Natural History in Recent Popular Fiction

(A Talk Given to the Clarence Book Club, March 4, 1998)

    A large and ever increasing proportion of Americans is interested in nature and the out-of-doors. Today, for example, over 100 million of us participate in outdoor activities related to wildlife and now well over half of those are just watchers, not hunters or anglers. A visit to any bookstore will indicate to you that publishers have responded to this societal interest. As an example, if pressed I could provide a list of over a dozen popular books just about insects published last year. (In one sense, that may not be so unexpected since insects not only outnumber us humans but they outweigh us and indeed every other form of life on this planet. But to their great loss the authors cannot write to that vast audience.)

    When I was invited to prepare this essay, I made one of those not-well-thought-out decisions for which I am well known and offered to call attention to natural history playing a significant role in several contemporary books of fiction. For once my choice was a good one and I have much enjoyed this task.

    There are, of course, many books that fictionalize animals, in most cases anthropomorphizing them as in Bambi, The Wind in the Willows, and Charlotte's Web. I was brought up on Ernest Thompson Seton whose deep understanding of wildlife made his characters fit more nearly their lives in the wild. But those books aren't my subject today. That would be an entirely different talk.

    Instead I seek to share with you readings from three quite different works. In each of them nature strongly supports the basic story, but the story itself is not about nature. Sometimes nature contributes in the form of metaphor but always it does so in character development.

    One more note before I turn to the selections. I am an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction and my reading is omnivorous. I read everything from history to historical novels, from popular science to advanced mathematics, from detective stories to great books, from cartoon collections to books about serious art. I am a bookaholic. But among all the books I have recently read, I consider the three of which I speak this morning absolutely top drawer. If you have not already read them, I resume my professorial role and assign them for the next exam. The short selections from them that I will read will not, I promise, take anything away from the wonderful experience you will have reading them.

*

    Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain has been a best seller for months. In simplest terms, it is the story of Inman, a severely wounded confederate soldier who walks out of his army hospital and, now a deserter, hikes off toward his home in the Smokies of North Carolina. And it is the story of his sweetheart, Ada, a young woman from Charleston who seeks to survive back in that hill country. To do so she must learn how to manage her land and she is most fortunate to be joined by an illiterate country girl named Ruby.

    Here is how Frazier introduces Ruby:

    Despite her inability to read and write, Ruby is full of knowledge and she imparts this knowledge over time to Ada.

    Frazier again:

    The author, Charles Frazier, grew up in the North Carolina mountains and it is clear that he and his writing have both been shaped by this kind of grandmother knowledge.

*

    Andrea Barrett of Rochester claims to write about "the love of science and the science of love" and I believe that she does so with a particular flair. Her award winning book, Ship Fever and Other Stories, is a collection of short pieces, each of which stands astride those two camps. The stories involve people like Mendel and Linnaeus and episodes like the typhus epidemic that beset the Irish immigrants to Canada who were fleeing the potato famine. But they also interweave these people and episodes with fictional characters in and as often out of love.

    Here are excerpts from "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds," a story of the remarkable interplay between the life of the geneticist Gregor Mendel and that of a modern woman. As it is appropriate to this talk, I will focus on the former but even these selections will hint at the latter.

    Here is Barrett speaking:

    Later the narrator talks of her indirect connection with Mendel through her grandfather Anton Vaculic, whom she calls Tati.

    Barrett again:

    Of course Tati is as fictional a character as his granddaughter, but the hawkweed episode is historical.

    I cannot for the life of me understand why we here just a hundred miles from Rochester have hardly heard of Andrea Barrett.

*

    A. S. Byatt is undoubtedly a polymath. A friend who has read a number of her novels considers her undisciplined because she is given to highly informed but lengthy pieces that appear to him to be digressions or even egotistical flourishes. (Indeed, in the story I report on this morning appears a 23 page fairy tale supposedly written by one of the characters.) I note, however, that my friend continues to read Ms. Byatt and I see the asides here coming together in support of the central story.

    My interest this morning is focussed on the novella, "Morpho Eugenia," the first of two that make up the book, Angels and Insects. This is the story of a 19th century entomologist who is shipwrecked on his way back to England from South America, losing his valuable collection of insects, plants and animals. (Some of you may recognize the exact parallel of this event with the experience of Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-inventor with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution.) In any case the protagonist of this story, William Adamson, is taken up by the family of a wealthy amateur scientist. For a change everything goes well for him and he even woos the beautiful older daughter. But in the background the reader gains an increasing identification of the parallels between the English society as evidenced by this particular family and the insect societies with which William works.

    Here is Byatt telling how Adamson and the family governess search for ants to place in a demonstration colony:

    Mr. Adamson does not ask that question but as events move forward we readers soon realize that we must do so.

    Although it does not connect with that passage, I offer one more taken from the end of the story. I have made minor alterations in what I will read so that I will not give away the context.

    Byatt:

*

    Now what should we make of all this. I frankly do not think that we have to make anything. The novelist uses what is available to him or her and nature is certainly a central part of our lives, whether it relates to the work of serious scientists, to the lore of back-woods grandmothers or simply to our own observations of the world around us.

    Obviously then, what I have done for natural history in this essay, could be and certainly has been done similarly for other aspects of our lives: politics, sports, war, religion.

    However, there is a difference that I identify here. Those other aspects are all add-ons to our lives. They are activities that we create -- for good or ill -- that are particular to our species and often to our regional inhabitants. Nature to the contrary has a way of fitting us into a larger context, of associating ourselves with the world in which we live. And it does so with more immediacy than does history, for example.

    Of course my view is prejudiced. I have had the good fortune to return in my retirement to activities that have been an avocation all my life. So I look for nature in my reading. But I hope that from now on, whether or not you have a similar interest in nature, you will do so as well.

    Finally, I invite you to call my attention to what you find. Let us search together for additional modern relatives of Moby Dick. We can, of course, look for them in the fictional writing of such authors as Peter Matthiessen, who has also written so many non-fiction nature books. (I sneak in here one sentence from Matthiessen's latest novel, Lost Man's River: "Tree frogs shrilled from the freshwater slough on the far side of the road, in counterpoint to the relentless nightsong -- chuck-will's-widow! chuck-will's-widow! chuck-will's-widow! -- which came from the whiskery wide gape of a mothlike bird hidden in lichens on some dead limb at the swamp edge, still and cryptic as a dead thing decomposing.")

    But we can seek out less expected authors as well. For example, I have found brief pieces of excellent nature writing in the detective novels of James Lee Burke. I believe that natural history may be found in -- and supports -- good writing of any kind.