February 2011

Barbara J. King


Reading Restless Nature: Wildbranch and Nature Stories

A paradox, it is: For all that I feel quieted and calmed by time in the natural world -- observing baboons on the Kenyan savanna, gazing at buffalo in Yellowstone National Park, or just hanging outdoors with our rescued cats -- I often feel restless and jumpy when reading about nature.  

For the first clump of essays or initial set of chapters, I’m quite okay. Flooded by awe for the lovingly described orchid, the poetically imagined tree, the blue-egg-under-cathedral-sky poem, I admire nature writers’ powers to mine the magic in our world.  

But then it becomes like that time I found the chocolate macaroon in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Much earlier, I’d pilgrimaged to the famous Laduree in Paris, but unaccountably failed to select one of their signature macaroons. For years I pined for that lost macaroon. And then, wandering along the faux canals of the Venetian, watching the tourist-heavy gondolas pole past nearby, I stumbled upon Bouchon Bakery. Here was the real thing. My eyes closed and my soul flew open when I tasted that chocolate macaroon. Yet I wanted only one: one piece of sweet perfection.

When reading the essays and poems in Wildbranch: An Anthology of Nature, Environmental, and Place-based Writing, edited by conservation botanist Florence Caplow and Professor of English and Women’s Studies Susan A. Cohen, and that emerges from a long-established writing workshop of the same name, I adored the stellar writing and yet craved it only in small bits.  

Let’s start with the lovingly described orchid. Hiking the Fakahatchee Sound in Florida, Linda Maree comes upon a rare ghost orchid: “It grows in the wild almost nowhere else on the planet. It dances before you now, its white frog leg petals dangling from a shoot so thin it is barely visible, even in the daytime. At night, the flowers seem to hover in the air, tiny apparitions… Beyond appreciation now, you’re absolutely smitten.”

Maree’s conveyed sense of place -- the thick-vined, waist-deep water trails of humid south Florida -- is strong enough to carry her sense of wonder. It’s just that the next writer and the next too offer their own burdens of wonder. Dip into this volume in judicial doses. There are five segments -- Intimacy; Speaking of Place; What Comes from the Land; On Perceiving and Knowing; and For the Children/For the Future -- but I recommend a willy-nilly reading, following themes of your own devising. That’s what I did.

Backed by my family’s love of the desert Southwest, I sought eagerly the xeric entries. The palate of reds in Simmons B. Buntin’s ode to southern Utah caused me to read aloud for the sheer pleasures of sound: “Burgundy then magenta then scarlet. In the distance: cliffs and spires of vermillion, rose, salmon, garnet -- too many reds to count, more than my camera can claim or decipher.” Invoking the science of chromatography, Buntin constructs a passage about the red of desire flipping into the blue of serenity that brings a novel grasp of nature’s colors.

G. Davies Jandrey’s description of her stifling stint in a blind during a bighorn-sheep census conveys the microworlds present in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge near Arizona’s border with Mexico. Inside a saguaro cactus’s rib cell, five by five by five, Jandrey sits in 111-degree heat. Seeing no sheep, she meets instead velvet ants and centipedes and writes them into intriguing companionship.  

Traveling east, away from her California-desert upbringing, Rachel Shaw writes, “The tropes of our national culture, the dreams of brilliant autumn and lazy watermelon summers, were as foreign a country to me as the red rock and dusty chaparral would have been to my pioneering ancestors. The vegetative Crayolas in my childhood box were olives and pines, and the bright light green of new spring growth. The strange waxy Green, the green of a thousand Midwestern childhoods, had no place in mine.” Shaw evokes a United States whose topography resists homogenization, even in the leveling decades of television (and now computers).   

More surprising for this hard-core mammalophile were the pleasures derived from the bird-related entries, one read slowly and another read slowly and the rest saved for another day. The euthanasia of a great-horned owl (essay by Jennifer Barton), a mutually cautious friendship with a bald eagle (essay by Paul Grindrod), and the wheeling death-work of turkey vultures (poem by H.C. Palmer) all soared with birds’ freedoms -- or freedoms denied by humans’ actions.

Glenda Cotter muses on bird migrations, the movements of millions of birds around the globe “begun largely by photo receptors inside each bird’s skull.” Certain shorebirds, she notes, hatch in Alaska and overwinter off of Chile, stopping to feed in the waters of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. “There at my land-locked lake, watching phalaropes,” Cotter writes, “I have connected of a sudden with the Bering Sea, with the great rocky drainages of the Yukon River, with the ocean lapping at the sands of the Atacama Desert or even, a little wildly, with Easter Island.” Cotter, I have learned, is the director and managing editor of the University of Utah Press, publisher of Wildbranch.

Nature writing’s sweetness is offset now and again in Wildbranch by the tang of surprise.  Maureen Sullivan writes angrily of the mounds of junk we Americans give our children in the name of love -- gifts of dioxin, petroleum distillates, and recalled lead paint. It’s our apparent indifference to the lost North American prairie, set against our frantic desire to save the distant rainforest, that animates Susan Futrell’s piece. Barely able to refrain from salivating on the page, Steve Bodio offers a paen to meat-eating that roves from hunting in rural France to the time when he, back home in the U.S., opened his window and shot seven birds from his yard -- one offered raw to his goshawk and six roasted at 425 degrees for his table.   

Tart and tang like this come to mind, I think, because, just before Wildbranch, I’d read the New York Review of Books’ new edition of Jules Renard’s Nature Stories. Introducing these famous tales of the turn-of-the-century French countryside, which he translated, Douglass Parmee writes: “Renard has the great gift of facing his readers with something unexpected; everywhere, we find ourselves being surprised, even bewildered.”

And that is so. Renard, in “Lying in Wait,” puts a gun-toting man beneath a tree at nightfall. The man is “smiling at the moon and the moon is smiling back.” Soon he puts the gun down and “has no regrets as he sits watching the rabbits dance their minuet.” But this friendly hunter co-exists with others in these pages. In “Partridges,” two newly-paired birds are shot: “The female didn’t feel anything but the male just had time to see his bride dead and to feel himself dying beside her.”

Like humans, nature, for Renard, is unpredictable, and sometimes, with or without humans’ intervention, unfeeling. In “The Ox,” the ox Castor, upon finding a strange creature instead of his long-time partner Pollux yoked in next to him, stops his chewing. He feels regret, and misses his partner. By contrast, see what happens in “Two Rabbits.” When the rabbit Legris dies, his companion Lenoir at first feels surprise. He, like Castor, stops eating. But then…

He looks like a magician, probing some mystery.
His ears are sticking up to mark this final moment.
Then they droop down.
He finishes off the lettuce leaf.

And in another spiral turn, in “The Birdless Cage,” the man Felix hangs a birdcage in his window. It contains only a nest of cotton wool, some seeds, water, a swing, and a mirror. When asked why he’s done this, Felix replies: “I could have put a bird into it and I didn’t. If I wanted, some brown thrush, some spruce little bullfinch hopping around, or one of the other variegated birds would be enslaved in there. But one of them is still free, thanks to me. That’s something, at least.”

Wild nature: It’s sweet and it’s tangy. It instills in us calm, or restlessness, or both. It’s more than something -- in these two books, it’s everything.

Barbara J. King’s most recent book is Being With Animals.