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Writing From the Woods: Surveying the Literature of Opting Out

As part of our week-long series on people who opt out of society, Eva Holland traces the American tradition of examining the outdoors with loving precision, from Henry David Thoreau to Annie Dillard.
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Glacier in Rawah Wilderness, Colorado, during summer. (Photo: Alexey Kamenskiy/Shutterstock)

Glacier in Rawah Wilderness, Colorado, during summer. (Photo: Alexey Kamenskiy/Shutterstock)

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” —John Muir

In 1869, a young man named John Muir arrived in California’s Yosemite Valley and landed a job at the lone sawmill there. Over the previous two years he had completed a thousand-mile trek from Indiana to Florida’s gulf coast and then sailed to Havana, Cuba, and back to America again. Now he built himself a small cabin near the foot of Yosemite Falls and began what he would later call his “unconditional surrender to Nature.”

He spent the subsequent years exploring Yosemite—and, eventually, other wilderness areas, including five extended visits to Alaska—in intimate detail. He kept extensive journals about the fauna, flora, and geology he observed, and began publishing articles in newspapers and magazines about the natural wonders he encountered. He would go on to become the founding president of the Sierra Club, and one of North America’s most famous conservationists. He would also transform his journals and articles into several books. In doing so, he joined an American tradition of literature that examines the outdoors with loving precision, cataloguing the daily sights, sounds, and smells of the natural world while hinting—or, sometimes, stating outright—that sustained exposure to those daily happenings is the cure for all kinds of human ills. It’s a small sub-sub-genre that mixes memoir, travel writing, and the cold facts of a field guide. For my purposes here, I’ll refer to it as the literature of opting out.

"I understand that it’s a fallacy to see nature as a kind of self-help guide for humans, but there may be a lesson here. Perhaps we, too, can retain some of our wildness while living in this increasingly cluttered, concrete world."

By the time John Muir made it to Yosemite, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden had already been in circulation for 15 years. Inspired in part by the Transcendentalist philosophy of his mentor—and landlord for the project—Ralph Waldo Emerson (who would also become a friend of Muir’s during a later visit to Yosemite), Thoreau had spent two years, two months, and two days living in relative isolation in a cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, just outside of Concord, Massachusetts. In the resulting book, Thoreau emphasized the importance of simplicity and self-reliance. He meditated on the sounds he could hear from his cabin, and described the pleasures of his mundane tasks: gathering firewood, say, or planting a field.

Today, the writings of Muir and Thoreau are regarded as all-time classics. Personally, I find them both a little bit hard to read: Muir, for extravagant flights of exultation, and Thoreau at least in part because he espouses ideas about consumerism and simplicity that feel like old news—although I realize they were revolutionary once, and are no less applicable today than they were 150 years ago. Indeed, as the decades have passed since Thoreau’s death in 1862 and Muir’s in 1914, other authors have picked up their themes of simple living and immersion in nature, whether in the name of conservation, self-improvement, or both.

In 1949, Luna Leopold published his late father Aldo’s A Sand County Almanac, a series of essays focused on the Leopold family’s weekends spent on a remote Wisconsin farm. The book would become a totem of the conservation movement, with more than two million copies sold. And a few years after Leopold’s death, a young writer named Edward Abbey would take a job as a park ranger at an isolated post in Utah, at what is now Arches National Park.

Abbey is easily the angriest—at least overtly—of the writers in this small tradition. Before he wrote Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, a non-fiction book about his time at Arches, he’d produced three novels: one about a teenage boy who yearns for the desert; one about a cowboy fighting against technology, the government, and the draft; and one about a rancher who refuses to allow the United States military to take over his land. By the time Abbey sat down to write about life at Arches, his chosen themes were clear. Modern civilization was a plague on humanity (though Abbey would probably specify “man”), and immersion in nature was the only tonic.

Like his predecessors, Abbey meditated at length on the plants and creatures he encountered in the Utah desert. But his work, shot through with anger and a sense of urgent impulse, holds my attention more firmly. For my money, Edward Abbey represents the literary peak of the group.

He was followed by an array of writers, none of whom fit quite right inside the Muir-Thoreau tradition. Thomas McGuane’s essays on hunting, fishing, and other outdoor sports share some of that intense meditative quality and attention to detail, but aren’t overtly political. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 1974, also shares their committed immersion in the sensory details of nature, but without the explicit conservationist or self-help impulse. Gretel Ehrlich’s 1985 The Solace of Open Spaces, about her years on the ranches of Wyoming, tends to focus as often on the people she encounters as it does on the country, while Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams, which mixes the author’s observations along the shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake with her memoir of her mother dying from cancer, is more deeply personal.

If there’s a clear-cut contemporary descendant of Thoreau, Muir, and Abbey it might be David Gessner. In his 2001 book, Return of the Osprey: A Season of Flight and Wonder, Gessner spent a full six-month nesting season observing the ospreys of Cape Cod. The birds had only recently returned to the Cape after a decades-long hiatus, and their arrival parallels Gessner’s own return to his childhood home, where he’d grown up in the birds’ absence. But while John Muir fought to preserve a threatened wilderness and Abbey raged at the decline of another, Return of the Osprey manages to convey optimism and a sense of hope—for the birds, and for all of us yearning to disappear into the wild. “I understand that it’s a fallacy to see nature as a kind of self-help guide for humans,” he writes of the osprey’s successful return to an increasingly suburban Cape Cod, “but there may be a lesson here. Perhaps we, too, can retain some of our wildness while living in this increasingly cluttered, concrete world.”

We're telling stories all week about people who opt out of society on some level—homesteaders, back-to-the-landers, anti-government survivalists. Read the entire series here.