THIS INCOMPERABLE LAND: A BOOK OF AMERICAN NATURE WRITING; Edited By Thomas J. Lyon; Houghton Mifflin; 495 pages, $29.95.
For a long time nature writing has been thought of as being too easy. Some, such as Edgar Allan Poe, have argued that the subject is so compelling that only an incompetent could miss success in this genre. Thomas J. Lyon, a Utah State University professor, explains this view and says he hopes to overturn it through his selections from some of the best writers on this subject.The book is more than a collection of essays, however. The first quarter of the volume provides a history of nature writing from the 1600s to the pres-ent. Some of the earliest writers were people who were seeing the United States for the first time. They wanted to describe for the folks back home the creatures and environment in the new world. Other early writers tried to catalog all the birds, animals and plants in a particular region.
Some naturalists were more likely than others to attribute creation to God. But in each a feeling of wonder and delight at nature comes through. One of the sweetest passages in the volume is from the pen of John James Audubon: ". . . how fervently . . . have I blessed the Being who formed the Wood Thrush, and placed it in those solitary forests, as if to console me amidst my privations, to cheer my depressed mind, and to make me feel, as I did, that never ought man to despair, whatever may be his situation, as he can never be certain that aid and deliverance are not at hand."
According to Lyon, Henry David Thoreau is pivotal in the prog-ress of nature writing because he tried to overcome dualism. Until Thoreau, people had generally thought of nature as something to be conquered. But Thoreau argued that "the intuitive experience of nature could lead to wisdom of an authentic and practical kind."
This quest for a truly pure experience of nature - one that did not suffer from dualistic elements - was very much a part of Thoreau's life. And to some degree he achieved insights that break down the separation of man and environment. While Thoreau may not be fully consistent in his views, Lyon feels that "the possibilities of the nature essay as a modern literary form (date from) . . . Thoreau's first essay, published in July 1842."
From Thoreau to the present, writers have emphasized the individual's interaction with the environment, including the philosophical and social content of this interaction. The selections show this progression in their diverse writing styles. Rachel Carson's tight, economical prose introduces us to the mysteries of the waves and the sea as she presented them in "The Sea Around Us."
A selection of Edward Abbey's writing on the desert warns us away from "his" desert. Yet as the piece develops, we begin to see that Abbey's desert is always open to those who will love it and treat it with respect.
Selections from 22 writers are included. Among them are John Muir, Thomas Nuttall, Peter Mathies-sen, Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez.
Perhaps the book's only flaw is the length of its introductory section. Structurally, it might have been better to combine the introductory chapters for each time period with the selected essays written within that period.
A slightly less dry and intellectual approach to telling how nature writing developed might also have been helpful. But don't be put off by a chapter title like "The Taxonomy of Nature Writing." The editor is striving to present his analysis in an interesting way. Most of the time he succeeds.
The book is worth buying simply because of the diversity of its selections. In the end, you may conclude, as I did, that if nature writing has an inherent appeal and audience that assure its authors of success, so be it. Anything this inspiring and enjoyable deserves success.