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When people talk about the "environment," they usually want to save it, preserve it or clean it up.

This place, the environment, is somewhere out there, apart from us and opposed to us - a thing to be used, controlled, fenced off or even worshiped, depending on your point of view.Now Peter Fritzell comes along and, like an insistent child who asks "Why?" until there are no more answers, pokes and prods and picks at our familiar notions of nature and our place in it.

The very act of writing about The Natural or The Wild is full of ironies: The writer tries to get away from civilization, capture nature and bring it back trussed up and swinging from a pole in the shape of a book - the great product of civilization.

Fritzell's book, "Nature Writing and America," technically is literary criticism, but it really goes to the heart of how Americans see themselves and their land.

Reading the book, I can imagine a bearded Fritzell standing in front of the class and staring at us, chalk-dusted hands on his head, saying, "You got it? No? OK, I'll try again."

When I was his student in the 1970s at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., Fritzell always challenged us to see beyond the obvious, and my papers came back scratched and bloody with his red ink.

He once revealed to me a bit of teaching technique: There are two types of students - some have to be praised and helped along, and others have to be beaten down. I, unfortunately, was one of the latter.

Readers will get a taste of both techniques. He was not an easy teacher, and his is not an easy book.

It begins with a "set of woefully incomplete conjectures, surmises and hypotheses" about what we "far too loosely call `nature writing.' "

Then, as if on hands and knees giving a tour of a garden, Fritzell picks through books by Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and Annie Dillard.

American authors, writing about nature the way no one else has, reveal their classic "quest both for a coherent sense of self and a coherent sense of place," Fritzell writes.

In the end, we can't step out of nature or ourselves. With our scientific names and classifications, we assume an "objective" understanding of the natural world, but our efforts to write about nature can be likened to dogs marking their territory or baying at the moon.

As Fritzell writes in his usual self-conscious way, "The author of a book or lecture is - in this book and in this sentence - making a set of pronouncements directly analogous to the pronouncements made by singing robins on the worm-rich ground of rain-drenched lawns."

Fritzell, however, is one thoughtful robin.