence. Aristocrats in intellect and spirit, descendants of hot-blooded romantic enemies of bourgeois modernity like Byron, Shelley, and Blake, they proclaim an emphatic “absolutely not!” to the blandishments of the endless material progress that is the hallmark of commercial democratic society. The marvels of modern science and technology leave them cold or stoke their hot anger at Philistine stupidity. Only the non-human world is worthy of their reverent wonder.
The less man’s hand is seen, the better — though they customarily exempt the cultures of indigenous peoples from disapprobation. Such morally upright tribesmen, one step up from their Neolithic ancestors (even the Inuit, formerly known as “Eskimos,” typically have automatic rifles and snowmobiles now), provide the only visible alternative to the crippled civilization on its last unsteady legs. The best hope for man evidently lies in a post-industrial pastoral or hunter-gatherer society to be salvaged from, and to succeed, our current debacle.
Such is the vision of America’s nature writers. They form by now a long tradition of reflection, with much to tell us about the character of our nation and its doubts about itself. They always run the risk of letting their adoration of nature’s marvels leave them contemptuous of their fellow man. And in our politicized time, that mode of thought has become a mode of activism, in defense of “the environment” and in opposition to humanity’s countless abuses of it. To see that this vision originates in a literary form is to grasp not only its roots, but its flavor, and to understand both its depth and its shallowness.
At the fountainhead of this tradition, worshipful toward nature and iconoclastic toward society, is of course Thoreau (1817-1862). Although he would become famous for his love of solitude, his Harvard studies seemed designed to prepare him for a cosmopolitan intellectual career: He graduated knowing Greek, Latin, French, Italian, German, and Spanish, topping off the required studies in literature, philosophy, history, and mathematics with course work in natural history, mineralogy, and anatomy. He tried his hand at teaching school in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, but didn’t last long — though he reportedly excelled at it. For the family cottage industry of pencil manufacture, he perfected a means of producing a superior graphite. But as his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of Thoreau at 25, he appeared “inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men — an Indian life, I mean, as respects the absence of any systematic effort for a livelihood.”
In 1845, Thoreau decamped to the woods on Walden Pond, two miles outside Concord, and on a lot owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson he reassembled a small house — not much more than a hut — that he bought in pieces from a bankrupt farmer leaving town. He lived alone there for just over two years while maintaining regular contact with friends and family in Concord. Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) — quite enthusiastically reviewed in its day but out of print five years later — is now the best-known book of non-fiction prose written by an American.
Thoreau’s aims were to live as simply and frugally as he could, and to find what man requires in the way of accommodation in the largest sense — the sense Shakespeare evokes in the insight of King Lear, disowned by his wicked daughters and mad on the heath in a virtual monsoon: “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” What is it then that a man really needs? The “political economy” of the likes of Adam Smith, to which Harvard introduced Thoreau, by no means fulfills his demands: What does the wealth of nations matter beside the happiness of an individual life? True economy, which Harvard ignored, is the heart of philosophy, the art indispensable to living well, of arranging for yourself the material necessities and the spiritual amenities for your chosen course.
One sees Thoreau’s triumph in passages like the following, with its aesthetic rapture at the spectacle of nature, which astonished him every day:
It may be that in the distance a fish describes an arc of three or four feet in the air, and there is one bright flash where it emerges, and another where it strikes the water; sometimes the whole silvery arc is revealed; or here and there, perhaps, is a thistle-down floating on its surface, which the fishes dart at and so dimple it again. It is like molten glass cooled but not congealed, and the few motes in it are pure and beautiful like the imperfections in glass.
This is the vision of a man who is living the life he is meant for — and one who congratulates himself on avoiding the company and the fate of his unfortunate countrymen. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau declared of these pitiable souls in the most famous summation ever composed of American moral catastrophe. “What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.” It is to escape the disagreeable fragrance of civilized wretchedness that Thoreau took to the woods, and in Walden he returns repeatedly to the failure of the multitude to be worthy of the gift of life on earth.
The mediocrity of a commercial republic, rotten at the root, condemns even men who might otherwise be capable of spiritual excellence to a noisome commonness: “[T]rade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.” Mental powers are wasted on trivial and transitory concerns, when there are cultural riches available even in crude America: “We should be as good as the worthies of antiquity, but partly by first knowing how good they were. We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper.” Most men read the same way they go about their business — ”to serve a paltry convenience” — blind to what they are really doing: “but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing.”
And reading seriously is but preliminary to life’s main event, which is nothing less than living itself, and which demands unstinting attentiveness to whatever comes one’s way:
No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?
Better on occasion not to read at all, but to hoe beans, and to do so with the utmost awareness of every thought and sensation. Better still now and then to do apparently nothing, and to take in whatever nature offers.
For a discipline as vigorous as Thoreau’s Zen-like absorption in the moment — his passion for this world and these sights as against some promised Christian shadowland — serious leisure is a must. “I loaf and invite my soul,” Walt Whitman wrote of his own modus operandi, which opened him wide to, and ever ready for, the sublime tumult of existence. Thoreau’s soul too, he wrote, thrived on
a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiselessly through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night.
Leisure is the basis of culture, as the 20th-century philosopher Josef Pieper taught in a brief yet bounteous book of that title, and from Thoreau’s unconcern about “how the hours went,” there emerged a rare spiritual refinement. His formidable loafing made him something more than a mighty intellect.
It was of course Henry James who exhorted his readers to be among those on whom nothing was lost, and again and again Thoreau anticipates him. But for James, Thoreau was the sort of man on whom most every social nuance and scruple were lost, while in Thoreau’s estimation, James would surely be as comically blind as Mr. Magoo to nature in its manifold detail, utterly unmoved by the magnificent leaping of pickerel or the sight of a bug bouncing like a dust mote in a stream of sunlight. Each of these writers of genius is but half a man in the eyes of the other, and both are right about what the other is missing. But it is hard even for an extraordinary man to be everything.
Thoreau chose to be a devoted child of nature — to the exclusion of much else. In the remarkable essay “Walking,” he announced loudly that mere civilization could not contain him. “You will perceive that I demand something which no Augustan nor Elizabethan age, which no culture, in short, can give.” Eulogizing the “absolute Freedom and Wildness” of nature, he cast off the chafing tameness of civilization, for which “there are enough champions…the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.” If Americans were ever to make something impressive of themselves, it would be by taking the grandeur of the untamed land into their souls.
Thoreau’s spiritual hero was the one who left civilization far behind him. Wildness held the answer to the immemorial question: How are we to live? “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” To revolt the mandarins and prigs who oversaw the parlor niceties gave Thoreau a thrill as of adolescent defiance: “Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure, — as if we lived on the marrow of koodoos devoured raw.”
Occasionally, he admitted a ray of hope for the souls of his countrymen, but mostly when he turned to the habits of the American people he did not hold back in his vituperation. There was a steel-tipped lash to his prose, which bit deep into the vulnerable native flesh. In “Life Without Principle,” he shouted his repugnance for the way most men spend their lives. “What is called politics is comparatively something so superficial and inhuman, that, practically, I have never fairly recognized that it concerns me at all.” When it came to “our boasted commerce,” his contempt was boundless: “[T]here are those who style themselves statesmen and philosophers who are so blind as to think that progress and civilization depend on precisely this kind of interchange and activity, — the activity of flies about a molasses-hogs-head.”
The majority of Americans did not love what Thoreau loved, and that was the main thing he found wrong with the country. In “Huckleberries,” he got to the crux of the matter: “Most men, it appears to me, do not care for Nature, and would sell their share in all her beauty, for as long as they may live, for a stated and not very large sum. Thank God they cannot yet fly and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.” This is neither generous nor true, a patent insult; but here are the theme and the tone that have dominated American nature writing ever since.
DEFENDERS OF THE WILD
Thoreau was irrevocably who he was, and he has attracted a host of kindred spirits down the years. His last words on his deathbed were reportedly “Indian” and “moose” — perfectly apposite, given the life he chose, but amusing at this distance, with their suggestion of somewhat fantastic obsessions and confining horizons. And so with his disciples.
In Man and Nature (1864), George Perkins Marsh, a Dartmouth-educated polymath who established the proportions of the Washington Monument and possessed the leading collection of prints and engravings in mid-century America, amplified Thoreau’s distress at the idolatry of material interests, and predicted an unnatural disaster in the offing. The more civilized man gets, the more destructive of nature he is: “Man has too long forgotten,” he wrote, “that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste.”
Human beings, Marsh observed, do not kill strictly to satisfy their needs, as other animals do, but destroy “thousands of organic forms which [they] cannot consume.” Less natural than the great mass of animal and plant life, which has existed for eons without disturbing the fundamental order, humanity is unique in its capacity to change nature. Eventually, and none too soon, it will have to renounce its self-proclaimed license as master of nature and learn to live in harmony with the rest of Creation:
The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant, and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence, and of like duration with that through which traces of that crime and that improvidence extend, would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species.
In Marsh’s eyes, the various marvels man has performed for the enhancement of nature, from reclamation of swamp bottom for farmland to the formation of lavish oases in the Sahara, cannot make up for the damage he has visited upon the earth. The situation is already grave, and the need for reversal of course emergent: “[T]he world cannot afford to wait,” he contended, “till the slow and sure progress of exact science has taught it a better economy.” Decisive action, even in the absence of adequate knowledge, is of the essence. Modern environmentalists hail Marsh as an indispensable visionary, but such precipitancy is always a dangerous proposition. And we are hearing the same outcry today.
John Muir (1838-1914), born in Scotland and raised on a Wisconsin farm by a father who beat Biblical truth into him, founded the Sierra Club and became the premier voice crying out in the wilderness for wilderness. He would hike the Yosemite backcountry in the company of Theodore Roosevelt — the two conservationist brothers in arms, off on their own. He would lead a celebrated but failed campaign to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite from being dammed and inundated to make a reservoir to provide San Francisco with a reliable water supply; today, environmental activists still clamor for the dam to be taken down and the valley restored to its original beauty. Muir retains his reputation as a crusader without fear or reproach.
The fish in the sea, the fowls in the air, “every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” — all the creatures over which God in the first chapter of Genesis granted man dominion — possess in Muir’s contrarian view every right to dwell free and untroubled by human presumption. His favorite bird, the indestructible water ouzel, which dives into the most treacherous streams, appreciates nature’s beauty where men see only its frightfulness, “interpreting all that we in our unbelief call terrible in the utterances of torrents and storms, as only varied expressions of God’s eternal love.”
Where Emerson in the essay “Nature” prophesied that once man got his head right all inimical natural phenomena would disappear, from pestilence to swine, spiders, and snakes, Muir spoke up for beings unfairly maligned. “Though alligators, snakes, etc., naturally repel us, they are not mysterious evils. They dwell happily in these flowery wilds, are part of God’s family, unfallen, undepraved, and cared for with the same species of tenderness and love as is bestowed on angels in heaven or saints on earth.”
On the other hand, the fallen and depraved merchants, speculators, and politicians who are out to deform Hetch Hetchy and similar natural wonders for the sake of human convenience deserve only fear and loathing:
despoiling gainseekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators, eagerly trying to make everything immediately and selfishly commercial, with schemes disguised in smug-smiling philanthropy, industriously, shampiously crying, “Conservation, conservation, panutilization,” that man and beast may be fed and the dear Nation made great.
The lovers of wilderness pit themselves against the incorrigible business interests “as part of the universal battle between right and wrong.” Muir eagerly conducted this combat to the death.
Peter Matthiessen (1927-2014), Yale graduate, co-founder of The Paris Review, and sometime CIA agent, was the most gifted and accomplished of the more recent militant-environmentalist writers, as well as the most adventurous. He rode a wooden raft down the perilous swift waters of a Peruvian jungle river in quest of a gargantuan and perhaps fantastic fossil, as he recorded in The Cloud Forest (1961). He dwelt among New Guinea natives, who had not advanced beyond the Stone Age and lived chiefly for the delights of war, as he told it in Under the Mountain Wall (1962). He hiked through the Himalayas in the hope of observing the most secretive and gorgeous of big cats. The Snow Leopard (1978), which won the National Book Award, is one of the best American books of the past 50 years.
Matthiessen’s persistent emotional overcast and distaste for the way most of his countrymen live stemmed from the fear that ours may be the end times for the wilderness he loved. Wildlife in America (1959, revised 1987) poignantly catalogues the ever smaller space that the wild occupies amid an ever-growing and ever more destructive human population. The diminutive and exceedingly rare Key deer, found on a single Florida island, are being undone in part by their “fondness for cigarette butts, which tempt[s] [them] onto the Key West Highway.” The ocean-dwelling giant leatherback turtle, some eight feet long, “has a particular fondness for jellyfish, and may therefore mistake a floating plastic bag for a good meal.” Certain noble creatures refuse to go down so grotesquely: A classic native raptor appears downright defiant of the encroaching man-made miasma. “Yellow-eyed and arrogant, unwilling to give ground, the golden eagle seems almost to disdain the civilization which is sweeping it away.” This eagle may have been Matthiessen’s spirit animal, after the Indian tradition he honored.
Another candidate for that distinction is the great white shark. Matthiessen accompanied a documentary film crew in its travels from South Africa to Madagascar to Australia in search of the elusive predator, and he went scuba diving in a cage in the midst of these terrifying beasts. In Blue Meridian (1971), he compared the repulsive human harvesting of whales, replete with the horror of modern men’s cruelty, to the elegant, streamlined deadliness of the feeding shark. “Because it is senseless the whale slaughter would be ugly, but the shark’s banquet would be beautiful….The shadow of sharks is the shadow of death, and they call forth dim ultimate fears. Yet there is something holy in their silence.”
An earnest Zen Buddhist, Matthiessen looked out for the especially holy in unconventional places and spied the unholy throughout the well-known beliefs and activities of modern Western man. In Indian Country (1984), he contended that the modern scientific project for the conquest of nature has violated the sacred integrity of the earth and its creatures — and, not incidentally, offended their Creator. “By seeking to dominate [nature], the white men set themselves in opposition to a vital, healing force of which they were a part and thereby mislaid a whole dimension of existence.”
Traditional Indian beliefs are as profound as the intuitions of the wisest Christian mystics, he argued, and to denigrate them as primitive is arrogant folly. “It isn’t enough to admire Indian teachings; we need them….If our time on earth is to endure [sic], we must love the earth in the strong, unsentimental way of traditional peoples, not seeking to exploit but to live in balance with the natural world.” Matthiessen was so smitten with traditional Indian ways that he devoted his longest book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983), to flaying white men as the spurners of Indian wisdom and the enemies of the natural world, and to the moral defense of Lakota political activists who murdered two young FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1975.
Barry Lopez (1945-2020) was a graduate of Notre Dame, whose writing demonstrates a progressive Christian sensibility that scorns the Catholic missionary influence on the life of indigenous peoples. In Arctic Dreams (1986), which won the National Book Award, he related that Eskimos “call us, with a mixture of incredulity and apprehension, ‘the people who change nature.'” The changes that Lopez habitually considered are nearly all for the worse. The certainty haunted him that the type of intelligence — political, scientific, technological, moral — that got us into our current predicament is incapable of getting us out of it; a radical change of course is required.
In a frantically titled essay, “An Era of Emergencies Is Upon Us and We Cannot Look Away,” which appears in the still more flamboyantly titled posthumous collection, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, all the clichés of the genre are duly invoked: “We must invent overnight, figuratively speaking, another kind of civilization, one more cognizant of limits, less greedy, more compassionate, less bigoted, more inclusive, less exploitive.” Conceived in rhetorical fire that “historically invoked revolution,” vengeance for the indecencies committed against nature impressed Lopez as a pretty good idea in The Rediscovery of North America (1990): “[W]ho does not want to say, ‘Forgive me, thou bleeding earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers’?”
In the European settlers’ unspeakable scramble for the material wealth of the helpless prostrate continent, invaluable native cultures that might have saved white men from themselves never stood a chance: “We lost languages, epistemologies, books, ceremonies, systems of logic and metaphysics — a long, hideous carnage.” One allows a respected writer his enthusiasms, but somehow one suspects that if we possessed the works of the Aristotle of the Iroquois or the Kant of the Kiowa, they would cast no shade on their Old World philosophical colleagues. In any case, the best we can hope for now is “that what is left of what we have subjugated might determine its own life.” The outlook for such environmental salvation is not optimal.
Edward Abbey (1927-1989), the most obstreperous of the nature zealots — louder, brasher, cruder than his fellow writers — first made his name with Desert Solitaire (1968), which recounts among various other adventures his service as a park ranger at the Arches National Monument in Utah, a place of extravagant beauty under assault from “Industrial Tourism.” Mass society — which, according to José Ortega y Gasset, means someone is already sitting where you want to sit — makes itself most obnoxious in Abbey’s eyes in a place where most persons don’t belong at all. Too many people come to the park who don’t deserve to see these wondrous rock formations, which in a just world would be enshrined deep in the wilderness, reachable only by several days’ forced march — an excursion complete with obligatory scorpions in sleeping bags and, if it can be arranged, a Comanche scalping party, to deter those feeble in will.
Greater respect for the non-human world is de rigueur, and Abbey laid down the law. Human beings ought to quake with awe at the sight of marvels like Delicate Arch, “a fragile ring of stone on the far side of a natural amphitheatre, set on its edge at the brink of a five hundred foot drop-off.” Such natural masterworks remind us “that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship.” Most people fail to understand this. Most people, in Abbey’s estimation, depart their lives more stupid than they entered upon them.
They can’t help themselves: The culture that formed them corrupts everything it produces. To escape its lethal mantrap, one must be willing to chew off his own leg as would a captured wolverine. Desperate measures for desperate men; freedom at all costs. “[A Navajo] man,” Abbey wrote, “would rather lie drunk in the gutters of Gallup, New Mexico, a disgrace to his tribe and his race, than button on a clean white shirt and spend the best part of his life inside an air-conditioned office building with windows that cannot be opened.”
Reasonable persons might question such a preference, but Abbey stood firm by his most outrageous pronouncements and continually upped the ante. “We need more predators. The sheepmen complain, it is true, that the coyotes eat some of their lambs. This is true but do they eat enough? I mean, enough lambs to keep the coyotes sleek, healthy and well fed. That is my concern.” In the essay “Down the River with Henry Thoreau” (1982), which finds Abbey on the Green River in Utah with a well-thumbed copy of Walden, nature gives culture the coup de grâce, followed by a kick in the pants for good measure: “Speaking for myself, I’d sooner have been a liver-eating, savage horseman riding with Red Cloud than a slave-owning sophist sipping tempered wine in Periclean Athens.” One is reminded of Thoreau ecstatically bloody around the mouth, gorging on koodoo marrow.
The book that really made Abbey a cult hero and a force in the environmentalist movement is the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), about four ecologically mindful characters agitated by the sight of the American West’s last pristine reaches being ravaged in service of urban and suburban blight many miles away. The roaring foursome has a high old time pulling up surveyors’ stakes, bringing down billboards and power lines, and propelling bulldozers over the cliff’s edge. Their ambition is to demolish the Glen Canyon Dam on what was once the Colorado River:
Instead of a river he looked down on a motionless body of murky green effluent, dead, stagnant, dull, a scum of oil floating on the surface. On the canyon walls a coating of dried silt and mineral salts, like a bathtub ring, recorded high-water mark. Lake Powell: storage pond, silt trap, evaporation tank and garbage dispose-all, a 180-mile-long incipient sewage lagoon.
Best to put this loathsome freak out of its misery.
As one member of the gang says to another who is both more fanatical and more dim, “‘[a]ll you’re asking for is a counter-industrial revolution.'” Abbey’s novel, which was reputedly based on certain destructive high-spirited antics of his own, found its living imitators in the organization Earth First!, whose devotees became even more expert than Abbey in techniques of eco-sabotage. Abbey, for his part, predicted that industrial civilization will topple of its own weight in environmental crisis during the coming century, and that happier prospects for men and the earth will ensue as Red Cloud rides again.
THE CONTROL OF NATURE
Fantasies of resurrected joyous savagery are not what you find in the works of John McPhee (born 1931), the quintessential writer of New Yorker book-length non-fiction for the past half-century and more. What you do find is solid, disinterested reporting in sober, lovely prose, frequently on topics to do with the impingement and abrasion of the natural world on the human and vice versa.
The great theme of modernity, the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate prophesied by Francis Bacon and René Descartes in the 17th century, is a vital presence behind McPhee’s treatment of such characteristically journalistic subjects as the danger that terrorists might get their hands on nuclear materials and the efforts of a physics genius to prevent that from happening (The Curve of Binding Energy, 1974); the attempt to get a novel type of airship off the ground (The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, 1973); the survival skills of late 20th-century settlers in the Alaskan hinterland (Coming into the Country, 1977); the collisions, under agreeable circumstances, of the most inflexible environmental activist with a mining engineer, a resort developer, and the builder of the Glen Canyon Dam (Encounters with the Archdruid, 1971); the menace to New Orleans of a change in the course of the Mississippi River, the enterprise to mitigate the destruction caused by volcanoes in Iceland and Hawaii, and the terrifying mudslides that bedevil Los Angeles homeowners on the slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains (The Control of Nature, 1989); and the industrial technology that produces millions of gallons of orange juice for the American breakfast table (Oranges, 1967).
McPhee has the utmost regard for the human handiwork that compels nature to do its bidding. For him, science and technology, handled with care, are not inimical, but rather beneficial to genuine human interests. It was the resourcefulness of Spanish conquistadors that populated the New World, and Florida in particular, with orange trees, grown for medical use. Human artistry developed the orange and other fruit trees that make mass consumption possible; agricultural ingenuity produces oranges on lemon rootstock and lemons on orange rootstock. “A single citrus tree can be turned into a carnival, with lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, kumquats, and oranges all ripening on its branches at the same time.” Industrial agribusiness has its methods of improving on nature to suit the customer’s idea of a proper orange. Civilization has the advantage over nature when it comes to good-tasting orange juice: Florida natives, who have the option to drink fresh-squeezed juice rather than the reconstituted stuff, choose not to do so.
In McPhee’s writings, the application of human will to problems of production seems almost limitless. Innovators transform wilderness into cultivated land:
In 1959, the Minute Maid Company went into the savannas with earth-moving machines and heaved up a great ten-foot wall of earth surrounding seven thousand acres of marsh. Then they pumped out the water, graded the sandy soil, and planted six hundred thousand orange trees. It was an impressive feat, and it emboldened many other companies and syndicates to do the same.
In McPhee’s estimation, boldness is no bad thing. Yet he also recognizes that it is sometimes intractable nature that conquers: Human desire must submit to superior power — witness the worst that Floridian hard freezes can do to an orange crop — and nature running wild shows no consideration for men’s needs.
The ambiguous title of The Control of Nature encapsulates such human heroism and frailty, which McPhee illustrates in three instances of man coming up against colossal inhuman forces. When the Mississippi River is preparing to change its course through southern Louisiana, as it is wont to do every several hundred years, it looks to be absorbed into one of its tributaries, the Atchafalaya, and threatens to strand New Orleans without fresh water or access to its accustomed commercial traffic from upriver. “For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature.” The duty of the Army Corps of Engineers is to preserve the now familiar course of the Mississippi, an undertaking McPhee eulogizes — though not without a mock heroic fillip — as practically superhuman: “to fight against the earth, to take what is not given, to rout the destroying enemy, to surround the base of Mt. Olympus demanding and expecting the surrender of the gods.” The impossible takes a little time, as the revealing American adage goes, but in this case the impossible gets done.
Icelanders, too, accomplished the impossible in diverting a lava flow with the strenuous application of a great deal of cold water. But it’s not always thus: Sometimes the impossible stays impossible. When the lava flows from Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea, Hawaiians are made to understand that their lives are subject to Nature’s moods, without hope of mollifying them or averting the damage. American litigiousness keeps the authorities from daring to try to change the lava’s course, for saving one man’s house would effectively condemn another’s, and it would take decades and a fortune to resolve the lawsuits. And when the torrential rains fall on the high chaparral, Angelenos on the hillsides know they stand a chance of losing everything, their lives included, in the landslides that are sure to follow. Here it is only Nature’s law that matters: Water flows and boulders roll downhill, and it is best to be out of their way when they do. But it is also human nature to want a share of Nature’s beauty, which abounds in the perilous canyons; so people continue to risk all for the chance to live in such superb surroundings.
NATURE AND MAN
American civilization does not offer much in the way of the superb; we are to be contented with middling pleasures in exchange for (what one hopes will be) only minor pains. Not everyone is satisfied with this arrangement, and some seek out adventure or beauty or silence or mental clarity in wild places, or increasingly even in places just slightly less tame than most.
Nature has always drawn some of the noblest spirits, and our literature has a wealth of serious and accomplished nature writing by persons who find the best in their own humanity as far as possible from most other human beings. But the obverse of this excellence is an unrelenting disdain for the lives most of their countrymen lead, and for the multitude’s indebtedness to the powers whose political schemata and mechanical wizardry have made life so comfortable and so predictable. It is refreshing, then, to read someone like John McPhee, who loves the outdoorsman’s life, but who has a place in his heart for a nation of shopkeepers, and who treats with respect even the people who think real life did not begin (to borrow a turn of derogatory wit from another implacable child of nature, Edward Hoagland) until Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell invented it.
Surely the wonder that Delicate Arch excites needn’t rule out the wonder one feels at the lights of New York City seen from an airplane at night; modernity, too, has its marvels. We dwell among them without thinking, and they ought to be acknowledged as such in the fullness of soul.
Algis Valiunas is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor to The New Atlantis, a journal about the ethical, political, and social implications of modern science technology.