Deep Maps in Eco-Literature

By Roorda, Randall | Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Deep Maps in Eco-Literature


Roorda, Randall, Michigan Quarterly Review


River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America. By William Least Heat-Moon. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Pp.506. $26.

Story Line: Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail. By Ian Marshall. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998. Pp. x + 284. $55 (hb); $19.95 (pb).

A Garden of Bristlecones: Tales of Change in the Great Basin. By Michael P. Cohen. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998. Pp. xxii + 308. $34.95.

William Least Heat-Moon came to fame out of nowhere-out of the blue-with the publication of Blue Highways in 1982. Nothing in his background predicted the success he enjoyed with this epic of a solo roadtrip. Its success issued in part from the sense imparted of a failed or at least checkered personal past-a history of disappointments and shortcomings culminating in the circumstances of the book's unfolding. As it opens, the author has lost his wife in an acrimonious, guilt-wracked separation, lost his college teaching job due to sagging enrollments, and has no recourse, it seems, but to take to the road, heading out alone in a van he calls Ghost Dancing to sort himself out on the "blue highways," the secondary routes of the continent, among landscapes and people similarly unheralded and neglected. The Native American overtones to the van's name, and even more, the Indian-seeming nom de plume that the mostly-white American William Trogdon adopts, contribute further both to the feeling of down-and-outness (since Indians are famously down and out) and to the element of self- and roots-seeking (since Indians are stereotypically spiritual and rooted) that help constitute the book's allure. Bobbing into popular consciousness on the backwash of the seventies, Blue Highways tapped impulses widespread in the post-Kerouac, post-Pranksters, proto-Reaganite United States. Its author's name-one of them, at least-was forthwith made.

One aspect of this opening act was impossible to follow in subsequent work. His obscurity spent, Heat-Moon could not again take the part of a drifting particle, a stranger on a big continent, in quite the same way. His strategy in his second book, PrairyErth (1991), is ingenious in this light. Not the author but his subject is down and out, obscure, possessed of a checkered past, troubled yet candid and resourceful, and positioned as somehow-literally, in fact-central to the American landscape. This subject is Chase County, Kansas: obscure in being a nearly depopulated polity in an unromanticized agricultural region, and central in its proximity to the geographical centers of both nation and continent. As with the midpoint of Thoreau's pond, physical centrality has figurative implications which this massive book is concerned to explore. Chase County contains the bulk of the Flint Hills, which hold the nation's largest remaining stretches of tallgrass prairie, an ecological community which once predominated across the mid-continent. Thus its social and environmental history as well as its geographical placement make it a synecdoche for the heart of the nation at large. And Heat-Moon, in crisscrossing and ransacking this obscure place to the extent of some six hundred pages, again establishes a centrality of sorts to his own designs to comprehend all America.

In its remarkable attentiveness, resourcefulness, and representational self-consciousness, PrairyErth is a book of great interest to students of literature and environment. In a key work of criticism in this area, The Environmental Imagination (1995), Lawrence Buell has praised the book, deeming it "perhaps the most ambitious literary reconstruction of a small portion of America ever attempted in a single volume." Pairing PrairyErth with Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams as among "the most intricate achievements" in recent environmental nonfiction, Buell claims that the "stature" of these books, their rank among "the classics of American autobiography and narrative fiction," is unlikely to be appreciated for a while yet, "because we have not learned how to read them. …

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