The values and philosophies of great American nature writers

THERE is a long tradition of ``nature writing,'' typically literature focusing on the wonders and beauties of the natural world or at least uniquely including such elements as part of the scenery. But for some of these writers - Thoreau may be the best example - nature was a way of examining deeper values.

With the growth of the conservation and then environmental movements in the 20th century, writers increasingly have explored the philosophical and spiritual aspects of nature and mankind's place in it.

In ``Nature's Kindred Spirits,'' James McClintock (professor of English and director of the American Studies program at Michigan State University) focuses on five well-known writers: Aldo Leopold, Joseph Wood Krutch, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and Gary Snyder.

Taken together, they ``constitute a community of interest by sharing a cluster of ideas and values that arise from their intense relations with nature and which, while consistent with what they know about science, are political, philosophical, and religious,'' McClintock writes.

``Their essays, stories, and poems sustain a vision of contemporary possibilities that counters mainstream pessimism, fragmented sensibility, politics of self-interest, and spiritual confusion,'' he goes on. ``Running counter to the main literary tradition represented at first by Ernest Hemingway and lately by Thomas Pynchon, they intuit that our knowledge of nature, our social arrangements, and our spiritual conditions can be integrated positively.''

This is a profound observation, and the author thoughtfully and with a firm grasp of his subjects explores these important ideas - for this is a book more about ideas than life histories.

There is a larger group of 20th-century American writers, McClintock acknowledges, who think and write in the same neighborhood: Wallace Stegner, Sigurd Olsen, Edwin Way Teale, Loren Eiseley, Rachel Carson, and more recently John Haines, Ann Zwinger, Peter Matthiessen, Edward Hoagland, Barry Lopez, Richard Nelson, David Rains Wallace, Gretel Ehrlich, Gary Paul Nabhan, Terry Tempest Williams, and Wendell Berry.

Looking at such a list, one is struck by how many came out of or adopted the West as home. In considering his five ``kindred spirits,'' McClintock notes that ``they all have overcome the malaise of rootlessness; they have found places where they feel at home.''

In his Pulitzer prize-winning poetry collection ``Turtle Island,'' Gary Snyder told readers to ``find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there.'' No American writer has done that with greater fervency than the man profiled in James Bishop Jr.'s ``Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist: The Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey.''

In 20 books of essays and fiction, Abbey railed against industrialism that not only degraded the environment but threatened individual freedom.

``It was Abbey's self-appointed task to demythologize the West, to illuminate the fact, in tones of humor and anger, that the West of the imagination barely lasted for a single lifetime,'' Bishop writes, ``that it wasn't won by mountain men, Indian fighters, and prospectors but by Big Business and Big Government. And they were on their way to creating an awful catastrophe - if left unmatched and unopposed.''

Abbey was called ``Cactus Ed,'' not only because he loved hiking in the desert but because of his prickly nature - irreverent, iconoclastic, sometimes rude, often deliberately belligerent. He loved the Southwest and wrote movingly of it, but he was much more than a nature writer.

He was a sharp social critic whom author Larry McMurtry called ``the Thoreau of the West.'' Wallace Stegner said, ``His books were burrs under the saddle blanket of complacency.''

In many ways, as Bishop accurately illustrates, Abbey (who died in 1989) was ahead of his time. His warnings preceded popular environmentalism, today's concern about ``industrial tourism'' impacting national parks, and the work of revisionist historians of the American West. Although some charged him with being racist, Abbey was particularly prescient about the costs of uncontrolled immigration.

Abbey's approach is more apocalyptic, but his message is the same as mainstream reformers like Rep. George Miller (D) of California, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources. Representative Miller released Monday a congressional report titled ``Taking from the Taxpayer: Public Subsidies for Natural Resource Development'' in which the economic and environmental impact of United States Western history are outlined.

Abbey's best-known books are ``Desert Solitaire'' and ``The Monkey Wrench Gang.'' Bishop's ``Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist'' is a well-written analysis of an American original who is likely to become more popular without the personal quirks and periodic outrageousness.

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