America's single greatest claim to literary pre-eminence may lie in its writings about the natural world. Writers in every corner of the globe have always told stories of relationships among people, or among peoples and their gods. But Americans came to full literary consciousness while much of their land was yet to be deforested, drained, cleared, developed. It is the fraught relationship between man and nature that suffuses many of the best American novels, poems, and stories—and that many of the most eloquent and impassioned American essays take as their central subject.
The voices showcased here gave rise to movements. Out walking in the wilderness, birthing a million backpackers who would follow, Henry David Thoreau was the proto- environmentalist. And John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club (a forefather of modern NGOs), drew upon his ecstatic grammar of the wild to issue an urgent call that would inspire and be echoed by a million analogous groups around the world. America collided with nature, and it was these writers and thinkers who let out the yelp. But if some of these voices expressed apprehension and prodded readers to action, others comforted and supplied the balm. Annie Dillard offered a wry perspective on the planet’s profligacy, Sarah Orne Jewett contemplated—albeit a bit tremulously—the great chain of decay and rebirth, and John Burroughs (the single most popular nature writer in America for many decades) articulated his serene conviction that Charles Darwin could help us to see the divine underfoot.
At present, we find ourselves facing ecological damage that even these writers, so keenly attuned to the topic, could not have anticipated: the earth has become what one group of scientists has called the “anthroposphere,” its physics, chemistry, and biology now driven by our habits and desires. The reformist energy unleashed by the metaphors and images of our great green writers, which accomplished so much for so long, has mostly dwindled away. If we are to confront these new perils, and the endless consumption and carelessness that advance them, we need strong new writing about our responsibilities to one another, and about the possibilities that yet remain for delight in the natural world. We need the next metaphor. And if our history is a reliable guide, it will surely come.