We all remember the Paul Bunyan tales: how he formed the Rocky Mountains from the shovelsful of dirt he threw over his shoulder while digging the Mississippi, which he would use to transport the logs from his prodigious industry—felling vast forests with one swoop of his axe; how he ridded the land of animals he considered pests or “dangerous to man,” such as the “Agropelter,” “Hugag,” and “Splinter Cat.” Michael O’Rourke, in his essay “Paul Bunyan Lives!,” from his book, Paul Bunyan Lives! and Other Tales from the Natural World, revisits the Bunyan tales, seeing in them, as they promote and glorify the practices of geographic creation and manipulation as well as the belief in humankind’s dominion over nature, the very stuff of the American consciousness—big, powerful, in charge, and valuing action over thought and the consideration of consequences.
Many of these essays explore such actions: the damming of rivers, the desertification of fertile lands, the destruction of ecosystems and species, the displacement of indigenous peoples, the misuse and despoiling of millions of acres of Western public lands. These American stories are as tall as any of Bunyan’s exploits. But they aren’t tales we want to tell our children at bedtime. And, unfortunately, they aren’t tales.
O’Rourke’s prose style is unaffected, uncomplicated, yet subtle. Often poetic, as in this passage from “Desert Ships” describing the agave plant:
It is as if the plant is in a race against time to produce its offspring before it dies, sometimes appearing to be in the process of dying even as it sends up its [flower] stalk, as if it is channeling the last vestiges of its life out of its graying leaves and into that shoot, or as if in defiance of all logic it is determined to become most alive at the exact moment of its demise.
His essays progress in a meandering sort of way. Like the creek in his essay “Little Creek,” they sometimes digress, pursue tributaries, dive beneath city structures, resurface as springs, but always, in the end, reach their sea.
The book consists of fourteen essays about some aspect of the natural world. Some are short, meditative pieces. In “This Rock,” O’Rourke ponders why we bring rocks, from landscapes we visit, into our homes:
Rocks link us to the earth and to a time when our ties to the natural world were much stronger than they are now, to a time when stones were indeed our livelihood, our weapons and tools. In them, we have a tangible connection to a much different world from the one we inhabit now, and to the much different beings we were when we inhabited that world… Though inanimate, rocks live in a sense, for they remain while we sputter and die. They are as close to immortality as we will ever get.
In “Laughing Gulls and Chameleons,” after describing laughing gulls as gregarious and raucous, and chameleons as quiet and contemplative, he wonders how the world might be different if these two creatures, instead of eagles and snakes,
were our emblems of the glorious and the debased. Would governments march as readily and stridently off to war with the web-footed, bowler-hatted laughing gull as their national symbol? Would crusades and inquisitions and witch trials have been necessary to vanquish an enemy whose metaphorical representative was a small green lizard with a penchant for push-ups? [a communicative gesture]… Might we all be a bit better off with slightly less grandiose notions both of our virtues and our faults?
These meditations, as seen above, are not without their humor.
Indeed, even the longer, more heavily researched essays maintain a lightness of tone: “I believe it was Voltaire who said, ‘If irony did not exist, it would be necessary for the Western cattle industry to invent it.’ (Or something like that.)” “Cattle Country,” like “Wrecklamation,” “Fish Story,” and “Paul Bunyan Lives!,” is a study in irony and injustices. After explaining the who, what, where, and when, he concludes with the why.
Why is the “ranching” of Western public lands allowed to continue when it is devastating those 360 million acres (trampling and defecating them into oblivion, ruining countless habitats, and using up a large percentage of the available water in the process) for the sake of 2% of our nation’s beef supply? Why are a very small number of people (mostly rich wannabe cowboys) allowed to control and dominate our public lands? “Why aren’t they being used as preserves for our native species, preserves for biodiversity, preserves for our last wilderness areas?” Perhaps he answers these questions in the last paragraph of “Pocket Wildernesses, and the Good Dr. Pepper Defiled”:
One class of wilderness is certain always to survive, a wilderness encircled not by clear-cut forests but bone—that ever-mysterious wilderness of the human mind.
As we all bear witness to the influence the Bunyan mentality has had on our imaginations, maybe it is these essays that we should be reading to our children at bedtime.
Tom Saya’s essays and poetry have appeared in such journals as Midwest Quarterly, Poetry East, Sonora Review, and Southern Humanities Review.