The Stars, The Snow, The Fire: 25 Years in the Alaska Wilderness by John Meade Haines
In many books that meditate on the natural world and humanity’s role in it—my own included—the human story is privileged over wild, wordless nature. But in this collection of lyrical first-person essays, The Stars, The Snow, The Fire: 25 Years in the Alaska Wilderness, poet John Haines relinquishes much of what is merely personal in favor of touching the Otherness and quiet of nonhuman nature. Take this passage:
The wind will bring its dry snow to polish the new ice and turn it into a great slick and glare. Delicate flowers of frost will bloom upon it: small, glittering blossoms standing curled and fragile on the gritty ice…And over the renewed expanse of ice there will be silence again, the silence of ice, unchanged since the first winter on Earth.
To render so exactingly a world both temporary and timeless, delicate and deadly, and to convey the subtleties of its shifting energy in prose as pure and fine as polished ice: that is Haines’s gift to readers. His vision is borne of a deep and humble intimacy with the world.
Wolves and the Wolf Myth in American Literature by S.K. Robisch
Wolves and the Wolf Myth in American Literature is a thundering work of scholarship that belongs on your shelf next to Moby Dick. From critical re-readings of White Fang and The Crossing, to how the wolf is characterized by writers, scholars and scientists, and to the greater functions of mythology in general, Robisch works to envision and evince a wolf in literature that is more than merely “a symbolic device serving the greater human drama, and not worth our attention as anything more real than that.” To the extent that academics, and specifically ecocritics, can serve as change agents in a culture hell-bent on ecological destruction, this is work that must be done. We have to imagine wolves—and trees, oceans, everything—on their own terms, and we have to better understand the why, what and how of our actions. Intelligent, deeply researched and courageous in its pursuit of its subject, this is scholarship that walks the walk.
The Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Stories by Yasunari Kawabata
The works in The Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Stories are among Kawabata’s earliest and inform the novels (Snow Country, Beauty and Sadness, Thousand Cranes) for which he would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. For me, the pleasure of these pieces—even in translation—lies in the exquisite yet simple contrasts Kawabata layers within each image and metaphor and declaration, as evidenced these few sentences from the story “Oil” about a young orphan:
You were a child when your father died. You were so excited to have the house bustling with funeral guests. Still, you hated it when the nails were hammered into the coffin. You weren’t going to let them drive the nails. Nobody knew what to do with you.
There is no solace in a Kawabata story, only the recognition of sorrow beyond our power to cope with. Yet in such a terrible recognition, and in creating moments in which the reader can touch this sorrow, Kawabata opens one to the hope that though our sufferings are overwhelming, we are not alone. We have joined a larger circle comprised of all the sufferers who have come before us, as well as those who will follow.
Steve Edwards is author of Breaking into the Backcountry, the story of his seven months of “unparalleled solitude” as caretaker of a wilderness ranch in Oregon. He lives in Massachusetts, where he is an assistant professor at Fitchburg State University.