This Incomparable Lande

The book is divided into two sections; the first consists of a series of introductory essays that link the pattern of historical events with the shifts in perspective that accompanied the growth of scientific knowledge. Lyon’s approach to this task is orderly and insightful. In a section entitled “A Taxonomy of Nature Writing,” he suggests that the literature of nature falls within three major divisions: natural history, personal response, and philosophical interpretation, and that the interplay of these elements determines the essential focus of the work. Thus, the scientific observer may be content simply to record and leave the reader to speculate about the implications of his observations. Lyon employs just this technique in a brief but telling section where he simply records chronological data that achieve impact through understatement: “1799 The last bison in the East is killed in Pennsylvania ... 1834 The last elk in the Adirondacks is killed” and so on. This simple recording of fact prepares the reader for the sense of loss increasingly apparent as one follows the chronology of readings from an early awareness of untouched wilderness to the vituperative attacks of Edward Abbey against industrial society and the despoilment of the few remaining tracts of wilderness land.

As valuable as the historical context of this work is, Lyon’s finest contribution is his insight into the patterns of thought that have shaped American attitudes toward the natural environment. His analysis of the frontier cast of mind is particularly instructive: “The frontier mind becomes preoccupied with use. From this narrowed outlook, nature consists merely of ’natural resources.’” He traces this predatory relationship with the environment to the notion that the human species is essentially separate from the rest of nature. It is cheering to note that American nature writing has from the beginning recognized the worth of nature and a kinship with the rest of the planet that transcends anthropocentrism. Well before the technological developments of the twentieth century, John Muir recognized the moral imperative in the interaction between man and the environment when he wrote, “the battle for conservation will go on endlessly. It is part of the universal warfare between right and wrong.”