This is my response to Brian Doyle’s essay, “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever,” which appeared in Orion Magazine.
The word “greatest” leads into the treacherous ground of superlatives. With overuse, superlatives have a numbing effect, a tendency to produce a “so what?’ response. They also have overtones of arrogance, advertising, and P.T. Barnum coming to town with his circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”.
That said, Brian Doyle has given us a fine essay on the art of essay writing. After my initial response to the word greatest, I calmed down and found five paragraphs of genuine, perhaps gently humorous, views on what should happen in such an essay. First, the essay must get the reader’s attention, not in the sensationalist terms of the news headline, but in a way that takes the readers out of themselves and into an unexpected place where they secretly hoped to go.
In her poem, “The Speed of Darkness,” Muriel Rukeyser said, “The world is made of stories, not atoms.” She then spins the reader into her world of pain. This is what Doyle proposes the next few paragraphs should do, but in the realm of nature. The beauty unfolds, but a threat to the natural world is unveiled. He then states that writer should “tiptoe” back to the gently unfolding story without sermonizing or grandiose conclusions. The essay should end with the reader aware of a tapestry of beauty with dark threads of threat interwoven into a cloth of hope.
Some reviewers have said that his essay meets its own criteria, that it is in fact “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever.” This makes the piece a “meta-essay,” a work written in the form it describes, much like the “Ars Poetica” of Horace. Horace perhaps unexpectedly founded a school of poetics, which took the name of his poem. Though originally written in a poetic form, it is usually translated as prose, and the full text appears on the website of the Poetry Foundation. Here is a brief sample:
Ye who write, make choice of a subject suitable to your abilities; and revolve in your thoughts a considerable time what your strength declines, and what it is able to support. Neither elegance of style, nor a perspicuous disposition, shall desert the man, by whom the subject matter is chosen judiciously.
Doyle’s essay gives similar instructions which might have led me to the conclusion that I have read very few nature essays. Make no mistake, I have read extensively from the works of naturalists, from Thoreau’s Waldon and Cape Cod to Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Peter Matthiessen’s National Book Award winning The Snow Leopard. I must wonder if Doyle’s definition leaves room for Dillard’s frog shriveling to an empty bag of skin after the attack by a giant water bug, or Matthiessen’s freezing feet as he crosses the Himalayas. There is certainly not room for Thoreau’s Cape Cod with the bodies of Irish immigrants lining the beach after a shipwreck and awaiting the arrival of wailing relatives. Nevertheless, these authors meet the exhortation of Horace to choose a subject suited to their abilities, which are considerable.
This line of reasoning led me to “The Cowboy and his Cow,” by Edward Abbey. The piece is self-aware, in that the transcription for publication included the audience reactions to a reading of the essay. Many of those reactions were shouted by the audience. These parenthetical records include the concluding words (gunshots in parking lot). His physical location at the reading, in Wyoming cattle country, as he criticizes government subsidized grazing land, guaranteed a hostile response. Abbey’s piece is not an essay though. It is a polemic, best described as a contentious rhetoric intended to support a position and undermine the opposing position. Much of what is broadcast on “talk radio,” is polemical. Here is a brief segment of Abbey’s polemic.
Overgrazing is much too weak a term. Most of the public lands in the West, and especially in the Southwest, are what you might call "cowburnt." Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestem and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Weeds.
Imagine reading that piece to an auditorium full of cattlemen and students at an agricultural school in Wyoming! The essay gives insight to Abbey’s devotion to the land which left no room for middle ground. As such it violates Doyle’s dictum of “no sermonizing.”
By contrast, “The Dead Man at Grandview Point,” a chapter in his book Desert Solitaire, achieves the feel of a lyric essay, defined in the Eastern Iowa Review, in part, as follows: “…The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving." - Deborah Tall
I once prepared a profile of Abbey for the environmentalist tabloid Hellbender Press, named for a large species of salamander. Here is some material I quoted from “The Dead Man at Grandview Point,” a chapter of his book Desert Solitaire. Upon returning home from assisting a search party to find a missing senior citizen, found deceased at Grandview Point, he identified with the dead man, but paradoxically, also with the circling vultures.
I feel myself sinking into the landscape, fixed in place like a stone, like a tree, a small motionless shape of vague outline, desert colored, and with the wings of imagination look down at myself with the eyes of the bird, watching a human figure that becomes smaller, smaller in the receding landscape as the bird rises into the evening – a man at a table near a twinkling campfire, surrounded by a rolling wasteland of stone and dune and sandstone monuments, the wasteland surrounded by dark canyons and the course of rivers and mountain ranges on a vast plateau stretching across Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, and beyond this plateau more deserts and greater mountains, the Rockies in dusk, the Sierra Nevadas shining in their late afternoon, and farther and farther yet, the darkened East, the gleaming Pacific, the curving margins of the great earth itself, and beyond earth that ultimate world of sun and stars whose bounds we cannot discover.
I think this fits Doyle’s criteria, and I find his comments helpful, but not an exclusive set of criteria for writing nature essays. The self-aware aspect of the work is interesting. I suppose that the phrase, “in the flow,” might describe its opposite. It matches the ancient Greek term of Kairos as opposed to Chronos. Chronos is the ordinary time kept by a clock or chronometer. Kairos is sometimes described as “the opportune moment,” but can also mean sacred time. It is the time in which hours pass yet the observer may think it has been only a moment. It is the intersection of the divine with the ordinary. It is the realm of the Muse.
I find my nature observation and journaling to be more Kairos than Chronos. I fish in a river, observe the wildlife in a marsh, or investigate the wildflowers in a wood lot with no awareness of time until I have reached some sense of completion and realize that the morning is gone. This also happens when I am writing. The alarms on my cell phone help me with keeping appointments.
In her book of essays Upstream, Mary Oliver says that writing will make you late for appointments and wake you up in the middle of the night. This is another way of seeing my intent here.
I am unable to separate the comments from personal experience. For me, the concept of self-aware observation or journaling seems to contradict the sense of wonder achieved in Kairos time. For others, that sense of wonder might be retained even as they notice their own reactions to their observations and their writings. I might hope to reach that state, but it does not seem possible for now.
Find Brian Doylle's essay here. https://orionmagazine.org/article/the-greatest-nature-essay-ever/
Shameless Self Promotion
A few months ago I wrote an article about Robert Sparks Walker for The Chattanooga Pulse.