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March 27, 2007

Sick of Nature by David Gessner

Bravo to David Gessner for thumbing his nose at the hallowed genre of nature writing! I love the genre, and I believe Gessner does too. Still, I applaud anyone who helps to tip over sacred cows. Gessner expands the possibilities for other nature writers and loosens things up. He structures his book of essays around the tale of a prodigal nature writer. First he rebels against his self-assigned role as wise and straight-laced chronicler of plovers and other small beer (Return of the Osprey, A Wild, Rank Place). Then he strikes out into the territory of the personal essay to explore his relationships and his writing apprenticeship. Finally, he returns to nature writing, reinvigorated and willing to break the rules.

The book opens with a rant so clever, funny, and hyperactive that it dazzled me. I tried in vain to summarize what his complaint against nature writing was. I had to go back over the argument sentence by sentence to catch every insight. Gessner chafes against a sense of restraint, a standard of quiet gentility and decorum. In a rather exuberant scene, he imagines a party of nature writers, dead boring until Thoreau downs a few and cuts loose. (Later on, Gessner and Thoreau meet up to "bullshit" and "water the sand cherry.") Gessner rolls his eyes at what he sees as a habit of humorless, excessive earnestness. He complains about the narrowness of the genre and its tendency toward repetition. Then he admits that it is his own conformity that embarrasses and frustrates him more than anyone else's expectations.

Gessner is sick not just of nature writing, but of the marginal position of nature writers in society, of the skeptical inquiries about his job, of his own "eccentric costume of an English bird watcher." He worries, too, about the self-indulgence of the lonely philosopher on the shore. Perhaps most of all, Gessner hates the writer's helplessness. He groans at the contrast between his lofty aspirations and his inability to stop the destruction of the wilderness. He throws up his hands: "I have to admit that an essay is a much less effective method of protecting the land than a cudgel. In other words, I have to admit to impotence."

By the end of the introductory essay, though, he's back on his feet, trumpeting a new aesthetic. He makes a plea for wildness and honesty in nature writing, "for freedom. For sloppiness... for amateurism, variety, danger, spontaneity." By this time we can infer both directly and indirectly what figure he'd like to cut. The persona that attracts him is virile, wild, funny, sexy, irreverent, contrarian, a little cranky. He's got a touch of Edward Abbey's picaresque approach to our lovely earth. Gessner wants a nature writing that excludes no human truth, a nature writing that can include substitute teaching, TV and Al Qaeda if these affect our relations with nature. While Gessner may not be quite such a colorful lecher and prankster and messiah as Edward Abbey, he's more credible in the maturity department. He may indulge in shenanigans, but what sustains the book is his articulate, incisive, measured prose. The essayist Phillip Lopate, an inveterate urbanist, has admonished nature writing for jumping "too quickly to a place of static wonderment." I imagine Lopate would applaud Gessner's analytical bent.

In fact, Gessner is so self-reflective that we're not always sure whether he's commenting on nature writing or describing his personal trajectory. Fortunately, he makes both these projects revealing and appealing. Gessner manages to avoid any snarkiness about other nature writers. Any time he veers that way, he quickly reasserts his admiration for an Annie Dillard and blames his own failures for his discontent. It seems clear, though, that he'd like to see more variety, more risks, more transgression. In "A Polygamist of Place," Gessner describes his alternate attachments to Cape Cod and Colorado. He points out that marriage to a place remains the dominant, unquestioned trope for American nature writing. Why should marriage be necessary? He sees its value, but it may not be for everyone. Gessner notes the virtues of distance; when we step away from a beloved place we can sometimes see it more clearly in the light of contrast and nostalgia.

The personal essays that make up the bulk of the book turn away from nature writing. They are welcoming examples of that leisurely, self-critical, modest tradition. Gessner mulls over writerly jealousy, his rejection by a mentor, the angst of long obscurity. When he ventures into deeper emotional terrain like his relationship with his father and his responsibility for his schizophrenic brother, the essays are moving without indulging in pathos. He invites us into intimacy with his conversational tone, his lack of pretension, his mundane and even crude details, his self-deprecating humor. Gessner's affable contrarian stance fits the tradition of the personal essay. Montaigne hovers over the book and appears in epigraphs. Rousseau, the father of secular confession, hovers too. Like Rouseeau, Gessner feels a certain urgency about exploring his own defects. He complains that nature writing is "a strange Sunday School where I alternate between sitting in the pews (reading nature) and standing at the pulpit (writing nature)." In this book he refuses those pieties. He won't just preach and worship; he'll confess to the sins that give all humans vitality. He does not hesitate to look like a dufus, and for the most part we like him the better for it. He details his arrest for assaulting a customer when he worked as a bookstore clerk, his misadventures as a frisbee-obsessed lush at Harvard, his Lolita daydreams during a low point as a substitute teacher. Maybe we can't be Harvard men, but we start to believe we could live on the beach at Cape Cod without income and mistake foxes for coyotes as he does.

I don't think I'm imagining the frequency with which Gessner invokes masculine archetypes. Throughout the book, Gessner struggles with his failure to fit his father's model of manly success. He admires his father's aggressiveness as his father negotiates a bid to buy a German textile factory. The intimacies that most perplex and engage Gessner in the essays are all with male friends and relatives. He seems, too, to enjoy animal manifestations of maleness. In "Marking My Territory," Gessner insists, even revels, in peeing on an obnoxious neighbor's property when all his other conservationist protests fail. Gessner envies a fellow writer who wins People's "Sexiest author" award, "the prize we all secretly covet." When Gessner declares his "impotence" on the second page of the book, the word has a bitter resonance. But his persona is nothing if not masculine. Perhaps he is sick of nature because, like his kindred the poet and priest, the nature writer does not get much credit for manliness. The male nature writer is hardly reputed a "closer" in the lingo of David Mamet's salesman in Glengarry Glenross. Rather, he is thought a delicate dreamer. This perception persists despite the house-building and death-defying feats of male nature writers from Thoreau to Edward Abbey to Gary Snyder.

In the title essay, Gessner claims, "I'm willing to write manifestos, but I'd prefer having others act them out." I don't buy this. His final trilogy of essays, "Howling with the Trickster: A Wild Memoir," does act out his manifesto. In these essays, he moves to Boston, gets obsessed with urban coyotes, tracks one alone a concrete canal, supports his mentally ill brother, and watches his wife's belly swell as his own daughter grows. Gessner waxes earnest, emotional, inquisitive, lyrical, playful by turns. He braids together personal history, natural history, and philosophizing. When his daughter is born and he sobs, I started crying too.

In these essays, Gessner gets a chance to make his writing definitively masculine in unexpected ways. While Edward Abbey beats his chest and caricatures masculinity for the fun of it, Gessner invokes the caricature and then pushes past it. His new coyote ideal has a more agile, spritely kind of toughness than traditional bulldozer masculinity. Where does he fit in the cycles of life? How can he welcome the chaos of the world as a father? What does it mean to be a man who spends so much time watching things, searching for transformation? I'd love to see him focus explicitly on gender some day. No need to beat a drum or paint his chest; Gessner might be the one to reflect on masculinity and nature without romanticizing either.

Ultimately, though, it's not gender that matters most to Gessner; it's liveliness. Like Whitman, he looks for energy wherever it lurks. It lurks in the coyote by the trash heap as well as in the sublime irridescent "blue-grey juniper berries." In his deepest essays, his warmth and all-too-human honesty transport us. He seeks truth and an impish liberation in the profane; in the process he finds his way to the holy once again.

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