The Values and Philosophies of Great American Nature Writers

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THERE is a long tradition of "nature writing," typically literature focusing on the wonders and beauties of the natural world or at least uniquely including such elements as part of the scenery. But for some of these writers - Thoreau may be the best example - nature was a way of examining deeper values.

With the growth of the conservation and then environmental movements in the 20th century, writers increasingly have explored the philosophical and spiritual aspects of nature and mankind's place in it.

In "Nature's Kindred Spirits," James McClintock (professor of English and director of the American Studies program at Michigan State University) focuses on five well-known writers: Aldo Leopold, Joseph Wood Krutch, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and Gary Snyder.

Taken together, they "constitute a community of interest by sharing a cluster of ideas and values that arise from their intense relations with nature and which, while consistent with what they know about science, are political, philosophical, and religious," McClintock writes.

"Their essays, stories, and poems sustain a vision of contemporary possibilities that counters mainstream pessimism, fragmented sensibility, politics of self-interest, and spiritual confusion," he goes on. "Running counter to the main literary tradition represented at first by Ernest Hemingway and lately by Thomas Pynchon, they intuit that our knowledge of nature, our social arrangements, and our spiritual conditions can be integrated positively."

This is a profound observation, and the author thoughtfully and with a firm grasp of his subjects explores these important ideas - for this is a book more about ideas than life histories.

There is a larger group of 20th-century American writers, McClintock acknowledges, who think and write in the same neighborhood: Wallace Stegner, Sigurd Olsen, Edwin Way Teale, Loren Eiseley, Rachel Carson, and more recently John Haines, Ann Zwinger, Peter Matthiessen, Edward Hoagland, Barry Lopez, Richard Nelson, David Rains Wallace, Gretel Ehrlich, Gary Paul Nabhan, Terry Tempest Williams, and Wendell Berry.

Looking at such a list, one is struck by how many came out of or adopted the West as home. In considering his five "kindred spirits," McClintock notes that "they all have overcome the malaise of rootlessness; they have found places where they feel at home."

In his Pulitzer prize-winning poetry collection "Turtle Island," Gary Snyder told readers to "find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there. …