[16 March 2010]
You’ve probably never heard of Susan Hand Shetterly. I hadn’t, and chose to review this book on a whim, aiming for an unknown author. That Shetterly remains largely unknown is ample argument for the decline of serious literary culture in the United States, but that is an argument for another essay. Suffice to say Shetterly’s exquisite nature writing deserves a larger audience.
In June 1971 Shetterly and her then-husband moved with their toddler son to rural Maine. There they took up residence in a cabin lacking electricity or plumbing, and taught themselves to live in the wild. The marriage did not survive, but Shetterly remains steadfast in her attachment to the wild lands of Maine, fighting vociferously for the necessity and preservation of untouched nature.
The American urge to build over everything clashes repeatedly with Shetterly’s pleas to keep the wild places intact Nearly all the essays in Settled offer object lessons in the mechanics of human destruction. There is the well-loved dirt road, lined with ancient trees, paved for easier passage to the summer McMansions and their enviable water views. Farmed salmon, disease-ridden, antibiotic-pumped fish, escape their hatcheries, mixing disastrously with the fragile natural population. The alewives, who once ran so thickly they created an ickthyotic bridge (to coin a new term), now require human intervention to make their runs through concrete culverts.
Shetterly writes most movingly about birds. A trained bird rescuer, she arrives in Maine blithely misidentifying every winged thing in her path, gaining skill over the years. Her stories of Chac, a crow she rescued and unwittingly tamed, and Clarissa, a robin who refused to leave, are amazing, as is her acceptance of nature’s bloodier moments. An inveterate walker, she spots animals killed by both automobiles and natural predators. Yet she does not lament. Instead, she leans in for a closer look, returning daily as the animal decomposes, witnessing nature reclaiming beasts, bones and all.
Only when man’s hand is the agent of the destruction does she shudder. She describes a boat ride with a biologist and his student to Green Island, where the tern population is rebounding. They are rebounding from near rarity after their primary predator, the herring gull, was administered a poison causing renal failure. Shetterly writes that the herring gulls, who grew populous feasting on human waste dumps, died “on or near their nests, folding themselves like big white dinner napkins.” So the terns returned to Green Island.
Shetterly is assigned to write about the terns: the biologist agrees to take her along on his boat. She learns, late in the day, that there is a caveat. He asks her to trap ten juvenile cormorants nesting nearby. The “clean” birds are needed in Michigan, where the cormorant population is being decimated by toxins in the Great Lakes. Shetterly is horrified. Unable to think of a refusal, she complies, “...and I knew I had done a sharp and penetrating thing.”
One of the book’s blurbs compares Shetterly to Annie Dillard, another author who writes movingly of the natural world. The comparison is an apt one: Shetterly shares with Dillard a rare linguistic finesse. Will the sentence draw you up short, or what she observes with it? Here she is, describing an alewife:
An alewife is a beautiful fish. Its back is dark blue, its belly, silver.It is laterally compressed, deep from dorsal fin to the sharp belly scales that can slice the skin on the palm of your hands, and as narrow from gill to gill as a pack of cards, a perfect shape to move up down-rushing water.
Reading from one of the planet’s most urbanized places, Shetterly’s work made me long for the long, deep silence of Maine winters. For the night Shetterly lay awake in bed counting Canada Geese as they flew over her roof. For the day she found a hummingbird’s nest, the two nestlings mere gray blobs, with no indicator of the iridescent plumage to come.
Shetterly’s pen turns to the human inhabitants as well, the neighbors who resent her activism, the garbage man who took a broken sickle she left for pickup and returned it the following week, repaired. The men who earn their livings on the water, a cruelly dangerous job with a high casualty rate. The aging neighbor who sat in his chair by the window, dying of heart disease, worrying about the loon that hatched too late to fly with its parents from the encroaching ice. Each day the parents flew to the chick, until the ice closed the chick in; its parents could not land. One day the chick was gone. Three weeks later, so was the man.
Enjoy this gorgeous book gazing out on your snowy yard, should you be lucky enough to one. If, like me, you are an landless urban dweller, read Settled in the Wild and dream of a house surrounded by wilderness, where you are awakened in the night not by humans, but bird calls hearkening spring. Temember the wild places, and advocate for them, for we need nature—and nature needs us—far more than we need large vacation homes with water views.