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Too much natural literature

Essay by Stephen Lyons

Nature Writing – December 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN A RECENT COLUMN in the online magazine Salon, Anne Lamont 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 ten years. (If Ed Abbey reappears, he gets an exemption.)

This may be heresy, but how many times do we need to wade through some 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.”

(Because I have actually written similar passages it is only fair that I also abide by the moratorium. Is that applause I hear?)

Recently I gave up trying to read a famous nature writer’s latest work after encountering the pronoun “I” eighteen 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, or perhaps a year of hard labor in a Montana aluminum smelter.

Along with the moratorium would come new guidelines for writers of nature books. 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.

Multi-city book tours will also be banned because travel by planes and cars contributes to global warming. Newly published authors must limit their reading tours to venues that are within walking distance. This may seem harsh, but all I’m asking is for nature writers to take responsibility for their products.

I truly believe 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.

But the truth is, most of us in the West live in crowded town-cities, where we are under-employed and overworked. It’s rare anymore if we do something as self-indulgent as loading up the 15-year-old, oil-dripping rig to drive four hours over crummy washboard roads so we can be alone to write about the experience of being alone. We’re more concerned that our knees sound like castanets when we climb stairs; that our children are moving away to cool cities and we aren’t; that we need dental work; or that we are not putting enough away for retirement.

SADLY, MOST AMERICANS don’t need wilderness even though many of them benefit indirectly from such things as pure drinking water originating from high, 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 cut from national forests.

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 such advice as, “Learning to be attentive in the forest opens us up to intimacy and the movement of thought.” Don’t these books have fact checkers?

Let’s expand the literary canon to include loggers, miners, ranchers, Greyhound bus drivers, bored teenagers, Hispanics, Native Americans, and barley farmers. We need books by people who use the land for work and reflection, people who love the earth but have also cut down trees and plowed under sagebrush. Think of the new anthologies: Women of the West Who Don’t Wear Dangling Silver Earrings. Or The Best New Clearcut Stories of 1998, edited by Idaho Sen. Larry Craig.

The next ten years will pass quickly and all you 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.

Stephen Lyons is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News based in Paonia, Colorado. He lives in Pullman, Washington.