Friday, June 8, 2012

Words about Nature


As one year ends and another is about to begin, I like to take measure of the previous year and see what stands out in my mind.  This past year, I focused on learning more about the out of doors, especially the Great Plains, and in the process I read and reread a number of good books.

            A good book and a friend’s encouragement started me writing columns, so I thought I might share some of the titles and thoughts made me think about life and nature.  The book that made me realize I could write about the obscure items in nature like mulberries and dead trees was Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.

He journaled his daily experiences with nature, and then his entries were anthologized in the Almanac.  It is one of those wonderful books a reader can mine many times and still find rich gems he or she missed in a previous reading.  I now make a point of reading Sand County Almanac a couple of times a year to remind myself of what happens when a great observer is gifted with an eloquent command of language and understanding of classical literature. 

Aldo spent hours in the field honing his eye.  He must have spent hours reading classical texts to hone his ear because he writes like a poet-- not a boring, pedantic poet,  but a poet who makes nature dance boldly across a blank page.  In this book, science and art merge.

Anyway, you get the point.  I like this writer.  Another writer who describes the Great Plains vividly is a local gal, Nebraska author Willa Cather.  Take time to read or reread My Antonia.  Her descriptions of the Nebraska prairie in the last century come alive through the eyes of Easterner Jim Burden and immigrant child Antonia Shimerda.  Though we cannot relive that era or see what they saw, we can view that window of time through the lense of Cather’s writing.  When Jim talked of the trails across the prairie disappearing with coming civilization, it made me consider what we have gained and what we have lost.

Cather writes of a bygone time, whereas deceased environmental writer Edward Abbey wrote about issues we address today. His concerns for protecting natural settings such as Utah’s Arches National Monument and the tamed Glen Canyon focus on the dangers of industrial tourism.  He, too, writes eloquently about the land and developing a land ethic in Desert Solitaire.  Abbey will challenge the thinking of those who prefer to enjoy nature through a car window.  He wanted his nature with its harsh beauty and accompanying discomforts. 

For a bit of schizophrenic land ethic writing that delves into the past and present, try N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain.  He interweaves yesterday and  today in a book that defies conventional structure.  Through stories of his ancestors and his own life, he fashions a fascinating tale, a story of remembered earth.  His Native American point of view of the plains provides a rich look at our world.  Each of us has our remembered earth, and sharing his story may help us with our own tales.

If you are looking for a little irreverent humor and some great descriptive writing about our own region, find time to read Robert Day’s The Last Cattle Drive, which is set in Hays and thereabouts.  He perfectly describes a Kansas thunderstorm, and he captures the beauty of Kansas sunsets. You can decide what you think about his characters and their relationship with the environment.

These are only a few of books that caught my attention this past year , making me think about my own land ethic.  For now, I will leave you with the thoughts of one last writer. Norman Maclean speaks to the rhythms of the heart and the rhythms of nature, which in his book A River Runs Through It are one and the same. “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over the rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are words, and some of the words are theirs.” 

By reading thought provoking books, I discover their words and make them my own.  Through these writers, I learn to value the essence of nature and land and know I am part of it.  Just as the words are ours, so is every raindrop, sunset, and floating dandelion seed, each one a treasure.

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