|Oct/Nov 2005 Book Reviews|
Robert Michael Pyle.
Walking the High Ridge.
Milkweed Editions. 2000.
After immersing myself in the world of Gerald Durrell, I felt a burning need to find other fascinating nature writers. I've wandered through that field in the past (as evidenced by Richard Ellis, Phil Hoose and others on my bookshelf), but it's been long time since I've found anyone new. This doesn't mean there aren't a bunch of great nature writers out there; it's just that it isn't always so easy to separate the good from the lame. I'm not interested in Timothy Treadwell's reasons for communing with bears in Katami, and although I think he died horribly (and his poor girlfriend along with him), his views on bears are not something I'm going to subscribe to. So please, spare me nature of the "stupid guy got too close" variety. You can imagine then how happy I was to discover two very cool book series from Milkweed, "The World at Home" and "Credo." I read a great book from these selections by Janisse Ray, Wild Card Quilt, which is both a description of the natural wonders of the longleaf pine forests in Georgia and also a story about going home again because you want to, not because you need to. (And isn't that the way we all hope to return home?) But the book that really stood out for me was Robert Michael Pyle's autobiography, Walking the High Ridge. I especially couldn't resist its subtitle: "Life as a Field Trip." I adored field trips when I was young, and I'm trying very hard to convey that same sense of excitement and wonder at the outdoors to my own son. Personally, I think we all could use a lot more field trips in our lives and a lot less living in cubicle-land. (Item #33 on my list of how I want to change the world.)
Pyle is both a lepidopterist and naturalist, and he is best known for his 1986 publication, Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land. He has loved butterflies since grade school and studied them and written about them for over fifty years. His life's work and dedication to such an ethereal insect would be inspiring anyway, but reading about his thoughts on the world and its creatures made me very nearly fall in love with the man. When recalling his college years, he writes, "My journal was, at first, largely a vessel for the celebration and description of field trips. I felt moved to record the many new organisms, landscapes, and fields of knowledge I was exposing myself to." Today when we got home from the nearby Padilla Bay Mudflats, my son came running in to tell his father about the crabs and snails and worms he had seen and touched. Still too young to write, he was recording his field trip nonetheless. I knew right away that Pyle would be proud.
Walking the High Ridge is more than anything a peek into the thought process of a man who not only passionately loves nature but is determined to immerse himself within it as much as possible. It is one thing to sit in an ivory tower and judge those who wander out into the field asking questions, making mistakes, finding conflict and confusion, but it's entirely another to place yourself constantly and continuously out into that dirty messy world. Pyle can't imagine life any other way, and fortunately for us, he is talented enough to write about it.
Writing, and the reasons why we write, is a question that Pyle addresses head-on in High Ridge. It is not something that most nature writers consider, but as a writer myself, I wonder (too often) why others feel compelled to do it, particularly those who are engaged in the world in other, more obvious ways. (In other words, why not just be a scientist?) "The chance to influence others drives much of what I write," responds Pyle. "Precisely because I feel this is our one time through the world, I think we owe it to ourselves to seize every opportunity to protect, preserve, restore, and defend the very qualities that our economic activities ruin, despoil, or place at risk. And for as long as I've written, I've felt that naturalists who take their pleasure and heart from the land have an inescapable duty to speak up for it—and to convince and encourage others to do the same... Specifically, I write for the last old growth in the Willapa Hills, against the proliferation of toxins especially through roadside and forest spraying, for an eventual Dark Divide Wilderness Area in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, against habitat damage that affects rare butterflies and other invertebrates, for the conservation of migratory monarch butterflies throughout the Americas, and against threats to my own watershed, among other targets."
And what did you do to try and save the world today? Yeah, I thought so.
Walking the High Ridge is, more than anything, the story of why one man specifically went out to find the natural world as a child and why he chose to stay within it for the rest of his life. The similarities between Pyle and Gerald Durrell are numerous, although each man practiced a very different style of naturalism and was drawn to different areas of nature itself. But the significant similarity, the love for animals and the land that sustains them, is the same. I found Robert Michael Pyle's life to be utterly fascinating and learned a fair bit about butterflies in reading his book. Now my sights are set upon other titles in the Milkweed series, on other authors who promise to enlighten and educate. Fiction is a wonderful thing, and I relish a good story as much as the next person, but at some point we all need to understand that we have to save the world. Reading Pyle and Ray and men and women like them teaches us how to do that; it teaches us how to be the best kind of human beings.
For further reading:
Wild Card Quilt.
Milkweed Editions. 2003.