Enough nature writing already!

by Stephen Lyons

In a column by Anne Lamott in the online magazine "Salon," she made the following proposal: "Rather than make perfectly good writers crank out new books every few years because they need income and are otherwise unemployable, what if we gave them subsidies not to write any more books, like they give to tobacco growers?"


I would be even more specific. Let's pay "nature writers' not to write any more books for at least 10 years. (If Ed Abbey reappears, he gets an exemption.)


This may be heresy, but how many times do we need to wade through an introvert's musings on his or her latest tramp into unspoiled wilderness? Would it hurt anyone to have a moratorium on the word "sacred," or on the following: "I take a step slowly across the knoll. I listen to coyotes howl. I watch hawks circle on thermals that I feel against my skin, which is attached to my body. If only all of humankind could walk with me and think the same thoughts I have then all conflicts, cruelty, and madness would cease. I take another step ... into the wild." (Because I have actually written similar passages, it is only fair that I also abide by the moratorium. Is that applause I hear?)


Along with the moratorium would come some new guidelines for writers of nature books currently in production. First, the writer would have to participate in cutting down the exact number of trees responsible to produce his or her work. Experienced loggers will offer instruction. After the trees are cut and shipped to the mill, the writer must restore the logged area by sowing native grasses and planting new trees. We'll provide the necessary seed, gloves and hoedads.


Second, there will be no more multi-city book tours. Travel by planes and cars contributes to global warming. Newly published authors must limit their reading tours to venues that are within walking distance. Although these rules may seem harsh, all I'm asking is that nature writers take responsibility for their products.


Recently I gave up trying to read a famous nature writer's latest work after encountering the pronoun "I" 18 times on the first page. (Fortunately, this was a library book.) The writer appeared lonely, self-centered, and smug all at the same time. He needed friends, a volunteer shift at a soup kitchen in Gallup, N.M., or perhaps a year of hard labor in a Montana aluminum smelter. Each word dripped from the wick of self-importance. After three paragraphs I no longer cared what he thought about bobcats, fog, or cedar trees. I just wanted my own thoughts back. My wife puts it best: "Why do I want to think out of another person's brain when I can only think out of my own brain?"


I think I get the message by now, and I truly believe in that message. We should love nature, preserve wild places, notice hawks (maybe even magpies and coots), work to curb development and control consumption, and, if possible, grow a beard to convey our woodsman prowess. To be an environmentalist is a given.


Truth is, most of us in the West live in town-cities, many of them crowded. We commute, and it's rare anymore if we do something as self-indulgent as driving four hours over crummy washboard roads so we can be alone to write about the experience of being alone. More immediate concerns are that our knees sound like castanets when we climb stairs, our children are moving away to cool cities and we aren't; we need dental work, we worry about black ice, health care, property assessments and our parents.


Sadly, most Americans don't need wilderness, even though many of them benefit indirectly, such as getting drinking water from supplies high up in wilderness drainages. The survival of the lynx or great gray owl is not a national concern, despite all the books with the gorgeous covers printed on acid-free, 80-pound paper that now compete for space in every bookstore in America.


Amazing as it sounds, I know many wonderful people who live extraordinarily rewarding lives without ever wanting to "experience the silence of the forest," or hear the "haunting cry of the loon." Brooklyn is full of such people. So is France. Yet, writers still bombard us with advice: "Learning to be attentive in the forest opens us up to intimacy and the movement of thought." We already have enough nature books to keep us spiritual into the next century. In fact, we could have stopped after Walden and Leaves of Grass. Maybe what we need are some fresh voices.


Let's expand the literary canon to include loggers, miners, ranchers, Greyhound bus drivers, bored teenagers living in Eugene, Ore., small newspaper publishers, Hispanics, Native Americans and barley farmers. We want books by people who have cut down trees and plowed under sagebrush. New anthologies will appear with titles like Women of the West Who Don't Wear Dangling Silver Earrings, or The Best New Clear-Cut Stories of 1998, edited by Larry Craig.


The next 10 years will pass quickly, and all you subsidized nature writers will receive your checks on time at the beginning of each month. In the interim, get out a little bit. Visit a city, take in a baseball game, ride a crowded subway, learn to laugh out loud, and - most of all - try experimenting with the third-person plural pronoun. We'll be in touch. n © High Country News