This collection from essays, short stories, fragments of longer works, and now and then a wispy glimpse of acerbic correspondence between writers seems as scrambled as it is fascinating. What is going on here? To answer this question the reader is advised to spend a little time with Zakin’s brief, seven-page introduction. By a little time, I mean four or five attentive readings with magic marker in hand and a notepad nearby. You’ll need these tools not because Zakin’s style is obtuse — though she doesn’t go out of her way to make complex things seem simple — but because what she says is both complex and important.
Her reasoning goes something like this. The pop concept is that nature and culture are two opposing forces locked in a Manichean battle with an implacable enemy (namely, us). But really, if we are at war with anything, it is with our own natures. While this is disturbing, it is also the stuff of art.
The problem is that nature-centered writing has degenerated into stories about rare animals or exotic places, a niche market of upscale Baby Boomers. It is written by folks who’ve sworn off deodorant or humor or both. In short, environmental literature of the artsy sort has lost its passion, humor and irreverence. It has lost the oomph that many writers of a couple of decades ago had, the type of oomph best demonstrated by Edward Abbey.
In fact, Zakin seems to think of Abbey as something of a guru, and by golly, she’s absolutely right. But he did write that he’d rather kill a man than a snake any time, drank beer from cans, tossing the empties on to the highway (it’s the highway that’s the environmental disaster, stupid, not the litter) and he advocated, if more theoretically than practically, a kind of environmental terrorism. His perspective is sort of off-putting for mainstream consumer culture, and the publishing industry survives on mainstream consumer culture. Hence, when it comes to the environment in literature, we’re getting flaccid, empty, celebrity-style journalism instead of Abbey’s raucous art. Too bad for us, but we’ll just have to live with it.
But is this really so? Not exactly — and this is the point of all the disparate snippets that follow Zakin’s introduction. She has searched out contemporary examples of the environment, or nature, written about artistically with passion, flare, verve, humor and irreverence. Some of the writers Zakin has chosen are well-established or well-known in environmental circles. T. Coraghessan Boyle and Joy Williams, for example. Others are youthful prospects, some of them hardly out of school. Some might not be thought of as nature writers at all. James Lee Burke, sometimes called the Faulkner of the mystery novel, has his character think about brown pelicans both before and after a shooting incident. For nature writing, Faulkner is one of the finest, so why shouldn’t the Faulkner of the mystery novel write about nature?
Fine. The catch is that Zakin has offered no explanation for the essays she has selected. True, there is a short bio-bibliographic essay for each writer and that will come in handy for readers wanting to approach the extended works of an author in a local public library. However, for several of the Zakin-selected essays, it is not clear whether they are fiction or non-fiction or if the voice is that of the author or someone else, real or fictional. Not to mention that the point sometimes seems utterly obscure.
In some cases, the point is obvious to any dolt. Carl Hiaasen’s essay from Team Rat clearly criticizes Disney’s assertion that Animal Kingdom presents a real wilderness when it is really nothing more than a zoo with hidden barriers, what sociologists would call, at best, staged reality, something that isn’t real and we all know it isn’t real but have agreed to act like it is real for the sake of being entertained. And the essay does have pizzazz. Mickey is called a neutered, hairless, civilized rodent and the park is characterized as typical Disney: “Honey. I shrunk the Serengeti.”
Speaking of the Serengeti, however, contrast Hiassen’s entry with Ryszard Kapuscinski’s entry from The Shadow of the Sun. In this case, Zakin’s intention is truly puzzling. In this story, Ryszard and a friend wander befuddled by the maze of tracks on the Serengeti until they collapse exhausted into an abandoned hut. There they confront a cobra and proceed to beat it to death with a metal canister. To me it sounds like a macho-man bragging in a pulp magazine. I’m unimpressed. The damn fools venture into a wilderness without so much as a map or a compass. If this isn’t a commercial exploitation of exotic animals in strange places, exactly what Zakin is criticizing, I don’t know what is, and in any event, the story is sickening, pointless, and artless. If Zakin sees something else in it, she’s duty bound to explain herself. For my part, I’ll agree with Abbey, let’s feed these miscreants to the snakes. Give me Isak Dinesen, Elspeth Huxley or even Osa Johnson any day. Maybe even Joy Adamson, for heaven’s sake.
Zakin’s goal, to reveal something of how modern artistic writers present nature and the environment, is worthy. She would have helped her cause and helped our understanding considerably if she had spent a little more ink explaining her collection. Nonetheless, the collection and the accompanying bio-bibliography made me want to run off to the library for an afternoon or two of catching up on some pretty interesting stuff I’ve missed along the way, and that is enough of an accomplishment.