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It's Only Natural To Turn To The Earth And Stars For Inspiration.

By Gregory McNamee

FEBRUARY 23, 1999: 

Encompassing Nature: A Sourcebook, by Robert M. Torrance (Counterpoint). Cloth, $46.

DRAW THE LETTER A on a piece of paper. Turn it upside down and take a close look at it. In that inverted form, you will see that the A depicts the head of a steer, horns extending from atop a pointed face.

Buried in the Roman alphabet are other animals and things--for instance, a camel in the G, the gamel borrowed from ancient Semitic script. And buried in all human languages, in our deepest consciousness, are other signs taken from the world of nature: One person is sly as a fox, another stubborn as an ox, another as hungry as a bear. These signs and metaphors underlie the ways of thinking of city and country dweller alike, and they are universal, common to all humans, as David Abram observes in his recent book, The Spell of the Sensuous.

If we take literature to begin with the pictographs of East Africa, the Dordogne, Xinjiang, and other points of the globe, we see that "nature writing"--that genre that speaks of the world that exists independently of humans--is among our most ancient forms of expression. As the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wisely remarked, "The beginning and the end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me." He speaks for every writer, every artist, who ever turned to nature for subject and inspiration.

It's strange, then, that so many textbooks should treat nature writing as a modern phenomenon, as an outgrowth of the Enlightenment or a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, that world-transforming time when, William Wordsworth observed, "little we see in nature--is ours." Nature writing is far older, and far more fundamental, than all that, a point that Robert Torrance's anthology Encompassing Nature nicely reinforces.

Its title is apt: Torrance's collection, weighing in at more than 1,200 closely set pages, embraces a huge body of nature writing, ranging from the creation stories of Native American people to the lyrics of the Chinese T'ang dynasty poet Li Bai, from the letters of the ancient Roman poet Epicurus to the travel memoirs of the colonial American naturalist William Bartram. Torrance accompanies each selection with a headnote addressing such matters as the natural-symbolic representation of love in the Song of Solomon, and the asceticism of the ancient Japanese poet Betsugen Enshi. Along the way he visits other Asian sages ("You pray for rain and it rains," one observes. "Why? For no particular reason, I say. It is just as though you had not prayed for rain and it rained anyway"); and African storytellers, American Indian singers, and occasionally classic thinkers on nature, among them the incomparable Gilbert White, Blaise Pascal, Basho, Chuang-tzu, and of course, Heraclitus, who rightly noted, "Nature loves to hide."

Not all of Torrance's collection celebrates nature, whether hidden or in plain view. Plato and some of his classical followers, for example, held that human creations were superior to those of the natural world; Aristotle added that "art completes what nature cannot." Torrance generously allows these views a hearing, showing how they echo into the present. Yet, even when they propose nature as an inferior creation, the selections Torrance includes address the manifold ways in which human literature has taken into account the processes of the world.

He quotes anthropologist Richard Nelson, for instance (the author of Heart and Blood and The Island Within, among other books), who has long studied the culture of the Koyukon Indians of Alaska. Nelson notes that Koyukon "distant time" stories, set at the creation of the world, "provide a foundation for understanding the natural world and humanity's proper relationship to it." No detail is too small to escape the Koyukon storytellers, down to the tiny notch in the scapula of the snowshoe hare--a mark left there at the beginning of the world by a hungry hawk owl.

Torrance has ranged among a vast body of literature to assemble this volume, one full of radiant language and vision, full of keen observation of the movement of stars and the passage of birds, full of voices from around the world. The result is a literary anthology of the first order, one that speaks to readers interested in environmental philosophy, comparative literature, and good writing generally.


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