Some books you don’t measure by the page count but by the pound. Typically, I am not daunted by a long book, but I confess to being a bit intimidated by the 1000+ pages of American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. That is, until I read the introduction by editor Bill McKibben.
McKibben explains the difference between nature writing and environmental writing. Nature writing focuses on wilderness as a setting, whereas environment writing “takes as its subject the collision between people and the rest of the world, and asks searching questions about that collision: Is it necessary? What are its effects? Might there be a better way?”
The anthology pulls from work spanning the 1840s to the mid-2000s – essays, journalism, literature, and poetry. The authors are an eclectic assortment: Thoreau, Whitman, P.T. Barnum, Frederick Law Olmsted, Rachel Carson, Alice Walker, Russell Baker, Annie Dillard, and Julia Butterfly Hill.
McKibben selects pieces that focus on the intersection of human activity and the wilderness. This can include personal reflections about the transformative effects of nature on the human soul. Others are straight-forward journalism about the impact of capitalism and industry on the landscape. In every case, there is the tension between human interference and the natural world itself. Several authors raise the question of whether wilderness should be left untouched, not as a pristine refuge, but as an ecosystem that has a right to its own existence, regardless of the resources it could provide to people.
Wilderness is variously defined throughout the collection. It can mean Yosemite or Walden Pond, the California redwoods or the Arizona desert. It can also refer to the cityscape of a low-income or Black neighborhood where the water and air have been poisoned by industrialization.
Of course, the majority of the selections address issues of conservation, but it’s never a one-sided issue. There is nuance in the way the authors perceive the purpose of wilderness. John Muir, proponent for the National Park system and founder of the Sierra Club, saw wilderness as something to be preserved – a radically different view than that of Gifford Pinchot, who had a more utilitarian approach to the use of the American landscape. But both are arguing that wilderness and the environment are crucial to the welfare of our country.
In fact, every author in the book addresses in one form or another that human welfare is intricately linked to the state of the environment. We are healthy as the world is healthy, and to try to separate ourselves out of the environmental web is literally impossible, no matter how much people may think that the world is here for our use and abuse.
No doubt that Bill McKibben had a wealth of writers to choose from, but he did an excellent job of gathering a wide range of talent. All the authors write with passion and commitment; these are issues at the core of who we are as a nation. When we preserve the resources that we have, when we respect the landscape we live on, when we acknowledge errors of the past and try to do better for the future, that is where our hope lies for the future.
So, at a thousand pages, American Earth is, pound-for-pound, a fascinating read.