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May 01, 2004

David Oates on the Tree of Life

From his wonderful book Paradise Wild, and more on said book soon:

If it was my myth, I'd give her an onion. And I'd have God say — Take a BIG bite. This would improve things in several ways.

First, onions don't grow on trees, so there'd be no question of literalizing the story. Second, there's the peeling... that's a good model for how the world works, or rather how we work the world. Much more interesting than the clear-through-ness of an apple.

And onions do have their own paradoxical sweetness. Along with the tears. Eve plucks one from the ol' onion tree. She bites, she cries, she peels, she laughs. God looks on approvingly. Adam smells her breath, wonders what's up, kisses her anyway. And the rest is history.

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Chris, recently I have been starved for good nature books. The last good books I read were "This Cold Heaven" by Gretel Ehrlich and "The Birds of Heaven" by Peter Mathiessen. Being here in Japan makes it hard to just walk into a book store and find good examples of nature writing in English. My favorite nature writers are Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey (who I had the good fortune and joy of meeting and talking to a month before he died), of course Gretel Ehrlich, Reg Saner, Robert Finch (who joined in a three day writer's gathering in New Hampshire quite a while ago), and a pretty long list of others. But no one new or recent. Could you recommend any writers?

I feel that nature writing in America is the vanguard of new, good writing in English. I don't much care for a lot of recent American fiction... it all seems reaching and contrived. The best English fiction seems to be coming out of India, Canada, and Australia these days. But American nature writing is examining big and hard questions, with often sublime results.

Posted by: butuki at May 4, 2004 04:57 PM
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Well, I've mentioned Gary Nabhan here in the past: he's very much recommended. There's David James Duncan, who straddles the border between nature writing and non-nature-writing: I gave a copy of his The River Why to Lisa Field Notes Thompson and he completely won her over despite her initial resistance. You don't mention Terry Tempest Williams, and she needs to be on any such list.

John Janovy is a less-well-known writer, as he writes about a less-popular landscape: Nebraska.If you've only ever driven through on Interstate 80, his lyrical prose will come as a bit of an eye-opener. Ditto my friend Bill Belleville for the more popular Caribbean basin: his two latest are Deep Cuba and Sacred Cenotes.

For you, Miguel, I can but instruct you to find, immediately, a copy of The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs. I read it in one sitting, exhilarated and yet deeply hurt that I hadn't written it.

That's a very male list.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 5, 2004 06:41 AM
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I've read "Refuge" by Tempest-Williams, but have yet to read her last book. I've also read Gary Nabhan, though not much. And I have to get to David James Duncan; I thought of getting "The River Why" the last time you posted about it, but never got around to it. John Janovy I've not hear of, so I'll look into what he has. Same with Bill Believille. And I'll give Craig Childs an immediate go... as soon as I finish posting this I'll order it from Amazon.

Have you read Richard Nelson's "The Island Within"? What an amazing book! Or "Having Everything Right", by Kim R. Stafford? I also liked "Notes fromt the Shore" by Jennifer Ackerman, "Second Nature" by Michael Pollan, "Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica" by Sara Wheeler.

Nature writing and living as close to the natural world as Nabhan and Lopez and others like them do is what I've always wanted to do with my life since I was boy. I don't know why I'm not doing them! When I was still in Boston I got closely involved with the people over at Orion Nature Quarterly and was on my way to becoming a nature writer... somehow life got in the way. I've lost touch with a lot of the writers and editors I knew back then, which is a crying shame.

One thing I am interested in is calling more attention to and trying to help to promote nature writing outside the US. The potential for people to write place-based accounts and to think deeply about where they live is tremendous. It's sad to think that nature writing in English is mainly happening only in the States right now. I'd recommend Japanese and German writers, but no one visiting the blogs could read them, probably.

Hey, in flipping through my bookshelf I just discovered that I DID buy David James Duncan after your last post. Here I have a copy of "My STory As Told By Water". Got to get to it!

Posted by: butuki at May 7, 2004 10:34 PM
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I started David James Duncan's "My Story As Told By Water" yesterday, and I've got to say, you've got another believer! He's writing about "ME"! I swear that is the same kid wandering around the Tokyo suburb rivers and woods, though my focus was insects and later birds. I'm trying very hard to get back to that self and to find a way to live with as much time with our wild neighbors as possible. It will mean a big life change, but I can't go on living the way I am much longer.

I am starting to put together what I hope might become a working company called "Studio Butuki", a kind of hands-on place-based educational studio that uses a mixture of art and science and field trips to get people to see and reevaluate their perspective on the world around them. I figure that in order for people to care for the land they first need to see it more clearly and understand it. Then all the protecting and saving can take place.

Duncan has me hooked. I think I'm going to love his writing. I'll get back to you about him when I'm done.

Posted by: butuki at May 18, 2004 09:09 PM
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