by Jane Wiseman
In these times of climate change, I remember my relatively rural North Carolina upbringing as a pretty idyllic one. We lived a couple of miles from town in a group of houses backing up to undeveloped woods rolling down to Morgan Creek. We wandered the woods from breakfast till supper, mindful of snakes, mostly copperheads and water moccasins, trying to identify birdcalls, blissfully immersed to our necks in the swimming hole watching our dogs paddle around, and searching for unfamiliar flora to bring home, press, and identify.
As a teenager, I was desperate to become what back in the day we called an “ecologist.” Then there was nothing as satisfying to me as time spent out in “the great natural world.” And it was becoming more apparent to any discerning eye that this world needed protection by—and from—humans. I attribute my awareness of this in no small part to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which called out to me in a way few books had. A call to arms: serious, authentic, admonitory.
Reality, i.e., mediocrity in the sciences, compelled reconsideration of my career choice, but interest in books on the subject of “the great natural world” has never deserted me. If I could, at will, pass out copies of one book indiscriminately to anyone willing to take it, I think it would be Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. I read it when it first came out and couldn’t believe how she viscerally transported you to her life outdoors on Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge of Virginia. I was caught by the first paragraph:
I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. . . . Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.
And just a few pages later:
That it’s rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac. . . . “God is subtle,” Einstein said, “but not malicious.” Again, Einstein said that “nature conceals her mystery by means of her essential grandeur, not by her cunning.” It could be that God has not absconded but spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem.
Since my first reading, these paragraphs have lived with me, as well as many other images and experiences so magically described in Tinker’s Creek. I wish now I’d paid more attention to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods as a starting point on this journey, but I certainly remember youthful memorization of Robert Frost’s poetry, particularly “Nothing Gold Can Stay”:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Two recent books, a novel and a biography, I found engrossing are Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature. The Signature of All Things follows Gilbert’s fictional heroine, botanist Alma Whittaker, who devotes herself to the world of mosses and in her global explorations develops a new taxonomy that she expands to encompass all life, much along the lines of Darwin’s work. In her biography, The Invention of Nature, Wulf resurrects the forgotten life and adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist and explorer whose revolutionary views of nature inspired Darwin, Wordsworth, Thoreau, and John Muir, among others. Not to mention that he established fascinating relationships with Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar, and Goethe.
On a final note, I’ll mention two books in my incoming stack that show great promise: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to · Find Your Way · Predict the Weather · Locate Water · Track Animals—And Other Forgotten Skills by Tristan Gooley. Mary Oliver in her poem “The Summer Day” asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” One could do worse than spend it in the company of writers and poets au naturel.
Jane Wiseman writes for a living as a Judge on the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals. She counts the day she joined Nimrod’s Advisory Board as one of her happiest and currently serves as Chair of the Advisory Board.