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:
This is where we talk about money, Ada thought. She said, "Right this minute, and possibly for some time to come, money is in short supply."
"Money's not it," Ruby said. "Like I said, I'm not exactly looking to hire out. I'm saying if I'm to help you here, it's with both us knowing that everybody empties their own night jar."
Ada started to laugh but then realized this was not meant to be funny. Something on the order of equality, was Ruby's demand. It seemed from Ada's point of view an odd one. But on reflection she decided that since no one else was lined up to help her, and since she had been tossing her own slops all summer, the request was fair enough.
As they talked over the remaining details, the yellow and black rooster walked by the porch and paused to stare at them. He twitched his head and flipped his red comb from one side of his head to the other.
"I despise that bird," Ada said. "He tried to flog me."
Ruby said, "I'd not keep a flogging rooster."
"Then how might we run it off?" Ada said.
Ruby looked at her with a great deal of puzzlement. She rose and stepped off the porch and in one swift motion snatched up the rooster, tucked his body under her left arm, and with her right hand pulled off his head. He struggled under her arm for a minute and then fell still. Ruby threw the head off into a barberry bush by the fence.
"He'll be stringy, so we'd best stew him awhile," Ruby said.
By dinnertime the meat of the rooster was falling from the bone, and gobs of biscuit dough the size of cat heads cooked in the yellow broth.
Monroe would have dismissed such beliefs as superstition, folklore. But Ada, increasingly covetous of Ruby's learning in the ways living things, inhabited this particular place, chose to view the signs as metaphoric. They were, as Ada saw them, an expression of stewardship, a means of taking care, a discipline. They provided a ritual of concern for the patterns and tendencies of the material world where it might be seen to intersect with some other world. Ultimately, she decided, the signs were a way of being alert, and under those terms she could honor them.
It was an afternoon of bright haze, the sunlight sourceless and uniform. Ruby examined the trees and judged solemnly that the apples were making tolerably well. Then, out of the blue, she looked at Ada and said, Point north. She grinned at the long delay as Ada worked out the cardinal directions from her recollection of where the sun set. Such questions were a recent habit Ruby had developed. She seemed to delight in demonstrating how disoriented Ada was in the world. As they walked by the creek one day she had asked, What's the course of that water? Where does it come from and what does it run into? Another day she had said, Name me four plants on that hillside that in a pinch you could eat. How many days to the next new moon? Name two things blooming now and two things fruiting.
Ada did not yet have those answers, but she could feel them coming, and Ruby was her principal text. During the daily rounds of work, Ada had soon noted that Ruby's lore included many impracticalities beyond the raising of crops. The names of useless beings -- both animal and vegetable -- and the custom of their lives apparently occupied much of Ruby's thinking, for she was constantly pointing out the little creatures that occupy the nooks of the world. Her mind marked every mantis in a stand of ragweed, the corn borers in the little tents they folded out of milkweed leaves, striped and spotted salamanders with their friendly smiling faces under rocks in the creek. Ruby noted little hairy liverish poisonouslooking plants and fungi growing on the damp bark of dying trees, all the larvae and bugs and worms that live alone inside a case of sticks or grit or leaves. Each life with a story behind it. Every little gesture nature made to suggest a mind marking its life as its own caught Ruby's interest.
So as they sat on the blanket, drowsy and full from lunch, Ada told Ruby that she envied her knowledge of how the world runs. Farming, cookery, wild lore. How do you come to know such things? Ada had asked.
Ruby said she had learned what little she knew in the usual way. A lot of it was grandmother knowledge, got from wandering around the settlement talking to any old woman who would talk back, watching them work and asking questions. Some came from helping Sally Swanger who knew, Ruby claimed, a great many quiet things such as the names of all plants down to the plainest weed. Partly, though, she claimed she had just puzzled out in her own mind how the world's logic works. It was mostly a matter of being attentive.
"You commence by trying to see what likes what," Ruby said. Which Ada interpreted to mean, Observe and understand the workings of affinity in nature.
Ruby pointed to red splashes of color on the green hillside of the ridge: sumac and dogwood already turning color in advance of other trees. "Why would they do that near a month ahead?" she said.
"Chance?" Ada said.
Ruby made a little sound like spitting a fleck of dirt or a gnat from the tip of her tongue. Her view was that people like to lay off anything they can't fathom as random. She saw it another way. Both sumac and dogwood were full of ripe berries at that time of year. The thing a person had to ask was, What else is happening that might bear on the subject? One thing was, birds moving. They were passing over all day long and all night too. You didn't have to but look up to know that. Enough to make you dizzy at the numbers of them. Then think about standing on a high place like the jump-off rock and looking down on the trees as the birds see them. Then wonder at how green and alike the trees look. One very much resembling another, whether it offers a meal or not. That's all roving birds see. They don't know these woods. They don't know where a particular food tree might live. Ruby's conclusion was, dogwood and sumac maybe turn red to say eat to hungry stranger birds.
Ada said, "You seem to suppose that a dogwood might have a plan in this."
"Well, maybe they do," Ruby said.
She asked whether Ada had ever looked close up at the particular mess of various birds. Their droppings.
"Hardly," Ada said.
"Don't act so proud about it," Ruby said. In her view that's where the answer to this issue might be. Every little dogwood can't grow up right where it falls under the big dogwood. Being rooted, they use the birds to move themselves around to more likely ground. Birds eat berries, and the seeds come through whole and unmarred, ready to grow where dropped, already dressed with manure. It was Ruby's opinion that if a person puzzled this out over time, she might also find a lesson somewhere in it, for much creation worked by such method and to such ends.
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:
Richard paced in front of the chalkboard, speaking easily and without notes. From the back of the room, where I sat when I came each fall to hear him lecture, I could watch the students listen to him.
After he passed out the paper, Richard told the students his first, conventional version of Gregor Mendel's life. Mendel, he said, grew up in a tiny village in the northwestern corner of Moravia, which was then a part of the Hapsburg Empire and later became part of Czechoslovakia. When he was twentyone, poor and desperate for further education, he entered the Augustinian monastery in the capital city of Brunn, which is now called Brno. He studied science and later taught at a local high school. In 1856, at the age of thirtyfour, he began his experiments in the hybridization of the edible pea. For his laboratory he used a little strip of garden adjoining the monastery wall.
Over the next eight years Mendel performed hundreds of experiments on thousands of plants, tracing the ways in which characteristics were passed through generations. Tall and short plants, with white or violet flowers; peas that were wrinkled or smooth; pods that were arched or constricted around the seeds. He kept meticulous records of his hybridizations in order to write the paper the students now held in their hands. On a clear, cold evening in 1865, he read the first part of this paper to his fellow members of the Brunn Society for the Study of Natural Science. About forty men were present, a few professional scientists and many serious amateurs. Mendel read to them for an hour, describing his experiments and demonstrating the invariable ratios with which traits appeared in his hybrids. A month later, at the Society's next meeting, he presented the theory he'd formulated to account for his results.
Right there, my husband said, right in that small, crowded room, the science of genetics was born. Mendel knew nothing of genes or chromosomes or DNA, but he'd discovered the principles that made the search for those things possible.
"Was there applause?" Richard always asked at this point. "Was there a great outcry of approval or even a mutter of disagreement?" A rhetorical question; the students knew better than to answer.
"There was not. The minutes of that meeting show that no questions were asked and no discussion took place. Not one person in that room understood the significance of what Mendel had presented. A year later, when the paper was published, no one noticed it."
The students looked down at their papers and Richard finished his story quickly, describing how Mendel went back to his monastery and busied himself with other things. For a while he continued to teach and to do other experiments; he raised grapes and fruit trees and all kinds of flowers, and he kept bees. Eventually he was elected abbot of his monastery, and from that time until his death he was occupied with his administrative duties. Only in 1900 was his lost paper rediscovered and his work appreciated by a new generation of scientists.
When Richard reached this point, he would look toward the back of the room and catch my eye and smile. He knew that I knew what was in store for the students at the end of the semester. After they'd read the paper and survived the labs where fruit flies bred in tubes and displayed the principles of Mendelian inheritance, Richard would tell them the other Mendel story. The one I told him, in which Mendel is led astray by a condescending fellow scientist and the behavior of the hawkweeds. The one in which science is not just unappreciated, but bent by loneliness and longing.
"Hieracium," Tati said. "That is their real name. It comes from the Greek word for hawk. The juice from the stem is supposed to make your vision very sharp." They were weeds, he said: extremely hardy. They grew wherever the soil was too poor to support other plants. They were related to asters and daisies and dahlias -- all plants I'd seen growing at the nursery -- but also to thistles and burdocks. I should remember them, he said. They were important. With his own eyes he had watched the hawkweeds ruin Gregor Mendel's life.
Even now this seems impossible: how could I have known someone of an age to have known Mendel? And yet it was true: Tati had grown up on the outskirts of Brno, the city where Mendel spent most of his life. Tati was ten then. He had scaled the white walls of the Augustinian monastery of St. Thomas one afternoon, for a lark. As he'd straddled the wall he'd seen a plump, shortlegged man with glasses looking up at him.
"He looked like my mother's uncle," Tati said. "A little bit."
Mendel had held out a hand and helped Tati jump down from the wall. Around him were fruit trees and wild vines; in the distance he saw a clock tower and a long, low building. Where Tati had landed, just where his feet touched ground, there were peas. Not the thousands of plants that would have been there at the height of Mendel's investigations, but still hundreds of plants clinging to sticks and stretched strings.
The place was magical, Tati said. Mendel showed him the tame fox he tied up during the day but allowed to run free at night, the hedgehogs and the hamsters and the mice he kept, the beehives and the cages full of birds. The two of them, the boy and the middleaged man, made friends. Mendel taught Tati most of his horticultural secrets and later he was responsible for getting him a scholarship to the school where he taught. But Tati said that the first year of their friendship, before the hawkweed experiments, was the best. He and Mendel, side by side, had opened pea flowers and transferred pollen with a camelhair brush.
On the last day of 1866, Mendel wrote his first letter to Carl Nageli of Munich, a powerful and wellknown botanist known to be interested in hybridization. He sent a copy of his pea paper along with the letter, hoping Nageli might help it find the recognition it deserved. But he also, in his letter, mentioned that he had started a few experiments with hawkweeds, which he hoped would confirm his results with peas.
Nageli was an expert on the hawkweeds, and Tati believed that Mendel had only mentioned them to pique Nageli's interest in his work. Nageli didn't reply for several months, and when he finally wrote back he said almost nothing about the peas. But he was working on the hawkweeds himself, and he proposed that Mendel turn his experimental skills to them. Mendel, desperate for recognition, ceased to write about his peas and concentrated on the hawkweeds instead.
"Oh, that Nageli!" Tati said. "Month after month, year
after year, I watched Mendel writing his long, patient letters and getting
no answer or slow answers or answers off the point. Whenever Nigeli wrote
to Mendel, it was always about the hawkweeds. Later, when I learned why
Mendel's experiments with them hadn't worked, I wanted to cry."
The experiments that had given such tidy results with peas gave nothing but chaos with hawkweeds, which were very difficult to hybridize. Experiment after experiment failed; years of work were wasted. The inexplicable behavior of the hawkweeds destroyed Mendel's belief that the laws of heredity he'd worked out with peas would be universally valid. By 1873, Mendel had given up completely. The hawkweeds, and Nageli behind them, had convinced him that his work was useless.
It was bad luck, Tati said. Bad luck in choosing Nageli to help him, and in letting Nageli steer him toward the hawkweeds. Mendel's experimental technique was fine, and his laws of heredity were perfectly true. He could not have known -- no one knew for years -- that his hawkweeds didn't hybridize in rational ways because they frequently formed seeds without fertilization. "Parthenogenesis," Tati told me -- a huge, knobby word that I could hardly get my mouth around. Still, it sounds to me like a disease. "The plants grown from seeds formed this way are exact copies of the mother plant, just like the begonias we make from leaf cuttings."
Mendel gave up on science and spent his last years, after he was elected abbot, struggling with the government over the taxes levied on his monastery. He quarreled with his fellow monks; he grew bitter and isolated. Some of the monks believed he had gone insane. In his quarters he smoked heavy cigars and gazed at the ceiling, which he'd had painted with scenes of saints and fruit trees, beehives and scientific equipment. When Tati came to visit him, his conversation wandered.
Mendel died in January 1884, on the night of Epiphany, confused about the value of his scientific work. That same year, long after their correspondence had ceased, Nageli published an enormous book summarizing all his years of work. Although many of his opinions and observations seemed to echo Mendel's work with peas, Nagell made no mention of Mendel or his paper. That was the story I told Richard. Torn from its context, stripped of the reasons why it was told, it became a story about the beginnings of Richard's discipline. I knew that Richard would have paid money to hear it, but I gave it to him as a gift.
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:
"I have attempted to keep these insects myself," said Matty Crompton, "but I have a deathly touch, it appears. No matter how beautiful a house I build, or how many flowers and fruits I offer, the creatures simply curl up and die."
"You probably had not captured a Queen. Ants are social beings: they exist, it appears, only for the good of the whole nest, and the center of the nest is the Queen ant whose laying and feeding the others all tend ceaselessly. They will kill her and drag her away, it is true, if she ceases to produce young -- or abandon her, when she will rapidly starve, for she is unable to fend for herself. But they exist to lavish attention on her when she is in her prime, on her and her brood. If we are to make a mimic community, we must capture a Queen. The worker ants lose their will to live without the proximity of a Queen -- they become immobile and listless, like young ladies in a decline, and then give up the ghost."
"How shall we find a Queen? Must we break open the city? We shall do a great deal of damage..."
"I will look about and try to find a fairly recently established nest, a young community that can be transferred more or less entire."
He paced up and down, turning over leaves with a stick, following small convoys of ants to their cracks and crannies in roots and earth. Matty Crompton stood watchfully by. William felt a prick of pleasure at the return of his hunting, scanning self, which had been unexercised inside the walls of the Hall. Under his gaze whole woodfloor became alive with movement, a centipede, various beetles, a sanguine shiny red worm, rabbit pellets, a tiny breast feather, a grass smeared with the eggs of some moth or butterfly, violets opening, conical entrance holes with fine dust. Inside, a swaying twig, a shifting pebble. He took out his magnifying lens and looked at a patch of moss, pebbles and sand, and saw a turmoil of previously invisible energies, striving, striving, white myriadlegged runners, invisible semitransparent arthropods, buttontight spiderlings. His senses, and his mind attached to them, were like a magnetic field, pulled here and there. Here was a nest of jetblack Ants, Acanthomyops fuliginosus, who lived in small households inside the interconnected encampments of the Wood Ants. Here, on the edge of the coppice, was a trail of slavemaking ants, Formica sanguinea. He had always wanted to study these in action. He said so to Matty Crompton, pointing out the difference between the Wood Ants, Formica rufa, with their muddybrown heads and blackishbrown gasters, or hind parts, and the bloodred sanguinea.
"They invade the nests of the Wood Ants, and steal their cocoons, which they rear with their own, so that they become sanguinea workers. Terrible battles are fought by raiders and defenders."
"They resemble human societies in that, as in many things."
"Maybe they are all perfectly content in their stations," observed Matty Crompton. Her tone was neutral, so extraordinarily neutral that it would have been impossible to detect whether she spoke with irony or with conventional complacency, even if William had been giving her his complete attention, which he was not. He had found a meagre roof of thatch which he was ready to excavate. He took the trowel from her hands and removed several layers of earth, bristling with angry antwarriors, littered with grubs and cocoons. A kind of seething attack accompanied his next moves, as he cut into the heart of the nest. Miss Crompton, on his instructions, gathered up the workers, grubs and cocoons in large clods of earth, interlayed with twigs and leaves
"They bite," she observed tersely, brushing her minute attackers from her wrists. "They do. They make a hole with their mandibles and inject formic acid through their gaster, which they curve round, very elegantly. Do you wish to retreat?"
"No. I am a match for a few justifiably furious ants."
"So you could not say with the Fire Ants or the tucunderas in the forest, who made me suffer torments for weeks when I unwarily stirred them up. In Brazil the Fire Ant is King, they say, and rightly. It cannot be kept down, or diverted, or avoided -- men leave their houses to escape its ravages."
Matty Crompton, tightlipped, picked individual ants out of her cuffs and scattered them in the collecting boxes. William followed a tunnel, and came upon the broodchamber of the ant Queen.
"Here she is. In her glory."
Matty Crompton peered in.
"You would not suppose her to be of the same species as her rapid little servants -- "
"No. Though she is less disproportionately gross than the termite Queens, who are like huge inflated tubes, the size of haystacks compared to their docile little mates, who are in attendance in the same chamber, and the workers, who clamber all over them, cleaning and repairing and carrying away the endless succession of eggs as well as any debris."
The Queen of the Wood Ants was only half as large again as her daughterworkers/servants. She was swollen and glossy, unlike the matt workers, and appeared to be striped red and white. The striping was in fact the result of the bloating of her body by the eggs inside it, which pushed apart her redbrown armourplating, showing more fragile, more elastic, whitish skin in the interstices. Her head appeared relatively small. William picked her up with his forceps -- several workers came with her, clinging to her legs. He placed her on cottonwool in a collectingbox and directed Miss Crompton in the collection of various sizes of worker ants and grubs and cocoons from various parts of the nest.
"We should also take a sample of the earth and the vegetable matter, from which they have made their nest, and note what they appear to be eating -- and the little girls may usefully experiment with their preference in foods, if they have patient natures, when they are in their new home."
"Should we not search for male ants also?"
"There will be none, at this time of the year. They are only present in the nest in June, July and possibly August. They are born sometimes -- it is thought -- from eggs laid by unfertilized workers -- a kind of parthenogenesis. They do not long survive the mating of the Queens in the Summer months. They are easy to recognize: they have wings and hugely developed eyes -- and they do not appear to be in any way able to fend for themselves, or build, or forage. Natural Selection appears to have favored in them the development of those skills which guarantee success in the nuptial dance, at the expense of the others -- "
"I cannot help observing that this appears to be the opposite to human societies, when it is the woman whose success in that kind of performance determines their lives -- "
"I have thought along those lines myself. There is a pleasing paradox in the bright balldresses, the floating of young girls in our world, and the dark erectness of the young men. In savage societies, as much as in birds and butterflies, it is the males who flaunt their beauty. But I do not know that the condition of the Queen here is much happier than that of the swarms of useless and disregarded suitors. I ask myself, are these little creatures who run up and down, and carry, and feed each other lovingly, and bite enemies -- are they truly individuals -- or are they like the cells in our body, all parts of one whole, all directed by some mind -- the Spirit of the Nest -- which uses all, Queen, servants, slaves, dancing partners for the good of the race itself, the species itself -- "
"And do you go on, Mr. Adamson, to ask that question about human societies?"
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.
Captain Arturo Papagay, whose first command this is, comes past, and smiles his rich, mixed smile, white teeth in a golden-brown face, laughing dark eyes. He has brought Mr. Adamson a curiosity. It is a butterfly, found by a midshipman in the rigging. It is ambergold, with dusky borders to its wings, which are a little dishevelled, even tattered. It is the Monarch, says William, excited, Danaus Plexippus, which is known to migrate great distances along the American coast. They are strong fliers, he tells her but the winds can carry them hundreds of miles out to sea. She observes to William and Captain Papagay that the wings are still dusty with life. "It fills me with emotion," she says. "I do not know whether it is more fear, or more hope. It is so fragile, and so easily crushed, and nowhere in reach of where it was going. And it is still alive, and bright, and so surprising, rightly seen." "That is the main thing," says Captain Papagay. "To be alive. As long as you are alive, everything is surprising, rightly seen." And the three of them look out with renewed interest at the points of light in the dark around them.
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.