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Introduction

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"Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness… .We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wreckes, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we will never wander."

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Although several important works of American natural history were written before and during his lifetime, Henry David Thoreau is traditionally credited with having created the modern nature essay. After a series of promising early essays, including "A Winter Walk" and "Natural History of Massachusetts," Thoreau produced, after seven years of concentrated effort, the world's first unified collection of nature essays in Walden: or, Life in the Woods. The book chronicled his two-year stay on some forested lakeside property owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. His essay "Civil Disobedience," based on the teachings of Christ, later served as a primary source document and philosophical inspiration for twentieth-century social reformers such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. When Thoreau died at the age of forty-four, Emerson observed that "the country knows not yet… how great a person it has lost."

The three major themes of Walden — communion, renewal, and liberation — continue to pervade the genre even now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, and are evident in the eighteen nature essays featured here. By far, the most prevalent theme is the first, communion, which involves the intimate sharing of the human spirit with the natural world. Naturalist David Petersen, for example, takes us to a high mountain trail in Glacier national park where grizzly bears are often seen. Here he is treated to an epiphany:

"I whoop and Neal joins me, and for the next several minutes we watch the [grizzly] as it feeds among the quiltwork of tiny meadows… melts into then reappears from dense copses of subalpine spruce and fir and otherwise indulges and enjoys its wild and fierce freedom… Here, I reflect, is the flesh-and-fur incarnation of the wildness in which Thoreau advised resides the preservation of the world. The preservation of the world. The preservation of my world, at least."

Similarly, Bruce Berger describes one of his favorite "getaways" in the world — a Steinbeckean village in the Mexican Baja — in his essay "Under the Cypress." It is a quiet, pastoral realm where the beleaguered spirit is free to mingle with a lovely, humanized parcel of the natural world:

"I never ceased marveling at the sheer abundance. In the vegetable garden were onions, garlic, chiles, hops, potatoes, celery, peppers, cabbage, parsley, cilantro, and a variety of greens for spice, salads, medicines, and herbal teas whose English names I didn't know. Overhead hung bananas, papayas, pomegranates, dates, and citrus crosses of Hector's devising. Spiking the greenery were zinnias, marigolds, roses, hollyhocks, and cosmos, and the balance of the property drifted in grapevines."

Bruce Berger reminds us that for many, perhaps most, nature is a lowercase noun — the tame world of backyard gardens and village or city parks. A communion with nature in this context is just as valid, in some ways just as ancient, as a communion with nature in more remote areas.

A second theme found in these essays is renewal, the rejuvenation of the fatigued spirit, heart, and body through contact with the regenerative forces of wild nature. Although present to an extent in all the essays, the theme is strongly evident in two selections. Susan Tweit's essay from her memoir of life in the Chichuahuan Desert, comes to mind first, as she writes about tuberculosis victims traveling to the Southwest for the healing effects of the arid mountain air:

"Tuberculosis was big business for the desert Southwest, ranking equal in its economic benefits and in the number of new residents that it attracted, say historians, to agriculture and mining. Towns competed to attract lungers, advertising their healthful qualities… Doctors moved in by the hundreds… The hotel and boardinghouse trade boomed."

Later in the essay she and her husband discover a different sort of healing "sanctuary" — a rare desert spring on the side of the rugged Organ Mountains near her former home in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Here the afflicted human spirit may be restored as much as the ailing body was in the desert sanitoriums of an earlier age.

Physician Glen Vanstrum, who works near death and suffering every day, regularly seeks renewal and solace in the undersea kelp forests and abalone beds near his home in La Jolla, California:

"There is something both peaceful and exhilarating about swimming along thirty feet deep in the quiet Pacific at night. The warm glow of the torches limits one's visual field and focuses attention. Daytime fish like garibaldi and bass disappear, and a new shift of characters, octopi, crabs, and eels, comes out to explore and feed. To me it was sheer wilderness joy, the same feeling found say, hiking in Alaska's Brooks Range — only this joy was just a few feet from my urban home."

In his writing, and passionate love for the sea, one is reminded of the work of Rachel Carson. Both Vanstrum and Carson see the ocean as a place of natural wonders — a realm in which to rediscover the pure joy of childhood — and also as a source of personal renewal. The theme of liberation — which often involves the sense of being disencumbered and quite literally freed from some internal or external burden — is evident in the selection by Teton forest ranger Susan Marsh. Attending a field study class presented by the Yellowstone Institute, Marsh hikes into the mountain forest with a length of twine, forms a circle with the string, and then intently studies everything within the circle. Gradually she begins to see the natural world through a different prism and is "liberated" from traditional perceptions:

"Sitting on a boulder in a far corner of Yellowstone, I collect myself. I pick up my twine and sweep it over the nodding grass. It loops across the goldenrod and gentian gone to seed. The morning is almost gone. I want to stay in the space encircle here, made precious by my hours of attention. I realize that my simple act of noticing, alert to this moment with all its beauty and quiet, is more important than whatever I achieve."

Natasha Ma (pseudonym) reminds us, in her heartfelt essay about the plight of Tibetan plateau fauna, of the moral responsibility that we all have to free wild nature wherever she is threatened and abused. Despite threats of Chinese retaliation the author speaks out on behalf of the voiceless:

"I have been called in to be reprimanded by the head of [The Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences]. He tells me I must stop asking my students to write essays about how their land has changed since the "Chinese liberation." I tell him that I saw a tiger pelt and horns of the endangered Tibetan antelope in the marketplace yesterday. This is wrong, I say. Your people must stop this before everything is destroyed."

Thoreau would be proud of this young woman, who is fighting so earnestly for the rights of wild animals in a distant land to a life of dignity and freedom. In her actions and words she is honoring the finest and oldest traditions of the genre.

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When the twentieth century began the best-known nature writers in America included John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Mary Austin, John Burroughs, and Ernest Thompson Seton. A similar list compiled at the beginning of the twenty-first century would include such figures as Edward O. Wilson, Peter Matthiessen, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, and Rick Bass. In examining the differences and similarities between these two groups, one can appreciate how far American culture has advanced in the short span of one hundred years. During the era of Roosevelt and Muir, a postfrontier extractive philosophy dominated public land administration, and wildlife management was controlled by what environmental historians now call "predator prejudice." Today, both points of view have significantly evolved. The National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Forest Service now strive to manage public land units as unified "ecosystems," and major predators — grizzlies, polar bears, black bears, wolves, lions, coyotes, jaguar — are considered by land managers as essential elements of the natural landscape and are protected by strict federal and state laws.

American nature writers have grown considerably with the times, as well. Their writing has become more overtly political and more personal (at times even confessional) and is more consistently concerned with the nuances and rigors of true literary craft. One of the finest books of the 1990s — Terry Tempest Williams's Refuge — exhibits these dramatic changes perfectly, as the author writes about her mother's death from ovarian cancer. As a parallel metaphor, she also narrates the death of a wildlife refuge near her home in Salt Lake City, Utah. One hundred years earlier, Theodore Roosevelt fled to his North Dakota ranch following the death of his mother and wife, and yet the many books he published about the ranch made no mention of these highly personal experiences. Because of the literary and social conventions of the time, Roosevelt deeply submerged his intense pain in the ranching and hunting narratives, where it appeared only briefly now and then in death motifs. A reader today cannot help but think that Roosevelt would welcome these healthy changes in the genre, which allow authors more political and personal freedom of expression. As a result, writers can achieve greater personal catharsis in their work and also have the opportunity to communicate more openly and honestly with readers.

The primary cultural trend throughout this century — has been toward the progressive liberalization of American society. It is no coincidence that in the same year that women were given the right to vote (1920), Congress also passed, and the President signed into law, the act officially founding the National Park Service. There is often a parallel between how a society treats its women and how it treats nature, and in the United States, at least, we have seen that as more rights have been conveyed to the former, the latter has benefited proportionally. Because so many of these changes have become institutionalized politically and socially and gained historical momentum, it is likely that the situation will continue to improve in this regard. Nature writers such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Robert Marshall, Rachel Carson, and Edward Abbey are at least partially responsible for this small but significant bit of human progress.

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What will happen to the genre in the twenty-first century? Because nature writing is currently absorbed in its social responsibilities, it would appear the form is approaching is maturity. No evidence of senescence is yet manifest — it has not exhausted the idiom, become institutionalized, fallen into the hands of unskilled practitioners, been rejected by a younger generation, or lost its readership and hence the capital that supports it in the publishing world.

If anything, the genre is gaining in appeal. The sheer exuberance and optimism of nature writing has already gone a long way toward reversing the urban skepticism that had pervaded Western culture since the end of the Romantic Age. The resanctification of the Earth evident in nature writing also reverses a trend of secularization that began with the Renaissance. Both reflect good and healthy changes in literature and society. Future literary historians may view nature writing as the major nonfiction genre of our time, and they may also see it as a vital force that helped to revivify both lyric poetry and the social novel, become more essential as humanity strives to preserve the natural beauty of this world.

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