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The Nonfiction of Place


When I started reading Ben Shattuck's Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, a flurry of similar titles and authors arose in memory. I recalled nature memoirs prompted by earlier nature memoirs or nature essays. My musing likely was prompted by a review of Shattuck's book by Lori Soderlind in the New York Times Book Review that also commented on A Road Running Southward: Following John Muir's Journey Through an Endangered Land by Dan Chapman, as well as books replicating locations of Hiroshige's 19th century paintings and visiting sites in Sherlock Holmes stories. I'd read all Thoreau's walking accounts and most of John Muir's, including his Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf.


Wherever I wander, I carry a book recounting an earlier author's experiences in that environment, sometimes prompting an essay or memoir of my own. Isabella Bird's A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains encouraged my Following Isabella; John Muir's, Aldo Leopold's, and August Derleth's Wisconsin writings were the foundation of chapters in Walking Home Ground. But publishable writing doesn't always result. Reading about their simultaneous travels in Samuel Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and James Boswell's A Journey to the Hebrides I pondered—unsuccessfully—how I might repeat them. Much varied reading and wandering resulted in my never completing a book comparing the Hudson and the Rhine Rivers—my brief essay "The Marksburg Photo" was the only part of The Endless Landscape to see daylight.


Perusing my bookshelves, I recognize how one book often stirs my interest in vaguely similar books. Reading Thoreau's Cape Cod led me into Henry Beston's The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod and at least two books by Robert Finch, Common Ground: A Naturalist's Cape Cod and The Outer Beach: A Thousand Mile Walk on Cape Cod's Atlantic Shore. Meeting David Gessner at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference led me to his book A Wild, Rank Place: One Year on Cape Cod, and since then I've read his other books, some about places I wanted to see (Under the Devil's Thumb, about Colorado) or about writers I've also read (Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis and All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West).


Gessner's indebtedness to Thoreau reminds me of other authors who have celebrated his influence: John Hanson Mitchell's Living at the End of Time deliberately draws from Thoreau's experience at Walden and Walking Toward Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place further celebrates Thoreau and his contemporaries. After we moved to Wisconsin, I couldn't resist August Derleth's conscientious following in Thoreau's footsteps, not only in his considerations of his own home ground in Walden West and Return to Walden West but also in his personal visits to Concord in Walden Pond: Homage to Thoreau.


A good many books simply immerse me in places where the authors live. I'm thinking here of John Lane's Circling Home, about Spartanburg, South Carolina; William deBuys' The Walk, set in New Mexico's mountains; Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, ranging from Britain to the Himalayas; Chet Raymo's The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe, from his Massachusetts home to nearby Stonehill College; Laurie Lawlor's This Tender Place: The Story of a Wetland Year, in southeast Wisconsin; Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City, roaming Manhattan; Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, in Arches National Park; and Reg Saner's The Four-Cornered Falcon: Essays on the Interior West and the Natural Scene and Reaching Keet Seel: Ruin's Echo and the Anasazi.


Sometimes I'm introduced to earlier writers whose books fostered later authors' interests in certain themes and locales. Ivan Doig's Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America draws on the earlier writing of James Gilchrist Swan; Christine Jerome's An Adirondack Passage: The Cruise of the Canoe Sairy Gamp recreates the 1883 voyage through the Adirondacks of George Washington Sears (pen-name Nessmuk); Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk alludes often to an earlier memoir, The Goshawk, by T. H. White (who later wrote The Once and Future King); and John Elder's Reading the Mountains of Home is about hiking Vermont hills in the company of Robert Frost's poem "Directive."


What I've read has always had a profound influence on what I write. Years ago, as a Fourth Genre editor and conference panelist, I edited Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place containing essays and commentary by such figures as Kim Barnes, Elizabeth Dodd, Barbara Hurd, Lisa Knopp, Scott Russell Sanders, Natalia Rachel Singer, and Deborah Tall, as well as Gessner, Mitchell, and Saner. Checking my bookshelves, I think I could often have been compiling sequels to that anthology. Engaging and observant nonfiction of place abounds, and I keep collecting it.


Notes: Root, Robert, ed. Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.


Root, Robert, "The Marksburg Photo," Ascent (November 2019)

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