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Book Review – American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau – Edited by Bill McKibben

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Bill McKibben, author of numerous books on topics such as global warming and genetic engineering and more, is determined to further efforts in saving our planet. “Every important advance in American environmentalism has coincided with – sprung from – some piece of writing, some book. We can't afford those voices to die out.” American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau is the anthology that preserves those “voices.”

McKibben has collected essays and speeches from essential environmental writers. Some of these authors have won many important battles for the natural world. For example, George Perkins Marsh and John Muir, as well as Gifford Pinchot, helped institute national parks. Robert Marshall helped lay the foundation for the Wilderness Act, which designated millions of acres as preserved land. Yet, despite these valiant efforts, “the war goes badly.” Thus the need for this anthology.

McKibben defines environmental writing in his introduction. “It takes as its subject the collision between people and the rest of the world and asks searching questions about that collision.” These authors clearly describe the debris from this “collision” and either discuss the manner in which to handle it or lament the manner in which it was handled.

Also included in the tome or pictures which are just as valuable as the written words. Displayed in these two sections are artwork from important environmental books of the past and also photos of some early environmental writers. Additionally, there are gorgeous photographs of Yosemite, the now submerged Hetch Hetchy Valley, a painting of Niagara and more. They're a window facing the world as these writers see it.

But some of the photographs are more disturbing. In these, the window seems to be in a house of exploiters. They show nature, too – clouded by toxic fumes or smoke; or scenery with buildings and smokestacks and chain link fences lurking like summoned demons.

Reading about the destruction of some natural wonders and seeing the encroachment of alleged civilization upon pristine habitats provide evidence that these essays are not just about the earth – they are about humanity. Peering into the earth and seeking to understand it is really peering into our own human nature. We are rooted to this planet through soil and air. The eradication and pollution of the natural world points out a flaw in the human psyche. These essays attempt to address that flaw, to be the salve to the wound, the stitch to the laceration in our collective conscience.

The collection is arranged chronologically, giving an excellent overview of the growth of environmentalism.  There are, of course, contributions from Thoreau, whom most consider the father of environmental writing and also luminaries such as John Muir and John Burroughs. McKibben, the anthology's editor, included an excerpt from his 1989 book, The End of Nature. Al Gore contributed the foreword to the anthology and his speech at the Kyoto Climate Change Conference. There are many more: Walt Whitman, Rebecca Solnit, Michael Pollan, Paul Hawken – even Philip K. Dick has a spot. There's an excerpt from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, his classic sci-fi story, which paints a bleak future devoid of animal life. 

From Thoreau onward, environmental writers engender a desire to be at peace with this world. Who doesn't long for the quietude of the mountains or the tranquility of the lakeside or even to experience rainstorms in the forest? This is what we were made to enjoy. That is what commercial greed is threatening.

A note on the the book itself, aside from its content: it is attractively bound and compact enough to not be a burden though it is laden with heavy essays. Appropriately, it is printed on paper which contains fifty percent post-consumer waste. Even the ink utilized was environmentally sound, being soy or vegetable based.

This book deserves a place on all bookshelves. Visit your local library and seek it out (and, while you're there, check out some other books by the above authors). Find some way to consider its important message.

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