10. Islands of Time: Paul Gruchow (1947–2004)
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211 10 Islands of Time Paul Gruchow (1947–2004) This is the essence of wilderness; that is what we must not forget: how brief life is, how unexpected, how little of it we glimpse, how rapidly it changes.  — ​Paul Gruchow, Boundary Waters Only grass is eternal.... I would be converted to a religion of grass.  — ​Louise Erdrich, “Big Grass” Paul Gruchow’s contribution as a literary naturalist lies at the cusp of ecology and memory, nature and culture. While the influence of Henry David Thoreau is pervasive, Gruchow’s reverence toward the natural world and the sheer lyricism of his writing can be likened to John Muir’s. He was also inspired by twentieth-­ century essayists such as Loren Eiseley, Rachel Carson, and E. O. Wilson, whom he credits with having bridged the humanities and sciences by synthesizing diverse disciplines.1 Believing that the finest essays of this kind are inevitably personal and reflective, he most admired those writers informed by the scientific literature who nonetheless “democratized” the genre by addressing a wide, general audience  — ​ much as he himself sought to do. His work also follows in the tradition of Ameri­ can writing that explores natural history in relation to several dimensions of time  — ​ whether diurnal, seasonal, geological, or evolutionary. His convictions as a conservationist were ultimately grounded in an appreciation for ecological memory encompassing deep time as well as recent environmental history. By the end of his career, in fact, he had begun to articulate 212 Contemporary Literary Naturalists a more nuanced and intricate appreciation than had been advanced by previous generations of pioneering ecologists for the complex interdependencies governing succession through the coevolution of species. Above all, he believed that we must begin to stem the tide of extinction for moral as well as ecological reasons. Thoreau was clearly a touchstone for Gruchow, who in his own journals reflected on the depth of this connection and expressed a profound affinity on several levels. First, there were similarities to their ­ temperaments as fellow wanderers, prone to solitude and introspection. In fact, he regarded Walden as the finest book of travel literature an American has ever written.2 Moreover, he relished one of its central concerns: what has been lost as our daily relationship to nature has waned  — ​ and how it might be reclaimed. Moreover, both deplored conformity and were fiercely independent . He recognized that his approach to the essay in many respects resembled Thoreau’s rhetorically. Perhaps there was an element of emulation , as he would occasionally copy out passages from Thoreau’s journals into his own. Above all, he sensed a spiritual kinship: “We believe, against the fashion,” he declared in his journals, “in the divine content of nature... in the importance of being attached irrevocably to place...in the ultimate authority of truth to oneself.” 3 Acknowledging parallels with English and German Romanticism, he shared Thoreau’s penchant for contemplating philosophical and spiritual questions grounded in close observation of the natural world. Gruchow’s conception of wilderness was complex and vexing — ​he anticipated debates about human stewardship and management that rage to the present day. For example, while visiting Isle Royale in Lake Superior offshore of Copper Harbor at the northeastern extreme of Keweenaw Peninsula on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he considered the role ecologists play in maintaining the native species there, particularly populations of moose and wolves. Determining appropriate conservation measures on the island had been complicated by the arrival of wolves migrating across lake ice in winter; the dwindling genetic diversity of such a small, isolated population; and severe overgrazing whenever the moose population spikes. Gruchow distilled the ecological and ethical issues at stake into three questions : “Are our wilderness preserves museums or are they laboratories? How much should they be managed and to what end? Where should the line be drawn between benign neglect and the failure of stewardship?” 4 These in turn raise the more nuanced issues of degree, strategy, and ethical 213 Islands of Time: Paul Gruchow reckoning. Just when and how, he wondered, should we attempt to steer natural systems toward some idealized or preexisting state? Moreover, what purposes are to be served by protecting significant tracts of land where ecological integrity remains largely intact? He acknowledged the conventional aim of preserving biological resources that might fulfill utilitarian ends, such as a repository of botanical sources for formulating medicines. He deemed such rationales self-­ evident. In the long run, species diversity might also provide an ecological safety net, a library of...