Friday, December 04, 2009

Three in the Backyard!

Our three books today - one by John Hanson Mitchell and two by our old friend Cathy Johnson (clicking on her keyword below will bring you to a celebration of her book The Nocturnal Naturalist) - all sing a central theme: you don't have to get in your car and drive to the Grand Tetons (or, if you live there, away from them) to experience nature. Except for the blighted lunar cityscapes so erotically filmed in "The Wire," virtually any urban area on Earth will provide ready access to at least some kind of natural space - even if it's a patch of waste ground, or some scrub wood in an abandoned lot. No matter what it is, our two authors assure us, some kinds of critters will be using it as a home, a hunting ground, or just a highway. With a little time and a lot of patience, you can find those critters and spend some peaceful time in their world.

Alternately, as Mitchell writes, you could just look up:

To my mind, this night passage [of migrating birds, seen against the light of the moon] - an event that takes place each year unbeknownst to perhaps 90 percent of the human population and yet accessible to almost everyone - is one of the greatest seasonal events of the natural world. There is something very comforting about the fact that, in spite of war, pollution, crime in the streets, and all the other ills that affect the human community, the sheer force of the migratory drive is still working well and the world is all right in the end.

Mitchell makes the central plea readily, and often:

A watchful eye, a little extra attention to detail, and a sharpened sensitivity to seasonal change can uncover a veritable Serengeti Park just beyond the bedroom window. All you have to do is learn to see.

Johnson's books urge the same thing on the sedentary, set-in-their-senses reader: get up, go out, find your healing wild place (no matter how humble it might be) and learn its ways - become a part of it. I'm lucky enough to live equidistant between a fair-sized woodland park and a fair-sized kettle pond, and I can attest to what she says: regularly spending time in such places, walking without a goal, watching everything (and, in my case, periodically stopping to wipe globules of spit off a basset hound's face) ... works a restorative change in you, no matter what's on your mind, no matter what kind of a day you've had.

In these two books, Nature Walks and The Local Wilderness, Johnson again advocates not only the proximity and beauty of the natural world but also a gentle kind of duty we owe it:

Go out after an ice storm. It is a frightening, sobering kind of beauty: when the morning sun strikes cold fire, frozen rainbows shine on each bush and twig. This is starvation time in park and backyard. Food stores are locked away under their coating of ice, and the birds and animals soon feel the pinch of hunger. Again, this is a time to see to your backyard birds and other visitors; who knows what hungry creature might visit the fallen grain under the feeder? I found a family of raccoons there one glittering winter night. They skated away across the ice, slipping and falling over each other in their haste to escape my light.

These quiet acts of kindness are sometimes contrasted in Johnson's books by more dramatic accounts. She cheerfully admits that she is sometimes "as crazy as a loon" - like the time she intentionally sought out tree cover in a thunderstorm, risking electrocution so she could feel the rest of it:

To say it was exciting to be there purposely and alone in the heart of the storm would be understating the case. It was terrifying, wonderful - outside of anything I'd ever done before. Giant trees I'd known as solid, upstanding citizens, normally motionless except for their uppermost limbs, now swayed almost to their roots. I laid my hand on a big oak and felt the vibration in its fibers; leaned against another and felt the movement of the tree against my back. I knew it was crazy to be there, insane to take such a chance. If my husband - ever cautious - could have seen me, I would never have heard the end of it.

I shouted just to discover if my voice would be audible against the storm; it was not.

My worry in praising these three fact-filled, charmingly illustrated (Johnson's with her own evocative work, Mitchell's with the graceful sketches of Laurel Molk) books is that they and their kind are themselves headed for starvation time. Who in today's publishing world would reprint such books for a general audience (and please - Kindle me no Kindles! Surely of all books, ruminative nature books are the least compatible with being read on a backlit electronic device that consumes battery power)? True, publishers still print new books of this type occasionally - but what about all the older gems, now awaiting re-discovery on used bookstore shelves? If these books are lost as those stores one by one close, I worry that the soft-spoken wisdom in these pages might be lost as well.

We need an American Nature Library - not only a building (natural timber, set in a small park), but an ongoing publishing project, designed to find the best of books such as these and preserve them. I'd subscribe.


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steve said...

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Anonymous said...

One of your silent sentinels want to commend you on your culminating Year of the Romans piece in December's OLM (and all of them that came before!) How could you possibly top that next year? What's next? And we remain eager to hear the Ben Schwarz chat update. We are not used to you being so tight-lipped.

steve said...

Silent sentinels! HAH! Oh, that's got me chuckling!

I'm not being tight-lipped about Ben Schwarz - HE is! Not a peep in days! I'll keep reading the Atlantic, and I'm hoping he'll keep reading Open Letters, but still - Ben, drop me a line! You know how I worry!

Or ... has he become a Silent Sentinel?

Oh, that term is going to crack me up all evening ...

steve said...

As for 2010's "Year With" ... what would all of YOU like to see as its subject? A Year with Science Fiction? A Year with the Kennedys? A Year with Nature Writing? A Year at the Movies?

Don't tell me, let me guess: it's A Year with Erasmus, isn't it?