Spring 1989, Volume 6.1
Words from the Land: Encounters with Natural History Writing. Edited and introduced by Stephan Trimble. Layton, UT: Peregrine Smith Books, 1988, 303 pp., $17.95.
For years teachers of courses on nature writing have had but one anthology to choose from: The Wilderness Reader. From Bartram to Abbey, it covers the territory fairly well. In the past two years, however, numerous such anthologies have appeared or been announced; a veritable boom is occurring in what has long been an ignored genre of writing. For example, the Sierra Club recently published a pocketsized, trailside reader, Words for the Wild. In a slightly different format, Antaeus magazine devoted one whole issue to a group of essays called On Nature. (North Point Press subsequently picked it up and published it as a book.) Houghton Mifflin is scheduled to issue an anthology of nature writing, edited by Western American Literature's Tom Lyon. And rumor has it that even Norton will soon publish a "Norton Anthology of American Nature Writing" or some such title. Words from the Land, then, joins distinguished company.
For any lover of nature and nature writing, the appearance of all these anthologies portends good things. That a market exists for this kind of writing also means that considerable sympathy exists for nature.
Given the seeming plethora of nature anthologies, does Words from the Land contribute anything different? Does it stride over territory different from its predecessors or planned successors? The answer is decidedly yes.
For one thing, this book is an anthology of contemporary nature writing. Many of the other anthologies follow a historical approach. Secondly, Trimble's long introduction on the art and genre of nature writing is the best I have seen. A noted nature writer and photographer himself, Trimble knows just what questions to ask. He traveled all over the country to talk to most of the writers included , here. Trimble lets his writers speak and then organizes it all into a luminous essay. This inclusive discussion of the genre's characteristics and diversity also reveals much about the writers themselves.
Nature-writing fans will find many of their favorite writers here: Edward Abbey, Barry Lopez, John McPhee, and Annie Dillard. But one also finds pieces by lesser-known-but-equally-talented writers like Sue Hubbell, Gary Nabhan, and John Madson.
Trimble has selected well, and each essay is a jewel. It would be impossible for me to rank these pieces. Suffice it to say that each one follows the classical dictum to delight and instruct. A few of them, moreover, will surprise even the informed reader. David Quammen's "Chambers of Memory' is more about his passion for Faulkner than it is about a nautilus. And Wendell Berry's "The Journey's End" comes not from one of his recent books on agriculture, but from the long out-of-print The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky's Red River Gorge.
Ultimately this anthology will only tease us-as all good anthologies do-to read the complete books from which these essays came. Besides organizing a body of literature well, it provides an introduction that one day may well be anthologized itself.