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VIBURNUM PAUC1FLORUM King do m , Ph y l u m , C l a s s , Or d er : Tw e n tie th -C en tu r y A m erican Na tu r e Writer A n n R o n a l d Is it possible to classify authors the way we classify butterflies? Pin them to a velvet cloth, perhaps, then label them in Latin? Offer a hierarchy of hagiographers? A taxonomy of titles? A nomenclature of naturalists? In This Incomperable Lande, Thomas J. Lyon suggests a quasi taxonomy for nature writers, but his seven categories pertain more to written content than to characteristics of individual writers: field guides and professional papers, natural history essays, rambles, Ink drawing by Frederick A. Walpole (1861-1904). The three botanical images in this essay are courtesy of Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie MellonUniversity, Pittsburgh, Pa., on indefinite loan fromthe Smithsonian Institution. A n n R o n a l d 3 8 5 solitude and backcountry living, travel and adventure, farm life, and man’s role in nature (3-7). If I understand the classical system of taxonomy correctly, such groups and subgroups should categorize plants and animals themselves, not their products. So a real taxonomy of naturalists should focus on authors rather than essays, on the postures and strategies that authors display. The first part is easy. Kingdom? Writer. Phylum? Nature. Class? American. Order? Twentieth Century. Twentieth-century American nature writer. An author like Edward Abbey insists that he doesn’t belong in any such category, but he’s wrong, of course. “I am not a naturalist,” he announces on the first page of The Journey Home. “I never was and never will be a naturalist. I’m not even sure what a nat­ uralist is except that I’m not one. I’m not even an amateur naturalist.” On the next page he adds, “Much as I admire the work of Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, Beston, Krutch, Eiseley and others, I have not tried to write in their tradition. I don’t know how” (xi, xii). I disagree. Not only did Abbey understand the tradition well, but he built upon it. His work actually defines the standard for contemporary American nature writers, especially for naturalists writing during the last two or three decades. He showed all of us how to combine a keen observer’s eye and a pictorial sense of place with an understanding of the fragil­ ity of ecosystems, a commitment to biocentrism more than anthropocentrism , and an abiding respect for the land, for the landscape, and for the natural resources that remain. All these characteristics are Abbey’s and are characteristic of the prose that we today call nature writing— the work of naturalists. So my taxonomy begins simply enough, with a set of characteris­ tics that includes everyone from Aldo Leopold and Joseph Wood Krutch and Loren Eiseley to Edward Abbey, from Gary Paul Nabhan and Rick Bass and John Janovy Jr. to Ann Zwinger and Terry Tempest Williams and even to Ann Ronald. When we write essays about the natural world, we’re all in the same kingdom, the same phylum, the same class, the same order. But are we members of the same family? O f the same genus? O f the same species? Perhaps not. Let’s start with family. Modern-day naturalists are a well-edu­ cated group. Most have college degrees; many have masters and doc­ torates. O f those I just mentioned, Leopold majored in forestry at Yale and taught natural resource management in the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin. Krutch was an English professor at Columbia; Eiseley, an anthropology professor who spe­ 3 8 6 W A L 3 3 ( 4 ) WINTER 1 9 9 9 cialized in paleontology; Janovy, conservation biology. Abbey studied philosophy; Bass, petroleum geology. Nabhan holds a Ph.D. in ethnobiology; Zwinger, an M.A. in art history. Williams, with a mas­ ters in ecology, has spent many years as the naturalist-in-residence of the Utah Museum of Natural History. Every one of these writers has a firm disciplinary grounding in some specific academic field that strongly informs the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 384-402
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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