Expecting to read aloud from Walking Home Ground soon, I re-familiarize myself with it and notice connections to what I've posted online since it was published. The work came together slowly, first as personal journal entries before expanding into a book manuscript. I read the Wisconsin writing of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth, walked where they'd walked and journaled about it, and reread Thoreau, as all those writers had done. Eventually, the manuscript followed the trajectory of those influences, from Thoreau to me, quoting them abundantly.
Those writers celebrated their time in nature. Thoreau expressed alarm at thinking of work while he walked in the woods: "In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?" Muir exuberantly described arriving at his new home as "This sudden plash into pure wildness—baptism in Nature's warm heart" and recorded seeing passenger pigeons "flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, like a mighty river in the sky." Leopold wondered, while "watching the green fire die in a wolf's eyes," about "Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the preservation of the world." Derleth told how "long walks into the countryside around Sac Prairie disclosed it as nothing else could have done," listing sightings of whippoorwills, woodcocks, "blue racers in the ecstasy of mating," and more. Readers experience natural surroundings deeply in these works.
I completed and published Walking Home Ground roughly six years ago. Since then, I've read more recent, truly terrific nature books, like Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, Suzanne Simard's Finding the Mother Tree, Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, Barbara Hurd's The Epilogues, Leila Philip's Beaverland, and Ed Yong's An Immense World, all solidly literary and ecologically learned. They tell me things that enrich my understanding of the way the elements of the world we live in work. I gain a deeper understanding of unique qualities of whatever life form or locale they focused on, all far more complicated in their existence than we once knew. They also reveal troubling knowledge about their futures on our planet—as well the future of our species. The nature books of the 21st Century provide urgent warnings and dire speculations about the direction the creatures and creations on the planet are heading.
Reviewing my observations about writers walking their home grounds, I feel unsettled by not having stressed implications for the future in what they examined. In The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, Muir was disturbed by the changes wrought in the landscape, prairie and savanna turned into farmland, the health of the environment endangered. Unable to convince new owners to preserve Fountain Lake, his awareness of what could be lost in the natural world sent him exploring and recording as much as he could.
Muir saw things as they were and tried to preserve them; Leopold saw things as they had become and tried to restore them. In A Sand County Almanac, he wrote of his own efforts at the Shack: "On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger and better society, we try to rebuild, by shovel and ax, what we are losing elsewhere." Time and change are a constant awareness in Leopold's writing; the elegiac is always an undercurrent in what he writes, as well as a sharp observant presence. The monument to the extinct passenger pigeon "commemorates the funeral of a species," he reflected, "Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know. To love what was is a new thing under the sun, unknown to most people and to all pigeons."
In Return to Walden West, Derleth recognized the changes occurring in his familiar landscape, and sought solace there. "I never found that nature failed me," he wrote. "While the condition of man on his planet slowly worsens, the pattern of the seasons changes not at all, however much nature's aspects reflect the damage wrought by man in his avarice and his devotion to false, unnatural values." He laments the "unceasing change" of the social world, the way most people
"never see themselves as integral to nature." He ends his Sac Prairie nonfiction series with a mixture of resignation and acceptance, letting him come to terms with his experience walking his home ground.
Retreat and withdrawal seem acceptable, even justified in those earlier nature writers; broader knowledge and deeper understanding are vitally convincing and necessary in the current ones. They are also disturbing if we're actually learning vital truths too late.