“To fully understand American nature writing, we must look at its origins in New England,” write authors David K. Leff and Eric D. Lehman. Leff is an award-winning essayist and poet, as well as former deputy commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection. Lehman is a prolific writer, mostly non-fiction, and editor. I might quibble with their New England exceptionalism, but “New England Nature,” is a masterful selection of excerpts from 60 writers, almost half of whom were unknown to me.

The writings span 305 years, from 1615 to 1921. Why they should end their survey in 1921 is not quite clear, although one has to stop somewhere. They describe the anthology as encompassing “the roots of contemporary literature.” Henry Beston’s “The Outermost House,” published in 1928 and widely regarded as the acme of modern nature writing, was perhaps the “roots’ ” first flowering.

Strict chronology allows the reader to experience the changing attitudes toward nature over the centuries, starting with explorer-prospectors like John Smith in the 1600s. In the 1700s, wonder and observation (e.g. “Of the Rainbow,” by the divine Jonathan Edwards) herald the beginnings of a more comfortable (though hardly cozy) relationship. Objective accuracy is often underlined by a moral, as in Samuel Peters’ description of a town, devastated by an infestation of “caterpillars,” saved by another invasion. “Wild pigeons” – presumably passenger pigeons – fed “30,000 people … for three weeks,” a turn of events he said could only be “ascribed to the interposition of infinite Power and Goodness.”

The 19th century brings “intelligence and observation, apparently uninfluenced by fear or imagination,” the qualities prized by Benjamin Silliman (founder of the American Journal of Science) in the report of a meteor of which he gave an account. Charles T. Jackson, who was Maine’s state geologist in the 1830s, had to resist the urge “to expatiate on the beauty and interest,” feeling he should not “spare time from my more serious (geological) duties.”

Starting mid-century, northern New England saw the arrival of sports and rusticators and the subsequent accounts and descriptions of their exploits. Certainly leading the charge was Henry David Thoreau, although I have a hard time subscribing to the editors’ statement that “all subsequent nature writing may be a footnote to Thoreau.” And couldn’t they have found a different selection than the over-exposed and egocentric “Contact! Contact!” passage? For what it’s worth, I suspect that Theodore Winthrop, whose account of his own ascent of Katahdin is one of the undiscovered gems of the collection, would have made a far more congenial hiking companion than Henry David. Describing the uncertain footing on the climb, he found it necessary to hold on to “the baluster-trees, as one after wassail clings to the lamp-post.”

Other “stars of the show” include what might be called delightful novelties – the pleasures of winter, the olfactory excitement of a walk in the dark, the sounds of “inanimate nature.” Mark Twain deserves special mention for an amusing rant on New England weather that ends with one of the most beautiful descriptions in the book: of a tree after an ice storm, which he sums up as “the supremist possibility in art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence. One cannot make the words too strong.”

From the environmental side of the ledger, there is Noah Webster’s astonishingly prescient warning from 1817 (published, incidentally on the same day that would become Earth Day 153 years later): “The laws of nature cannot be controlled, nor will the all wise Author of them alter the scheme of his moral government in compliance with our inordinate desires.” Nearly half a century later, George Perkins Marsh writes even more strongly: “Wherever (man) plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.” And, of all people, P.T. Barnum delivers a jeremiad on the iniquities of billboards: “No man ought to advertise in the midst of landscapes or scenery, in such a way as to destroy or injure their beauty.” This written over a century before Maine passed its billboard ban.

I wish Leff and Lehman provided more by way of commentary than the thumbnail accounts that preface each piece. For example, why do we no longer fill bags of chestnuts to the “most auspicious size” as Harriet Beecher Stowe did? Modern names for places and birds where the originals leave the reader guessing would also have been a help, as would a note where a reference in the text may be lost on contemporary readers.

Nonetheless, they have assembled a marvelous panorama of nature prose. (They cheat, slightly and delightfully, with this self-imposed limitation by making Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Nature is what we see” stand as the book’s epigraph; in 12 lines, she doesn’t leave much more to be said on the subject.)

Thomas Urquhart lives in Falmouth. His new book, “Up for Grabs,” a history of Maine’s Public Reserved Lands, will be published next May.


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