Sampling a Bounty Of Environmental Books

Some of the season's best titles view the natural world from a political, literary, photographic, or practical perspective

BOOKS about the environment - inspirational as well as instructive - have been around since the writer of Genesis described God's pleasure at the sight of creation. That such books just keep coming is proof of the infinite wonder of nature and of mankind's continued sorting out of what ``dominion'' over the Earth really means. The religious analogy is apt, for the natural world figures into the spiritual dimension of many cultures, modern as well as ancient. And in the 20 years between Earth Days I and II - the period during which Love Canal, acid rain, Prince William Sound, global warming, rain forests, nuclear waste, and ozone all entered the popular vocabulary - environmentalism itself has become a religion of sorts for thousands of true believers.

When a subject takes on religious overtones, there is no lack of scribes, be they prophets, psalmists, or polemicists. And 1990 has produced a very full bag of such works, a complete bibliography of which would fill this newspaper. In general, they fall into four categories: political, literary, photographic, and practical. What follows is a sampling of some of the best.

POLITICAL

Taken together, three books in particular give a neat and balanced picture of the major environmental problems facing the world today and how to deal with them. The first is Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization, by Christopher Manes (New York: Little, Brown, $18.95). Despite the fierce title and the fact that the author is a member of Earth First! (as well as a Fulbright scholar in medieval literature and a lawyer), the book provides an excellent inside view of today's environmental movement. Tracing the philosophical roots of ``deep ecology'' - as opposed to mainstream conservation and environmental groups willing to compromise on issues like pollution control - helps the reader understand why many activists risk arrest and physical danger in order to preserve natural resources at the expense of economic development and other human activities.

At the other end of the political spectrum is Trashing the Planet, by Dixy Lee Ray with help from journalist Lou Guzzo (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, $18.95). Dr. Ray, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and governor of Washington, lambastes environmental activists and their puppets in the media for confusing and frightening the public about complex scientific issues.

Once past the hyperbole (``Environmentalism ... seeks development of a society totally devoid of industry and technology''), the reader gets a good walk-through on the greenhouse effect, acid rain, pesticides, hazardous waste, and nuclear power. In many cases, there are more questions than answers on such issues (certainly two sides to the story), and it is good to have someone with Ray's expertise lay out the questions and puncture some of the less sound assumptions about impending environmental disaster. Her book's subtitle is ``How Science Can Help Us Deal with Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things),'' and her answer for the most part is technology. Ray's observation that ``a well-tended garden is better than a neglected woodlot'' will make the timber barons happy and wilderness enthusiasts grind their teeth. But there can be no arguing with her conclusion that ``our responsibility is to be good stewards of the environment.''

Neither radical environmentalist Manes nor techno-enthusiast Ray would agree, but there is a more appropriate middle ground, and it is found in In Search of Environmental Excellence: Moving Beyond Blame, by Bruce Piasecki and Peter Asmus (New York: Simon & Schuster, $9.95, paper). The authors trace the historical and more recent abuses of land, air, and water. But they also describe many examples of public and private entities successfully searching for (and finding) solutions to environmental problems. Government has a key role to play, the authors assert, although more as facilitator and coordinator than as proliferater of countless regulations and bureaucratic empires.

``The true test for American environmentalism,'' they write, ``is to achieve a better balance between fear of ecological catastrophe and trust in our political system.'' That's a lot of trust but better than tree-spiking or leaving it to big business and its friends in lab coats.

LITERARY

Moving from the political to the literary, there are four new books and a very old (but recently reissued) one to be recommended.

In Praise of Nature, edited by Stephanie Mills (Covelo, Calif.: Island Press, $14.95, paper), is described by the publisher as ``a distillation and comprehensive overview of the best environmental literature of the last two decades.'' Divided into the five ``elements of life on this planet'' - earth, air, fire, water, and spirit - the book indeed is a rich smorgasbord of nature writing: John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry, Elliott Norse, John McPhee, Edward Abbey, Marc Reisner, Rachel Carson, and many, many others. Each section is preceded by thoughtful essays by Mills and contains reviews of the books cited as well as excerpts; there is a solid ``for further reading'' list of more than 100 books as well. If there is any frustration, it is that the excerpts (quotes, really) are far too short. But as a jumping-off spot, ``In Praise of Nature'' is a fine contribution on the subject.

More substantial and therefore more satisfying is The Norton Book of Nature Writing, edited by Robert Finch and John Elder (New York: W.W. Norton, $29.95). This 921-page tome includes the best such English and American writing of the past two centuries, including 125 substantial selections by 94 writers. They are laid out progressively over time from 18th-century English country curate Gilbert White to Terry Tempest Williams, naturalist-in-residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History, who is still in her mid-30s. The best of the well-known nature specialists are included, but so too are passages from such writers as Mary Austin, Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen, D.H. Lawrence, John Steinbeck, Laurens Van Der Post, Thomas Merton, John Fowles, Ursula K. Le Guin, and John Updike. The editors have done a magnificent job of organizing and presenting the best in classical and modern nature writing, a work that should be updated every few years.

``To a distinctive degree, nature writing fulfills the essay's purpose of connection. It fuses literature's attention to style, form, and the inevitable ironies of expression with a scientific concern for palpable fact,'' Finch and Elder write in their thoughtful introduction. ``In a time when the natural context of fiction has been attenuated and when much literary theory discovers nothing to read but constructs of self-reflexive language, nature writing asserts both the humane value of literature and the importance to a mature individual's relationship with the world of understanding fundamental physical and biological processes.''

A gem of a book is Janet Lembke's Looking for Eagles: Reflections of a Classical Naturalist (New York: Lyons & Burford, $19.95). The author, who spent several decades translating Greek and Latin poetry, now lives with her retired chief-petty-officer husband on the banks of North Carolina's lower Neuse River. There she roams the wilds and wetlands, taking as her chief mentors Arisotle, Pliny the Elder, and other classical natural historians.

``What have strange, ridiculous, literary stories to do with natural history?'' she asks. ``Plenty,'' she says, then proves it with a collection of solid and very readable essays.

``To begin with,'' she goes on, ``Latin and Greek are the languages of scientific nomenclature. Myths lie hidden within the tough shells of binomial taxonomy like seeds waiting for proper sprouting weather. They also shine in the constellations like beacons waiting to be seen and followed. Eagles and osprey, woodpeckers, dolphins, snakes, and spiders - ancient eyes observed and variously interpreted the same natural phenomena that offer themselves to our inspection. Ancient inquisitiveness asked the same questions that recur to our intelligence: What is it? How does it work? Is it good or bad, and why?''

With intelligence and gentle humor she explores the logical connections between the fruits of her own meanderings around Pamlico Sound and what the ancients found as well in trying to answer those questions. The connectedness is twofold: past and present, mankind and the rest of creation.

Like Lembke's reflections, most good books on nature focus on a particular place. This is true of Saint Croix Notes: River Mornings, Radio Nights, by Noah Adams (New York: Norton, $18.95). Adams, co-host of National Public Radio's ``All Things Considered,'' spent a year hosting a radio show out of St. Paul, Minn., called ``Good Evening.'' It was a weekly gathering of music, storytelling, correspondence with listeners, and an essay by Adams about how his week had gone along the St. Croix River. This book is a collection of those essays, and while it would not likely be found under ``nature'' books, there is such a sense of place here - natural environment and community and, above all, the seasons along the river - that it does fit in.

Tarka the Otter, by Henry Williamson, is an English classic first published in 1927 and recently reissued in illustrated paperback (Boston: Beacon Press, $9.95). Subtitled ``His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers,'' this is the lyrical tale of an otter through the seasons of life in the west of England. The story is compelling and full. The details of animal life - the full range of prey to predators in Tarka's watery world - is extraordinary, and the ethic of respect for the beasts of the field is clear and strong without being sappy. This is one of those wonderful and rare stories from nature that remind the dominant species of the richness, complexity, and worth of the rest of creation.

PHOTOGRAPHIC

Any list of favorite current works on the environment has to include some picture books. The following three not only are filled with stunning photos, but include excellent text as well:

Beyond the Mythic West was prepared by the Western Governors' Association and published by Gibbs Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: $29.95). The pictures are by some of the best photographers in the United States West today. The essays are by former Arizona congressman Stewart Udall, historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, law professor Charles Wilkinson, John Volkman (a lawyer who handles resource issues for the Northwest Power Planning Council), and rancher-turned-writer and English professor William Kittredge. The region as a place of astonishing landscape and historic high ideals (some more myth than reality) is going through important changes these days, particularly as regards the relationship between people and the environment. This book helps one understand where the American West came from and where it's headed.

John Nichols is best known for his novels, including ``The Milagro Beanfield War,'' but he's also written several nonfiction books on the Southwest desert and is passionate in the defense of its environment. His latest book, The Sky's the Limit: A Defense of the Earth (New York: W.W. Norton, $14.95, paper), is a series of photos he took of the mesas and mountains and incredible skies of New Mexico.

Like the painter Monet ``who returned to the same spot, endlessly, and always found it both reassuring and original,'' Nichols does the same. Yet he is driven by a concern that the beauty he loves will not survive the push of civilization; his writing about the fate of the planet is urgent. ``Today all landscape photography is an act of conscience and commitment,'' he writes. ``Each photograph is a voice raised in protest, as well as a hosanna for the planet.''

Protest and hosanna also fill the pages of One Earth (San Francisco: Collins, $39.95). There are beautiful nature photos here by the group that produced the ``Day in the Life'' series of books. But most are of the environmental impact of mankind's activities and - more inspiring - of men, women, and children around the world working and fighting to save a bit of the Earth. Threading the pictures together are the observations of writer and editor Kenneth Brower.

In ``The Green Lifestyle Handbook'' (reviewed in the boxed list of practical books) Fordham University theologian Thomas Berry writes of the spiritual aspect of love for nature, which permeates these and many other of the best books on the environment: ``There is a reciprocal relation between the vigor of religion and the splendor of the natural world. If we lose the one, we will certainly lose the other. We can only restore one by restoring the other.''

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