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Book Reviews for February: Nature Writing

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard

We had sort of a harsh winter this year and I felt myself rebelling against the inevitability of nature. (Or more accurately, the inevitability of walking my dog through the snow.) In the midst of that, I decided to make February’s genre nature writing, so I could feel a little more comfortable with this whole I-am-subject-to-the-will-of-the-weather-gods thing. Also, it would get Pilgrim at Tinker Creek off my to-be-read shelf where it had been sitting for five years.

So, I love Annie Dillard’s writing. It’s a touch too smart for me at times (I don’t care much for philosophy) but she has a way of phrasing things, and especially of building upon an image that works for me. I liked The Writing Life, I loved An American Childhood, and I find For the Time Being enthralling. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is all about Dillard living in a cabin in rural Virginia, walking through fields and swamps, observing bugs and frogs, and thinking about life. Her obvious jumping-off point is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which I read years ago. Both of these books—Thoreau’s and Dillard’s—are amazing pieces of American literature / philosophy, and it makes me feel like a total philistine, or someone entirely lacking in spiritual being, not to care for them. But I kinda don’t. I don’t like nature. I like couches. I like store-bought food. I like disinfectant.

“Is this what it’s like, I thought then, and think now: a little blood here, a chomp there, and still we live, trampling the grass?  Must everything whole be nibbled?  Here was a new light on the intricate texture of things in the world, the actual plot of the present moment in time after the fall: the way we the living are nibbled and nibbling—not held aloft on a cloud in the air but bumbling pitted and scarred and broken through a frayed and beautiful land.” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

But Dillard made me feel, at least momentarily, like my rebellion is totally futile. That, I think is her main objective.

The Call of the Wild, Jack London

Not wanting to leave nature writing to just the one book, I read this one, too. It’s super short, and it needed to be because Pilgrim took me forever to read. I had never read The Call of the Wild before, though I think most people read it in about the eighth grade.

London looks at an animal (a dog, Buck), removed from his domestic existence and thrown into a savage one, how he changes and evolves in that environment. I love the way Buck, the dog, is characterized. He has a unique personality, but he’s also just a dog. He’s beaten and then he’s loved; he tries to run fast and survive on scraps. He fights the other dogs because he wants to be in charge. He’s a character, but he’s not anthropomorphized beyond what a dog is actually capable of observing and interpreting. (As far as we know, I guess.)

The story is meant to inspire in us a question of whether humankind is the same; if the animal can be instinctually feral, can man also be so? Is there really any point in surrounding ourselves with these trappings of civilization? The book came out in 1908, but I tend to mentally place it in the 1950s when everyone had TVs and electric washer-dryers and were determined to walk on the moon. I suppose every generation has its symbols of man holding dominion over nature, which is why every generation can glean something from this story. (Except for me because I’m still here on the couch, clutching my disinfectant and my futile intellectual will.)

I thought The Call of the Wild was OK, but actually I prefer London’s short stories. It’s been ten years since I first read “To Build a Fire” and I’m still not over it.

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  1. January 26, 2013 at 10:50 pm

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