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ix from the editor ix As a nature writer, I have spent substantial stretches of my life observing other species, a summer watching ospreys, for instance, and a winter studying pelicans. This past January I decided to turn my attention in a different direction , and began taking field notes on an animal named Philip Roth. In my head I called the project “The Year of Reading Roth,” a 365-day span during which I would read every word the author had written. I felt a little sheepish about the project at first, and wouldn’t admit it to people, revealing as it did an obsession with the Rothian consciousness rivaled only by the author’s own. But for me it was a return to my roots. At sixteen I would discover Walden and Henry David Thoreau, and veer off in a different, crunchier direction, but two years before that my life as a true reader began with a spark of rebellion: sneaking small paperback copies of Portnoy’s Complaint, along with Tropic of Cancer and Breakfast of Champions, off my parents’ bedroom bookshelf. Back in my own room I pored over these forbidden texts and experienced the beginnings of a transformation. That the discovery of something else—equally exciting, but more physical—was concurrent and intertwined with all the reading added to the electricity. Roth taught me not just a love for explosive sentences, but also the proper use for an athletic sock. Alone in my bedroom, I put the new knowledge to immediate use. Here was true literary influence at work. Philip Roth, Nature Boy x ecotone Now, over thirty years later, I have returned to the man’s work in a more analytic, less feverish state of mind. One of the early surprises revealed by my field notes is this: like me, Philip Roth is a nature writer. I don’t say this to be facetious, or contrary, but because, according to the dictates of the genre, it happens to be true. Here is Roth’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, in I Married a Communist: I began to hear once again everything I had filtered out while listening to him talk: the snores, twangs, and trills of frogs, the rails in Blue Swamp, the reedy marsh east of my house, kuk-ing and kek-ing and kitic -ing away, and the wrens there clattering their accompaniment. And the loons, the crying and laughing of the manic-depressive loons. Every few minutes there was the whinny of a distant screech owl, and, continuously throughout, the western New England string ensemble of crickets sawed away at a cricket Bartok. A raccoon twittered in the nearby woods, and, as time wore on, I even thought I was hearing beavers gnawing on a tree back where the woodland tributaries feed my pond. Some deer, fooled by the silence, must have prowled too close to the house, for all at once—the deer having sensed our presence—their Morse code of flight is swiftly wounded: the snorting, the in-place thud, the stamping, the hooves pounding, the bounding away. Their bodies barge gracefully into the thicket and then, subaudibly, they race for their lives. Like any nature writer worth his salt, Roth is deeply concerned with the central archetypal image of the cabin in the woods, Thoreau’s image, the image that would ignite my imagination two years after I first read about Alexander Portnoy seeking solitude for altogether different reasons. For many of us who are drawn to the nature genre, it isn’t a recitation of biological facts or animal stories that first pulls us in—we aren’t looking for the literary equivalent of Animal Planet—but, rather, romance, the romance of retreat and solitude. This is a sort of romance that Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, knows well. In the early nineties, around the time Roth himself retreated from New York to the wilds of northwestern Connecticut, Zuckerman headed for the hills of western Massachusetts and began living not unlike that of a famous Massachusetts author who pursued a life of solitude 150 years before him. Here is Zuckerman, again in I Married a Communist, describing how the decision...


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