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D A V I D P E T E R S E N San Juan Mountains, Colorado Knee-Deep in itsAbsence I am occasionally asked why I have chosen to make my career (such as it is) writing about nature. The answer is easy: I haveno choice; it’sin my genes. To wit: The best scientific guess is that crude, “proto” language first appeared among the progenitors of our species more than two million years ago. Full language, it is thought, evolved forty to one hundred thousand years ago, in parallel with the triumphant emer­ gence of Homo sapiens sapiens. (In fact, the ability to communicate intricate thoughts may have been what gave early H.s. sap the competi­ tive edge over contemporary H.s. neanderthalensis.) At that time and until the most recent moment of human history, our hunter-gatherer ancestors had no cultivated crops, no domesti­ cated livestock, no industry beyond small-scale production of crude implements. And since we also had no writing, all accumulated knowl­ edge—social and religious values, tribal and family histories, myth, law, legend, ritual, everything—had to be precisely memorized and orally transmitted from generation to generation. And what better vehicle for condensing, organizing, and making memorable and transferable the spoken word than . . . story. Which is to say: for the overwhelming bulk of human history on this lovely earth, our world, spiritual aswell as physical, was inseparable from wild nature; it was, we were, wild nature. Naturally, the characters who breathed life into ancestral story would have taken (and in surviv­ ing primitive cultures, still take) the form of animals, animal-humans, animal-gods, even (as in Navajo creation myth) animated landscapes. Only ten to twelve thousandyears ago didwe learn, here and there around the planet, to domesticate wild flora and fauna, trading spear, atlatl and digging stick for plow and shepherd’s crook, thus initiating 54 Western American Literature our separation from wild nature, our divorce from Eden. In due time came industry, that irresistible magnet for urban growth. Thus, and only in the last second of human history, has “progress” insidiously separated the majority of humanity from daily association first with wild, then pastoral nature. Simultaneous with and due to this estrangement, the ancestral literature of nature and place that had been kept alive for coundess millennia began to fall out of favor, out of use, being replaced first in oral tradition, then—beginning some 3,500 years ago with the inven­ tion of the first true alphabets—in written literature by stories focused ever more on the increasinglyun-natural, human-constructed world. In the second half of the fifteenth century, Herr Gutenberg’s printing press appeared, greatly speeding that transition. But what goes up must return to earth, and now, in this living generation, as we witness the last remnants of nature being clear-cut, bulldozed and blacktopped toward extinction, as the spiritual qualityof our lives atrophies even as our material “standard of living”continues to bloat, nature story is regaining its deeply historical popularity and significance. Literate, thinking readers are increasingly expressing what may well be a genetic craving (a la Edward O. Wilson’s Biophilia) for nature-based story, ancestral story, story that reconnects us to our evolutionary roots and rejoins us, at least in spirit, with the natural world that was and is our one true home . . . story which, like religion, gives direction and meaning to our increasingly complex lives and offers hope for the future by embracing values from the past. Consequently and by and large, the character of the place in which a nature writer lives and works (or longs to return to) colors his or her work. For Wendell Berry it is rural Kentucky, for Terry Tempest Williams the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, for Richard Nelson coastal southern Alaska, for Edward Abbey the desert Southwest, for A. B. Guthrie, Jr. the Big Sky country of Montana, for Harry Middleton wherever wild trout yet swim pristine waters. My own physical and spiritual place is the southern Rocky Moun­ tains. Ithrive on the crisp clean airand cold clearwater, the heartbreak­ ing beauty of the creased and crenulated landscape and its abundant wildlife, the quiet...


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pp. 53-57
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