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Introduction to Wintergreen
Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land appeared in 1986the year of Chernobyl, and a year after the discovery of a gaping ozone hole over Antarctica. A consummate work of natural history, it announced the arrival of a stylist with elan in a field where currents of castigation and warning sometimes give “nature writing” the tincture of sermonology. Wintergreen felt personable, even optimistic. It had no truck with doom and gloom. Its author was possessedit seemed by natureof a robust and general enthusiasm, and of a buoyant appreciation for the fact of living. It was easy to imagine Robert Michael Pyle cheerfully rambling in his ravaged land, the Willapa Hills of southwest Washington.
Imagine this I did, in 1986, while devouring Wintergreen cover-to-cover, a binge spurred by affinity and affirmation, or at least by recognition and identification, because here, at last, was a book about home, home as I knew it in my feet, so to speak, home as I loved and understood it. Other readers had described Pyle’s Willapa as a metaphor for global environmental duressor for something that went unnamed and felt vaguebut for me, everything there stood for itself. It fact it was precisely the book’s concrete bona fidesits familiar trilliums, skunk cabbage, and clearcutsthat made reading it feel so companionable.
Wintergreen took a place on my shelf alongside Robert L. Wood’s Olympic Mountains Trail Guide and my Climber’s Guide to the Olympic Mountains. I gave Wood’s guide to a young, lost rambler, the climber’s guide got chewed by voles, and Wintergreen went permanently borrowed. All three books have since been replaced, as has a fourth that, like the others, I pack regularlyDaniel Mathews’ Cascade-Olympic Natural History, a supremely accomplished trailside reference that is out of print but shouldn’t be.
Mathews’ book appeared in 1988, the same year Wintergreen was published in paperback under the sub-title Listening to the Land’s Heart. Listening to the Land’s Heart is no less alliterative then Rambles in a Ravaged Land, but it strikes a more self-consciously poetic note, perilously soin my opinionsuggesting as it does a preciousness about nature that is entirely absent from the text. Wintergreen is, in its way, poetic, but its poetry is constructed of the raw and tangible, and Pyle, lacking the Romantic impulse, is assiduous in its pages to avoid animism. His Willapa is meaningful to the extent that it is real. Its actual waters run downhill. “Heaven is here,” Pyle has asserted, “angels are butterflies and bats, and the great beyond is the holy compost pile of the ages.”
I came of age in Seattle in the mid-Seventies, an era when it sagged on the bleak edge of null, portal to the North Pacific. “Seattle in the seventies was the nadir of just everything,” the superlative essayist Charles D’Ambrosio has written, and as his contemporary on that peculiar scene, I can attest that he’s hyperbolizing accurately. D’Ambrosio’s answer to the provincial doldrums was to cultivate an inner expatriation and to import his enthusiasms from more sophisticated locales beyond the pale of our rain. Trapped in the veritable outback of nowhere and feeling decidedly marginal, he became, he writes, “clever and scoffing, ironic, deracinated, cold and quick to despise.”
Young white guys in the Seattle of the mid-Seventies, given that they had the luxury, plied one of two pervasive personaseither D’Ambrosio’s Budding Expatriate, or my choice, Wilderness Romantic. I took to the hills whenever possible and eventually expatriated to a logging town where I went to work for the Forest Service in the spirit of Norman Maclean. This was during the heyday of clear-cutting, when mills ran 24 hours a day all over western Washington. I lived in a van, bathed occasionally in a river, read Gary Snyder, Edward Abbey, and John Muir, and while all of this was fundamentally delusional, it did get me rambling in a ravaged land.
For the Forest Service I toiled at “brush disposal,” which meant cleaning up, in nominal and egregious fashion, after gyppo loggers with contracts. They felled, bucked, dragged, loaded, and drove off with whole forests; we burned what they left behind, on the theory that a modulated conflagration was optimum for “reprod.” Our project never flagged. We lit up the sky on summer nights, adding scorched acreage to a running tally and sucking noxious smoke with pride. I fell so thoroughly in love with this folly that before long the Forest Service made me a crew boss. In clearcuts I was steeped, then. On slopes I cut my teeth. Eventually my initiation, with its ancient innocence motif, took me by its roundabout path into once, twice, and thrice logged hills, not the sterile hills inside my head but the living hills that, a decade later, I found again in Wintergreen.
There is a literature of regional affinity, and while its readership is by definition local, its value transcends its raw material. At its best it has a tempered, celebratory quality, or forwards a critique in tones of endearment, or with sad fondness acknowledges the constraints that bind us to provincial lives. Where changes are too much for locals to abide, it provides them with the balm of elegy, and gives what feels like testimony to their losses. I am thinking, here, in canonical terms, of Eudora Welty, Ernest Gaines, Edith Wharton, Hamlin Garland, Willa Cather, and Mari Sandozof all those quintessentially American fiction writers whose rootedness in place confirms our sense of homeand of nature writers like Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, Scott Russell Sanders, and Pyle, who mine home and place with a reach profoundly vertical (as opposed to the horizontal expansiveness of, for example, John Muir, Diane Ackerman, and Peter Matthiesen).
The good God is in the detailapocryphal Flaubertis a maxim understood by those nature writers who employ specificity to incite appreciation. A further and perhaps less noted function of the close rendering of the world’s raw facts is the sense it can elicit of a private affirmationlike mine on discovering Wintergreenthe concordance one feels in the presence of fellow travelers sharing one’s particular way-station. The action of this might be peripheral or corollary, but nature writers of the vertical variety nevertheless remind us that we’re not alonethat we share, with others, resonating spheres, internal and external worlds.
Art’s purpose, Tolstoy said, is to transfer feeling from one heart to another, or, as David Foster Wallace put it, “writing, at its best, is a bridge constructed across the abyss of human loneliness.” At the bottom of that abyss looms the three-headed Hydra of distance from “the other,” home, and nature. Wintergreen expressly addresses nature, but implicit in its pages is an address, too, of this tripartite and disabling loneliness.
Prior to Wintergreen, Pyle had published 6 books, all of them about butterflies. Subsequent to it he has published 11 more, including, The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland, Sky Time in Gray’s River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place, and, most recently, the poetry collection Evolution of the Genus Iris. There have also been more butterfly books, most pressing ambitiously beyond the early field guides, like Nabokov’s Butterflies, which Pyle edited with Brian Boyd. The body of work coheres in the sense that the voice on the page remains affable and the authorial sensibility steadfast; there isn’t much inflection over time. Wintergreen, though, is essential and foundationalthe root text from which the rest have sprung.
The structural program of Wintergreen is symmetrical4 sections of 4 essays each, in total 16, a balanced and functional square number. At its mid-point it shifts from biogeography to reasoned disputation with human behaviorcorporate logging in particularbefore making way for the poetic impulses, local musings, and reflective metaphysics that define its concluding quartet. Wintergreen’s itinerary, which lends direction to its journey, doesn’t preclude rambling in the better sense of the wordrambling not as prolix meanderings, excess, or randomness of tone, but as the freedom Robert Frost described when, while discussing rhyme, he coined “moving easy in harness.”
Wintergreen is unusual within its genre for its willingness to challenge the dichotomy between nature pristine and man the destroyer. “The beauties and biological interest of the logged-off landscape,” its prologue announces, are its raw materialin other words, Willapa as it is, devastated but rife with fascinations. Caveat emptor, again from Pyle’s prologue: “any attempt to recruit portions of Wintergreen in favor of regional timber-stripping practices will be ipso facto misquoting the book and taking the work out of context.” Indeed, the sack of Willapa receives unstinting treatment from Pyle, who sees beauty everywhereeven in stumpsbut is no apologist for timber companies, and names names without hesitation.
Pyle was surprised when Robert Finch and John Elder, while putting together the Norton Book of Nature Writing, selected from among Wintergreen’s 16 chapters “And the Coyote Will Lift a Leg.” Here Pyle waxes philosophical and muses candidly on those metaphysical matters that inevitably invadeor pervadeWillapa. “A short-term optimist,” he’s “willing to conspire with the physics of fate (chance, really) to harvest luck from happenstance.” He describes pessimism as “its own punishment, since it vitiates the will and makes one a pawn of circumstance,” and immortality as “a permanent vacation from personality.” In Pyle’s view, we must work toward a vision “beyond heaven and humanism” if we are to put ourselves in an honest cosmic context and find equanimity in the face of our condition. After all, our transitory habitation of earth is in fields where “nature will not be eliminated,” and whereas in the chapter title aphorism“when the last man takes to his grave, there will be a coyote on hand to lift his leg over the marker.”
It’s been saidtoo oftenthat death and taxes are the only certainties in life, but in the Willapa Hills, it’s death, taxes, and rain. For the sanguine Pyle, having long ago made his quietus with mortality, taxes are easily the most onerous of the three, and rain easily the most enduring. In fact, Wintergreen’s abiding image is of healing rain, of rain repairing Willapa’s wounds and reconciling its inhabitants to nature. Our eternal forecast, Pyle reminds us, is for rain both inundating and ameliorating, which is why we need, and will continue to need, this singular, celebratory, and heartfelt book.