Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Thoughtful Observer

Yes, that’s what David Rains Wallace is. Thirty years after I bought it, I finally read his book Idle Weeds: The Life of a Sandstone Ridge. Wallace described the hidden life of a midwestern hill, day and night, throughout a typical year. I have not encountered such thoughtful observation except in the writings of Thoreau. The things you can discover by close observation! I hadn’t thought what a disaster for animals an ice glaze could be, cutting off their surface access and even the sharp ice cutting their feet. I didn’t know you could hear earthworms and harvestmen on the forest floor. Here is a sample of how closely Wallace observed a storm:

“The strange orange light intensified as thunder began. The rumbles and flashes were fait, seeming to come from high in the clouds, but it began to rain hard anyway. The light turned an extraordinary apricot yellow; the outlines of the trees were a sepia brown tiny against it. Then the sun set and the apricot modulated to a more normal pink. Gray clumps of cumulus appeared and spread until the western horizon was the color of slate. The thunder ceased, and crickets and an occasional katydid began to call, responding perhaps to changes in air pressure. A few fireflies still flashed their cold green lights in the woods, but much more numerous were their larvae, which resembled stubby millipedes and crawled on the ground. Some had luminescent abdomens, although they did not flash as brightly as the adults. Instead they glowed with a light so soft that they were conspicuous only on cloudy nights. They seemed to be everywhere on this warm, moist evening—wandering green or yellow glows that often faded mysteriously as the observer approached and the frightened larvae took refuge under a stone.”

Like Thoreau’s observations, Wallace’s book is not about an unspoiled wilderness but about a second-growth forest heavily impacted by humans. It has an old apple orchard, the fruits of which are still gathered by poor people. He explains how a forest hemmed in by subdivision development can quickly degrade even if it is officially protected. Raccoons search through garbage, and overbreed, and disease breaks out; and cats eat birds from the forest. And Wallace describes scenes very much like what I see in Oklahoma: men dumping large garbage (such as an old water heater) in the forest and then threatening people—using a shotgun—who criticize them for doing so. Humans are a part of nature, even the ones who despise it.

Wallace does not present nature as comfortable and cozy. He describes horrifying events, even though they are on what is to us a very small scale. This provides something of a plot to the book. Near the beginning, you meet the tree shrew mother, and throughout the book you discover how precarious her survival is. Her offspring eat their dead siblings, and even then barely survive. And at the end, only one shrew survives. I remember that when I was a child I watched a robin build a nest and lay eggs in the mulberry tree by my window. Then one day a blue jay attacked the nest and simply destroyed the eggs. Nature can be brutal. In Wallace’s book I encountered both the beauty and the brutality.

Wallace makes us feel the value of even a degraded spot in the natural world. The soil is precious; and if it were not for the living component of the soil, says Wallace, “its value would decline to that of gold and gems.”

Not all of Wallace’s writing is like this. Another book, Klamath Knot, though it too had much careful observation, is filled with confusing speculations, such as, why would evolution waste energy making legs on an amphibian larva if most tadpoles are going to die anyway? It is, he further says, uneconomic for millipedes to have so many legs. What do they need them for? And maybe chicken houses are superorganisms. He speculated that mushrooms may be degenerate flowers, and that mosses have almost no sexual recombination. These observations are pretty far off. Wallace is at his best when he is observing, not speculating.

Some of the happiest people who have ever lived have been those who closely observed the natural world, such as Thoreau, Edwin Way Teale, Herbert S. Zim, Hal Borland, and David Rains Wallace.

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