I've been neglecting my course reading for Edward Abbey's The Journey Home. It'd delightful in its simultaneous deference and irreverence. He has an incredible appreciation and affection for the land and all its features, plant and animal. When it comes to government or society's attitudes, he expresses contempt and uses satire.
In addition to the book being a delight in its own right, I've been finding useful little bits which can be applied to the other readings. Clues, if you will, for how to read "nature writing". While most of what he writes about in this book is the American West, especially its deserts, I think the bits I've picked up on can be applied to any landscape.
"The land here is like a great book or a great symphony; it invites approaches toward comprehension on many levels from all directions." (p 86)
"Any good poet, in our age at least, must begin with the scientific view of the world; and any scientist worth listening to must be something of a poet, must possess that ability to communicate to the rest of us his sense of love and wonder at what his work discovers." (p 87)
"[W]hen all we know about it is said and measured and tabulated, there remains something in the soul of a place, the spirit of the whole, that cannot be fully assimilated by the human imagination." (p 86)
In the introduction to the book, which Abbey writes to revise the expectations of critics, he denies being a naturalist and says his books belong not with nature books or natural history, not with Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, etc. but that they belong in the category of "personal history". He further defines his writing as "simple narrative accounts of travel and adventure, with philosophical commentary added here and there to give the prose a high-toned surface gleam." That they mention aspects of biological science, name flora and fauna and descriptions of geological or topographical formations, he claims, is merely a result of these travels and adventures being set in real places.
The other was he introduces this book is as being in defense of his home. He describes himself as a displaced person and describes home as a place where he's decided to take his stand.
The next thing he addresses in the introduction is the range of styles that he adopts to tell his stories. They include "adversary essays and assays, polemics, visions of hallucinations, fragments of autobiography, journalistic battle debris, nightmares and daydreams, bits and butts of outdoors philosophizing "all stirred together".
This introduction aids in the reading of this particular text, but I think it is also helpful when wondering how to read other texts that are of a similar (dare I say it?) nature. It allows for a compare/contrast to be set up. As we don't really have any standards yet for talking about this literature and we're in some ways making it up as we go, Abbey lends up a vocabulary or at least a list of criteria for this type of "nature writing". He may do it in an effort to tell us what he is not doing and where this book does not belong, but I think he does it all the same. And I think despite his doing it in the negative, he has more in common with the folks he separates himself from than not.