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Guiding and Governing the Literature of Place

Simmons B. Buntin reviews The Land's Wild Music: Encounters with Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest Williams, & James Galvin, by Mark Tredinnick

The Land's Wild Music, by Mark TredinnickIn The Land’s Wild Music (Trinity University Press), Australian author Mark Tredinnick contemplates the act of nature writing, or more appropriately the literature of place, from two angles. The first takes place in the introduction and book’s first chapter—an academic orientation to the craft of environmental essay. The second—representing the “headliners” of the book—takes place in the four following chapters, in which he holds conversations and meditations at-length with some of America’s most accomplished environmental writers: Barry Lopez in the McKenzie River Valley, Oregon; Peter Matthiessen in Sagaponack, New York; Terry Tempest Williams in Southern Utah; and James Galvin along the Wyoming-Colorado border as well as Iowa City.

Tredinnick begins, “This book is a roving study of the literature of place. It is a meditation on the nature of places and the prose that witnesses them, on lyric apprehension and the ecological imagination.” The problem with the introduction is that he overtells what the book is about, such as “This book is a writer’s road trip through the texts and home terrains of four North American writers of the natural world. It is the pilgrimage of an essayist and ecocritic through the words and worlds of….”

One of the cardinal rules of the personal essay is the polar opposite of the cardinal rule of both fiction and poetry: Show, don’t tell. So, in essay or in creative nonfiction, we tell rather than show. In this case, however, in both the introduction and first chapter readers may find themselves frustrated with so much telling, the leading up to what they came to the book for in the first place: the discourse with and about Lopez, Matthiessen, Williams, and Galvin.

While some introduction is of course appropriate, two lengthy chapters may be too much for the average reader. I say the average reader here because, for someone who him- or herself is interested in writing the literatures of place, there may be just the right amount of narrative. Indeed, Tredinnick provides an introductory course-worth of environmental essay craft that is interesting, historically significant, and, for new writers especially, beneficial. For example:

It proceeds by narrative, telling a story—though not always in a straight line and not always continuously; it makes its way in fragments—in episodes and excursions. It speaks in a human voice—mine, as it happens, for it is an essay. And it grounds itself within the natural histories it concerns. Ecocriticism has made virtue of such techniques. “Ecocriticism without narrative,” writes Scott Slovic, “is like stepping off the face of a mountain—it’s the disoriented language of freefall.” Narrative that acknowledges the presence of the critic in the inquiry; that describes the relationship between critic, subject, and place; that explores specific geographical ground; and that favors the (intelligent) vernacular over the disembodied diction of conventional critical discourse—such writing is likely to engage its readers and, with luck, win their trust without compromising its critical integrity. It is also, in my case, more likely to disclose what really took place in my encounters with these writers, their country, and the country of their words. Such language, the phenomenologists would say, sings the lifeworld of the research experience. In collaboration with the texts and authors I study here, I have tried to speak, as they do, in what Slovic calls “the language of solid ground.”

Here, once again, Tredinnick is talking about what he will talk about—the contents (and process and path) of this book. But what he’s also doing is providing instruction for creative nonfiction. These first two chapters are written as a guide to those who also wish to craft such environmental nonfiction, or ecocriticism as he also calls it. That is why these first many pages specifically will appeal to budding young writers, but not necessarily to those in it only for the read. It is for this reason alone that we would recommend this book as a creative nonfiction text at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but advise skimming or even skipping those sections for readers interested only Lopez, Matthiessen, Williams, and Galvin.

Tredinnick’s four conversations and meditations are eloquent, informative, and inspiring. Beginning with Lopez and ending with Galvin, we learn much not only about these authors but also the places that create such presence and passion within them. We come to admire (if we don’t already) their writing, and also discover the welcome elegance of Tredinnick’s own writing:

This place is delicate, though. We leave the rock and drive to the mouth of another canyon of red rock: Moonflower Canyon. Terry leads me into it, among bare cottonwoods, up a small stream running in a flat expanse of sand and tumbled mother-rock. We step across the water on stones. The surface of the stream has frozen in places, and the ice is a transparent mosaic. On the streambed beneath the crystals lie fallen leaves of Gambel’s oak and cottonwood. We walk up the narrowing canyon, headed for a place where the walls close around a pool and the shallows hold broken red rocks and some pieces of the sky.

We also learn essential writing truths, the gems of information those of us who write are always seeking:

Critics and commentators usually misunderstand writing altogether, Lopez says. “I have had interviews on radio and television where the anchor—and this is the same with some critics and academics—asks questions about what I intended to do, to say, to achieve in my writing, as though the writing is intentional or purposive. They think that you sit down to write down what it is that you think about something. Writing does not work like this at all. I sit and write, and in the writing I am simply present—with the thought, the place, the idea. It arrives.”

Additionally, Tredinnick provides a thoroughly absorbing sense of the place in which, or perhaps better from which, these writers create their prose:

As the shoreline marries the dour and the delicate, the violent and the pretty, the recurring and the fleeting, the masculine and the feminine, the yin and the yang, so does Peter Matthiessen’s prose. It is composed in a cottage on a fish-shaped island anchored just off the coast of America’s industrial northeast. And on the long coastline near the house, the eternal drama of wave and beach, and the ancient—and faltering—engagement of men with the sea, continue daily. Like the wind birds, Matthiessen flies from this shore every year to distant places; but here, every year, he returns. His tales are often of elsewhere, but his voice on paper belongs to the shore, just as the voices of plover and sandpiper, curlew and godwit belong to it, though they carry within them the music of the far places and the distances they’ve traveled. For to belong to the shore is to belong both here and elsewhere at once.

Finally, Tredinnick’s conversations provide good lessons on language, on how to approach the language of place, about methodologies and messaging:

Although he has written this book of prose… James Galvin think of himself as a poet. To be known as a poet is important to him. It is a matter of temperament, he says. He doesn’t feel prose is up to the tasks to which he wants to put language on the page. “Poetry has a kind of snap to it,” he says. “Getting back to horse terminology, poetry steps out so smart.”

Prose, according to Galvin, is tethered to time and ordered by reason, whereas poetry, ruled by line breaks and shot through with gaps, runs to a beat. It is organized spatially, not temporally; it moves outside time—it is lyric. “If you sit down to write a prose work,” Galvin says, “before you even touch the pen to the paper you have already addressed the idea of the passage of time. And if you sit down to write something that’s in lines, you have already decided to resist that passage.” A line of poetry depends on space; its very purpose is to fill a set space with a particular pattern of beats. A sentence, however, disregards space; it sets out to name something and to say something about that thing: subject and predicate—there is your sentence, no matter how long or short, regardless of its syllable count. Sentences and paragraphs are defined as units of thought. Of thought, you see; not of music, not of space.

We may well disagree with Galvin here, but thanks to Tredinnick’s comfortable approach, his wide-ranging and yet centered discourse, we understand where Galvin—and the other authors—are coming from. There is the necessary context, not only individual (that is, not only for each essay and author) but for the entire quadrille.

The Land’s Wild Music concludes not in North America, but rather in Tredinnick’s New South Wales, Australia, where he has returned to piece this collection together. Here, he focuses on prose as music, the lyricism of place, the tying together of these similar but distinct voices. One of Tredinnick’s strongest references in the final chapter is to a paper by Scott Slovic presented at Australia’s first festival of nature writing, held only a year ago. Let’s conclude in Tredinnick’s words:

Scott’s paper described the enterprise of nature writing as something profoundly political. Its task, he says, is to find new ways to reanimate the language we use for landscapes. And this matters because that is what it takes to reanimate places—nature itself—in human minds and in the discourses of politics, lawmaking, and everyday life, so that, in turn, we might be moved to preserve something of the dignity of the places we live in, in the face of the (often destructive) change we, in our human nature, continue to work upon them. Through this renovation of language we writers and readers may be returned to some lively intimacy with the rest of creation. And finding ourselves again embedded in the world, in its dynamic structures, we may know how and why to work to save it, and also ourselves.

This is the work of lyric apprehension. The poetics of listening and responding is vitally political. At the heart of the work of nature writing, this reanimation of language and landscape and the relations between them, is the work of discerning and recalling in our writing the larger order of reality in which we live our lives and practice our governance.

For those interested in the literature of place—especially young writers—The Land’s Wild Music is an essential text, a sort of guide to the governance of our writing lives.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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The Land's Wild Music: Encounters with Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest Williams, & James Galvin

By Mark Tredinnick

   Trinity University Press
   November 2005
   ISBN 1595340181

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