A Shared Passion for Nature
PUT a New England gardener and a Rocky Mountain rancher in the same room and what might they find to talk about? Plenty, if the two also happen to be such fine nature essayists as Roger Swain and Gretel Ehrlich. Both have intimate knowledge of what they write - whether it be the cultivation of blueberry bushes or the pulling of crooked calves in the birthing process - and both have a way of finding larger lessons in the minutiae of outdoor life.New Englander Swain might well be called, with all due respect, the Mr. Rogers of nature writing. In his most recent collection of essays, he never fails to find hidden magic in the simplest of observations. His style is so relaxed, his subject matter so familiar, it is as if we are seated cozily at his side, watching as he slips into a cardigan sweater to show us how a hermit crab exchanges its shell, and why. He has an uncanny ability to connect personally to the reader's shared habits, memories of the past, and common reactions to the everyday world. Everything he writes about takes him somehow closer to home. A dried-out buckeye fished from his briefcase while aboard an airplane brings to mind the autumn day he picked it up in his backyard. Waiting in line at JFK airport after the flight, his sole thought is of taking a deep drink of water at his own kitchen sink. Nothing brings Swain's folksy but firm sensibility into sharper focus than the piece entitled "Full Pockets." Here, he is an avid collector of all small things found on the ground. "Without pockets," he writes, "I might as well be naked." By his own admission, however, he is a better archivist than curator. Once stored, he never again sorts things properly. But the surprise of pulling long-forgotten objects from some deep disorder has at least two advantages. He can find the inspiration required for a well-told story and a well-led life always near at hand. As Swain asks, "Do I write because I have filled my pockets? Or is it the other way around? It does not matter. So long as I do one, I will most likely do the other." But there is more substance to his program than mere nostalgia for the past. Ending almost every essay on an advisory note, Swain is a firm advocate for healthier attitudes and practices, and not all necessarily of an ecological kind. Following a personal reminiscence, for instance, he might prod others to recapture something lost from their own childhood - a curiosity about nature, perhaps, or confidence in the future - in order to live better by it again. Perhaps because the view from her ranch-house door is so much wider than the one from Swain's backyard, Gretel Ehrlich takes on much wider and loftier subjects. In the year-and-a-half's coverage of these diary-like essays she wanders the high country and beyond, following almost randomly, as she puts it, "the peregrine saunterings of the mind." True to her title, Ehrlich seeks out islands of all sizes - Japan, Hawaii, those offshore Santa Barbara, and even the tiny one in her own Wyoming lake - as often as she scans the heavens, sometimes through a telescope, sometimes through her closed and dreaming eyes. Indeed, with smoke from Yellowstone's fires erasing the entire sky for much of the summer, she feels compelled to look inward almost more than outward. But she is also a practical listener to the words of others. She repeatedly finds common sense in the wisdom of physicists and astronomers, seemingly her most favorite conversationalists. Yet discussions with them about splitting the atom lead, inevitably, to the sad lessons of Chernobyl and Hiroshima for the entire planet. Ehrlich revels in the paradoxical as well. A handful of dust from a comet's tail, she is told, can teach more about the universe than years of stargazing. This conversation takes place in the snow, standing outside Hawaii's Mauna Kea observatory at an elevation of 13,500 feet. Later she is reminded that Heisenberg first thought up his theory of quantum physics, which states that "the experience of isolation is a fantasy, that I am part of a whole," while alone on an island. In some of the essays, she has a talent for using a prosaic task, a farm chore for instance, as a way of reaching toward something more. One morning she sets off to look for Frenchy, her lost red heeler. She shades her eyes to peer, she cups her ears to listen, she gets on her knees to sniff a scent. "Some days I think this one place isn't enough. That's when nothing is enough.... Those days, like today, I walk with a purpose but no destination. Only then do I see, at least momentarily, that most everyth ing is here." Ehrlich's affinity for inner truths distilled from nature takes her to Japan to follow in the pilgrim footsteps of the celebrated haiku poet Matsuo Basho. Her essay entitled "The Bridge of Heaven" is one long quest for shizen, the "spontaneous, self-renewing, inherently sacred natural world of which humans are an inextricable part." In seeking it, she attends sacred Shinto dances, climbs the spirit-inhabited Mount Osorezan, and visits a dead friend through the mediation of a folk shaman. For all her globe-trotting, Ehrlich says the most perhaps when staying on the ranch. In a piece entitled "Architecture," she writes lovingly about the meaning of home, choosing a building site, and the layout of rooms. Wyoming has no architectural legacy, she notes, except for the "outlaw cave." Thus she must design an idealized house, one which, like a bear's den, is "not a defense against nature but a way of letting it in." Constellations would be her blueprint. A stream would flow through her living room, a dense bamboo forest would frame her front door and then thin inside the entry hall. Trees would grow beside bookshelves. Quoting Frank Lloyd Wright, she writes, "From nature inward; from within outward." From the strength of these two collections, Ehrlich and Swain have successfully followed Wright's dictum in both directions. They are a pleasure to read and come highly recommended to whomever would do the same.