David Gessner, Sick of Nature

I've spent some time over the last few days pondering my response to David Gessner's essay collection Sick of Nature. It's got some copy-editing weaknesses, though nothing like those in Bell Hooks' Belonging that I've complained about before, and it's got some repetition, though not as much as that in Scott Russell Sanders' Conservationist Manifesto. There's enough of both to distract me, though, so I needed to think it over before committing to my feelings about the book.

(Sidenote: "Thinking it over" is probably something I should have done about Sanders' book before posting about it, but these things happen. The indefatigable Simmons Buntin remarks in his review of A Conservationist Manifesto at Terrain.org that the book hasn't been reviewed widely enough and offered some suggestions about (a) why that's so and (b) why it should be read widely. While my comment isn't as formal a review as most, my doubts about the book might be louder than they would be for a more widely reviewed book. If you're at all uncomfortable with or unsure about my comments, read Simmons' review -- he makes a lot of sense, perhaps more than I do.)

But to Gessner's book, which, in spite of the potential for provoking some displeasure from me, I enjoyed very much indeed.

As the back cover notes, the book follows, more or less, "the making of a reluctant nature writer." The title article, an abbreviated version of which can be read in the Boston Globe, looks at Gessner's distaste for what normally counts as nature writing: a tone of hushed reverence, the expression of deep thoughts in pretty places, awed descriptions of charismatic megafauna, that sort of thing. Bullshit, mostly, is how it started to seem to him, and he tried to quit the habit. As time went on, though, he remembered or recognized the wide diversity within the genre, and even found room for himself and his own practices within what's a very large tent.

But nature writing, as he notes in the title essay, is read by the converted. Is this book for anyone else?

Yes, it is. Absolutely. It helps if you're somewhat interested in how humans might want to see themselves in relation to nature (or environment, or ecosystem, or bioregion, or whatever other term might make sense for you), but these essays are the working out in public of how a writer is going to remain a writer. And more than that, of how a particular man is going to live in the world, in full awareness of his past: an Ultimate Frisbee obsession, a drunken undergraduate career, a difficult relationship with his now-deceased father, a new family, and so on. What, Gessner asks, is the way forward that lets him carry with him and make sense of this past, the past that so many of us end up leaving behind and either forgetting or regretting?

It's nature writing, but it's a long way from the stereotype that prompted the title essay, and it's a nature worth getting to know. More than that, it's the portrait of a guy I'd be pleased to know; it's a personable, engaging book, and that's not always the case with the nonfiction I read. Distinctly recommended, this one!


David Leach said…
I'm convinced. It's a great title and sounds like a fascinating book. And don't blunt the edge of your less-favourable reviews: there's a lot of us out here w/o much reading time on our hands, so we need to be steered in the right direction!

Life's too short for so-so books. It wasn't always so (ah, the crap I read in my misspent youth!). But it is now...

Hope you and the family had a great holiday... it was too [expletive deleted] short for me!
richard said…
What's with the new ID, Leach? Trying to tell us how bold you are?

Happy to help with the negative reviews. You'll like Gessner's book a whole lot, I think, but I thought you only read magazines :-)

My barber's speed, incidentally, meant I didn't get to finish your article on Klemtu, though I did enjoy Jenny's piece on the Whistler area. That issue of British Columbia was almost entirely sourced out of Meadow Place, didn't it!

My hols were similarly abbreviated, what with marking through the 23rd, but I feel a LOT more lively than I did in September. Which isn't saying much, but I'm feeling pretty good, all things considered!

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