Joseph Wood Krutch, The Voice of the Desert

Now this is what I call nature writing!

I'd only read single essays by Joseph Wood Krutch before happening upon his 1954 The Voice of the Desert: A Naturalist's Interpretation at the recent TC book sale. Already, I'm in the process of adding every single Krutch book to my unofficial wishlist that family members draw on at birthdays and Christmas, because it's just wonderful, wonderful stuff.

It's the kind of book that you just want to wave at people and make them read, rather than offering up selections, but this might be a kind of motto: "It is not ignorance but knowledge that is the mother of wonder" (p.149). Krutch is defending the theory of evolution against its opponents at this point, but it applies to so many of his discussions, whether it's the mysteries of lichen, the speed of a roadrunner, or the slow growth of saguaro.

To some extent, much of the information in the book is common knowledge now, but 1954 was a different epoch, scientifically speaking. For example, we now know that lichen (one of Krutch's many minor passions) is a synthesis of fungus and algae: this wasn't experimentally proven until 1939, though it had been theorized in the middle of the 19th century. For another example, his discussion of dispersed plant and animal populations keeps foundering on inexplicable gaps between locations, such as Africa and North America, but again, he's writing in 1954: the theory of plate tectonics was barely a glimmer until the key research was performed and published between 1957 and 1967. Krutch is writing conversationally and accessibly about contemporary, cutting-edge research, and he's even doing some of it in his desert home. Self-deprecatingly, he describes his own research as if it's merely the pottering about of some random retired gentleman.

And really great prose style, too. There's something so appealing about nature writing of that era, even where the science has been superseded, and even where the sociopolitics are dated. Krutch's politics seem okay to me, at least in The Voice of the Desert, and his science is up to date for 1954, so it all comes together beautifully.

One regular point of interest for Krutch is how to distinguish between the human and the non-human. He has no patience for exceptionalism that places humans at the pinnacle of anything: intelligence is a muddy thing to locate or define, given the complexity with which insects live their independent lives; heroism has no logical connection with intentional action, so he sees as especially heroic the first beings that/who crawled or jumped from the water to see if maybe they could survive on land (rather like soldiers drafted into service whose instincts drive them to actions subsequently labelled "heroic"); and human courting, or "love," is less complex and more utilitarian than the courting behaviour of many other species.

For Krutch, the land comes first. Everything that lives in, on, under, above, or through the land has a fundamental equality, and he's no shy about objecting to exploitation, to anthropocentrism's consequences, and to changing the desert into something more useful (by which he means fertile for crops useful to humans). He's writing a long time before the first Earth Day, but he's engaging with and extending the insights of Aldo Leopold, who has had so much more press than Krutch has ever had.

Okay, I'm just going to interrupt myself at this random place in the discussion. My point, quite simply, is that everyone should read some Juseph Wood Krutch. My first book-length encounter was with this Voice of the Desert, but maybe there are better options. Any suggestions?


MJW said…
Hello Richard,

I just discovered your blog. I don't follow blogs - have never gotten into it - but I came across yours while searching 'Joseph Wood Krutch'. I must say that I am in complete agreement that this is a book worth reading - and sharing. I picked it up a few days ago off the shelf of a place I was staying in Zinder, Niger. What better place to appreciate a naturalist's reflections on the desert than while visiting one! Reading the book reminded me of other - and, as you note, better known - writers, such as Leopold, Thoreau, Muir and Stegner. But it also made me ask, where are our contemporary voices for the wilderness? In an era where we are backtracking on what little progress we have made in conservation, where our environmental organisations are branded as enemies, and where our Environment Minister seems to understand not a whiff of ecology, nor to have any desire to understand or connect to our wild lands, it seems more important than ever that we have passionate, elegant voices for wilderness preservation. Admittedly I have perhaps not looked too closely, but do you have any suggestions of where I might find a modern-day Krutch or Leopold?

Many thanks for your blog, and your suggestions.

richard said…
Thanks for your note, Michael, and I'm glad you're spending some time with blogs! There's some good stuff out there on them, I promise.

There are lots of writers out there making the kinds of cases and arguments you're looking for, though I recognize there was something special about Krutch and Leopold. Let me ask a few questions, if I may, so I can offer some more focused suggestions.

First, are you looking for Canadian "contemporary voices for the wilderness," or would your interest not be nation-specific? Second, are you interested primarily in wilderness defence, or would other environmental defence issues be of interest? Third, how important would it be to you that the writer focus on environment without humans, or would there be room for humans (as there was for Leopold and Krutch, for example)?

Popular Posts