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March 25, 2013

Book Review: How Is the Land To Be Written?

Mark Tredinnick. The Land's Wild Music. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2005 ISBN 3-3420-00751-657-9

In this non-fiction work, both the author and I learned a great deal. Quite frankly, the introduction is so heavy with self-conscious theory about writing, especially nature writing, that I almost gave up on the book.

I did glean from the introduction that Tredinnick was on a quest to discover the nature of “nature writing” by meeting, visiting with, several of its notable American practitioners.

It was amusing to find that Barry Lopez, the first of the writers Tredinnick visited, had similar reactions to theories and labels, stating impatiently that he is not a nature writer but a writer. To his credit, Tredinnick recognised the awkwardness of his approach to Lopez and changed it somewhat as he spoke with the other writers on his list.

Lopez reported that, impatient with the self-consciousness of much literary writing, he turned to such disciplines as archeology, science, anthropology, botany, which helped him work his way into what he thinks of as an ancient way of writing--seeking truth, seeking a way to live with integrity, learning from the land how to live in it. His life and his work are often touched by deep sorrow and grief over betrayals of the land, over our failures to live elegantly with it, as ravens do--or rivers. He is instructive about setting aside theory, false objectivity and entering into, being with, the land.

In Peter Matthiessen, Treddinick finds a contemporary writer, addressing the concerns about the natural environment which preoccupy us all. He also finds an activist, speaking inconvenient truths, sometimes offending people, impatient to the point of rudeness with glib, superficial platitudes uttered by corporations about sustainability and corporate responsibility. He is “an engaged writer of the ecological age.” In Matthiessen’s prose, Tredinnick hears the sounds of the shore and of shorebirds.

Terry Tempest Williams surprises Tredinnick with her passionate involvement in the land. He fears at first that she is possessive, that she somehow objectifies nature, but he learns that her passion for the land is for intimate connection, which she wants to share--to protect the land, to move others to care about it and for it. A strong sense of the spiritual, even the magical, informs the lyrical prose of Williams’ first person interaction with her desert and canyons.

In this succession of chapters, Tredinnick and I are learning about how these master writers encounter the land, observe it, live within it so that they become one with its rhythms and melodies, which become the way to write about place, to catch and continue the song of land visited or lived with intensely over a long time.

James Galvin adds the dimension of people, men and women who have shaped and been shaped by a landscape. For him, the real world is not the world of facts, figures and journalists but the mystery of a place, learned by being in it, suffering on it, working on it, so that it becomes inseparable from lived experience.  Galvin writes a disorderly, lyric book, The Meadow, about a place long lived in, observed by its people.

In the end, Mark Treddinick sets out what he has learned from these encounters.  A writer must catch the lyric of a place, he decides. How the writing sounds catches its spirit better than any description can. It is important to bear witness to a land, letting the language arrive. He is less interested at the end of this quest in theory, has acquired a sense of “the wild.” He believes that the lyric essay, akin to the personal essay and to poetry, is the literary form with the flexibility and openness he needs.

I have learned how interesting these writers are, what good company they are and how complex is the work they have taken on.

Tredinnick has provided me with a list of books and authors I am eager to read:

  1. Barry Lopez.   Arctic Dream

John Fowles.  The Tree

Peter Matthiesson.  The Snow Leopard and The Wind Birds 

Terry Tempest Williams. Pieces of White Shell; a Journey to Navajoland

James Galvin. The Meadow

John D’Agata, ed. The Next American Essay

Mark Tredinnick. The Blue Plateau

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