But I think Oates and Williams have it wrong; it's nature writers who lack a sense of humor. Too much mainstream nature writing today is reverent, elegant and soberly eulogistic, and misses the chaos and exultation that are as much a part of nature as of being human. Don't blame nature for the limitations of its observers.
Williams' book is excerpted in the new anthology, Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth, edited by former Tucson Weekly columnist Susan Zakin, who writes widely and bitingly on, among other things, the environment and the people who defile and defend it. Naked showcases not the usual prayerful nature writers but those capable of something more than what Zakin dismisses as "endless reveries upon a rock."
And these aren't just nature writers. Sure, you get pieces by Williams and Zakin and Chuck Bowden and Ed Abbey. But there's also fiction by T.C. Boyle, Carl Hiaasen and Stacey Richter; reportage by Jack Hitt; a riotous memoir by actor Klaus Kinski, and much more. Insightful, arresting writing about nature is, like the subject itself, all around us, if you just know where to look.
The thing is, these people aren't merely roaming around in the wilderness and coming back to describe the furry critters and purty scenery. What Zakin seems to dislike about such writers as Barry Lopez is that, like landscape photographers for a calendar company, they never, ever, let their shadows get into the picture. Zakin's crew, in contrast, is perfectly happy to place the occasional thumb over the lens.
A fair number of her contributors offer essays about venturing into nature for personal therapy, whether they realize that's what they're doing or not. It isn't a matter of sitting on a rock and watching a serene sunset; it's through interacting with the land and sun and sea, meeting nature on its own terms, that they begin to understand their inner landscapes.
Paul Scott Malone, for example, recounts a trip to a remote beach where he and a heartbroken buddy stand in the water, fishing, with no result that would be useful at dinnertime. But the act of casting out and reeling in, casting out and reeling in, with a lifeline tying them together but allowing them to maintain a distance--this begins something that less macho guys might call "healing."
Not everybody who goes out there can contend so successfully with what they find. More than a decade ago, Bowden went tramping around Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge to try to understand what illegal immigrants faced as they picked their way across the desert toward low-paying jobs, only to die in the sun along the way. He wrote a spare, factual newspaper report, but had to save certain deeper truths more difficult to articulate for his book, Blue Desert. A chapter from that volume appears in Naked; toward the end, Bowden admits to an altered awareness of reality: "When I touch the steel towers of the Sunbelt, they feel like cobwebs about to be dispersed by an angry wind. When I touch the earth I feel the rock hard face of eternity."
Journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who spent most of his career in Africa, describes an encounter with a cobra no less distressing because Kapuscinski prevailed. For him and many other Naked contributors, the wilderness is where people go to lose their innocence.
Getting back to nature isn't necessarily something you do with provisions from Summit Hut. More snake material comes from Jeremy Seal, who travels around the American South talking to Christians who handle--and are regularly bitten by--rattlesnakes as part of their religious rites. T.C. Boyle contributes fiction about a young woman who chooses to live naked like a dog in suburban California. Thomas McIntyre explains why his last stop before the woods is an ammo shop: "I kill, and I try to kill well, because it is a difficult and complex physical act, involves moral and ethical reflection, compels me to look at death--and life--without an arbiter, and is an authentic thing in a grossly inauthentic world."
Clearly, this isn't your standard nature anthology. There's even a nice little story by Ted Mooney about bestiality in shallow water.
As Zakin's contributors understand, the environment is no longer something you can write about as if it were pristine and distant. We're in the middle of it, and the mere act of observation changes it.
And, like it or not, nature also changes us.