Friday, March 6, 2009

Among the most aesthetically pleasing of all insects - the prose style of naturalists

So if I were to take this idea seriously - when and how did poets and novelists start writing seriously about animals - I would have to look to their models, the naturalists and scientists and travelers, the Gilbert Whites and James Audubons and Charles Darwins and so on. Not that the direction of influence only had to go one way, or that a genius like John Clare needed their help, but that's where I think I'd start.

Herman Melville's Mardi (1849), for example, is full of nature writing. A bit overpacked and encyclopedic, even. Chapter 32 is titled "Xiphius Platypterus," and is entirely about the swordfish. An earlier chapter is about sharks and pilot fish. A later one describes whales playing in a medusa-illuminated sea. Often, this is directly pinched from other books. Much of the novel is built like a collage, upon which Melville founds his rhetorical flights (a bit on the swordfish):

"A right valiant and jaunty Chevalier is our hero; going about with his long Toledo perpetually drawn. Rely upon it, he will fight you to the hilt, for his bony blade has never a scabbard. He himself sprang from it at birth; yea, at the very moment he leaped into the Battle of Life; as we mortals ourselves spring all naked and scabbardless into the world."

Not what I'm looking for - I do not believe this tells us much about the swordfish.

Most of Melville's contemporaries are simply prosaic. I've read enough books about traveling in the American West to be tired of the repetitive descriptions of buffalo, grizzly bears, and prairie dog villages. Even John Kirk Townsend, an expert in birds, writes surprisingly flat descriptions of nature (the fun of his Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains (1839), I should say, is his irrepressible naivté). Here's Josiah Gregg, a merchant in the Santa Fé trail trade, with an unusually nice description of a buffalo charge:

"The buffalo never attacks, however, except when wounded... I have crouched in the tall grass in the direct route of a frighted gang, when, firing at them on their near approach. they would spread in consternation to either side. Still their advance is somewhat frightful - their thundering rumble over the dry plain - their lion-like fronts and dangling beards - their open mouths and hanging tongues - as they come on, puffing like a locomotive engine at every bound, does at first make the blood settle a little heavy about the heart." (Ch. 27 "Animals of the Prairie", p. 366)

That's from Commerce of the Prairies (1844). Gregg is trying to write a useful book, so most of his descriptions of wolves and mustangs and horned lizards are functional, designed to assist travelers. But there's good writing here, too.

I now realize that, today, we are awash in high quality nature writing. Maybe I take it for granted. The current issue of Smithsonian magazine has an article about geoduck clams and the people who work with them that is so well written that it's easy to ignore how good it really is:

"Its long, leathery neck can stretch to the length of a baseball bat or recoil to a wrinkled nub. The neck resembles an aardvark's snout, an elephant's trunk or a monstrous prehistoric earthworm emerging from a fist-size shell, among other things."

The author is Craig Welch; Smithsonian also published, a couple of months ago, a piece of his on the spotted owl of similar quality. Apropos of nothing, except that someone gave it to me, and it's interesting, I'm reading the memoir of entomologist E. O. Wilson (Naturalist, 1994). He begins by telling us about a memory from when he was seven, when he came upon a jellyfish:

"Its opalescent pink bell is divided by thin red lines that radiate from center to circular edge. A wall of tentacles falls from the rim to surround and partially veil a feeding tube and other organs, which fold in and out like the fabric of a drawn curtain. I can see only a little way into this lower tissue mass." (pp. 5-6)

This is not the child's view, but the adult scientist's, aware that the astonishing beast was a Chrysaora quinquecirrha, or sea nettle. I marvel at all of the metaphorical language Wilson needs to describe accurately the jellyfish, not just the "drawn curtain," but also "wall" and "veil" and "bell." Good metaphors are not simply flourishes - what easier way is there to communicate just how the mass of tentacles are folded?

Wilson's specialty is ants, so how about some ants:

"The dacetines are slender, ornately sculptured little ants with long, thin mandibles. Their body hairs are modified into little clubs, scales, and sinuous whips. In many species a white or yellow spongy collar surrounds their waists. Clean and decorative, they are under the microscope among the most aesthetically pleasing of all insects." (133)

Not a fancy passage. I am always skeptical when someone says that "not a word is wasted," but this comes close. As usual, the amount of fine writing, on whatever subject, turns out to be enormous, once I begin to look for it. I'm not convinced, though, that much of it, regarding animals, I mean, can be found in 19th century fiction!


  1. Though it is not fiction, you might want to read some Lewis Lindsay Dyche. It's available at the Oread Ethnographic Collection at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He is surprisingly charming, and completely bat---- crazy. But a pretty good writer. He had his students take pictures of him dressed up as an"Esquimaux" and once as a polar bear. He was the driving force behind the Panorama of North American Plants and Animals that caused such a scene at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. You can still see the Panorama in all its climate-controlled glory at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. There's a slideshow and a narration by a local public radio host. It is strangely compelling.

  2. I'm just reading some of John Muir's nature writing (again, not fiction.) Absolutely fantastic. Gorgeous. The man loved him some glaciers.

  3. Muir is a fine suggestion. I don't know how much of his writing is really about animals, but he did write a book about his dog.