by David Gessner
Milkweed Editions, 2011
Reviewed by Frank Izaguirre
I have a complicated relationship with David Gessner’s writing the same way he has a complicated relationship with being a nature writer. On the one hand, I appreciate his self-appointed status as a watchdog for stereotypical environmentalists, and on the other I find it a bit weird that probably his best known book was written for an audience of mostly nature writers just to notify them that they’re uncool and need to drink beer in order to stop being uncool. I enjoy a nature writer who’s at least as eager to commune with people as animals. I’m also a little worried about his drinking. Can’t tell if that’s what he wants.
Regardless, the man’s writing at an impressive clip these days, publishing a book each of the last two years. The Tarball Chronicles, his latest, is a travelogue/meditation on the Gulf oil spill and what it means for the region, our country, and even the world. We join Gessner on his haphazard and unplanned journey, meeting endearing locals and emblematic wildlife; and we get a closeup of how a corporation can shush away all problems by whispering dollars.
But the most interesting part of the book doesn’t have to do with the Gulf or oil: it’s Gessner’s internal struggle with his identity. Gessner has a similar thing going on to the Walden subplot of Thoreau the crude vs. Thoreau the prude. He awkwardly describes how he brings beers out into the field with him, chugging them rather randomly throughout different times of the day. He also frequently mentions all the meat he eats, ostensibly so he isn’t confused with one of those touchy-feely vegetarian environmentalists that are kinda lame.
There’s something in his writing that makes it seem like practically everything he does is just to make sure he seems cool. He’ll only describe his birding outings, his affection for wildlife, as long as he mentions he had a drink within three to fifteen pages. He remembers to drop the F-bomb about every fifty pages.
Gessner is so self-conscious about following his own rules on how not to be a granola that I can’t really tell who he is. He makes grand efforts to befriend everyone he meets, including those with opposite political and religious views. I get the sense he wants to be liked by pretty much everyone ever, which is a problematic quality for anyone and especially a writer. In his zeal to prove he gets along with non-nature lovers, or nature lovers that shoot everything they can eat, I find it hard to pin down his convictions. I’m not sure the things he does are truly him and not just insurance against being boxed into the stereotypes he worries make nature writing uncool.
Maybe the one thing that always remains clear is he genuinely cares about the environment, close to him and elsewhere. For me, that’s cool enough.
Frank Izaguirre is a writer, ecocritic, and birder. He teaches creative nonfiction and journalism at Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), and has been published in ISLE and Flashquake, and has something forthcoming in Fourth Genre. Follow him on Twitter @FrankMIzaguirre.