During the ten years that I lived, off-and-on, in New York City, I became intimate with all manner of vermin. Most were slightly smaller than the Jack Russell-sized cockroach in David Cronenberg's film adaptation of William Burroughs's Naked Lunch. The first time I saw the film, it took me a while to figure out that the gravelly voiced roach with the typewriter head was talking to the writer-protagonist, William Lee, out of a human rectum. That is a great sentence, the gratified asshole rasps as Lee types into the head of his roach-muse. These are words to live by. Was this writer talking up his own ass? Jacking off? Writing shit? Analyses of Naked Lunch, book or film,are better left to postmodern and postcolonial critics—smarter folk than I. What concerns me here is the way that art's refracted light sends my darker angels scuttling for cover behind the toilet.
Like the time I read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and felt guilty when Raskolnikov murdered his victims. Or that bleak spring when I hid my volumes of Anne Sexton's poetry because I feared her undertow. But I'm not Anne Sexton. I'm not Lily Bart of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, either, although like Lily, I've made a million mistakes with money and men. And although I know from close observation that the exoskeleton of a cockroach will gleam copper and golden beneath an incandescent bulb, I'm not William Burroughs or Naked Lunch's William Lee. I don't do drugs or write about drugs.
I write about the environment and I teach nature writing. But no way am I Delaney Mossbacher, the gourmet cook/nature writer protagonist of T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain. I can't cook and I live alone in an eastern city. Delaney lives with his wife and stepson in an exclusive housing development in a suburb of Los Angeles, and when he isn't fussing over dinner or internally raging against Latinos, he writes a nature column for a magazine, Wide Open Spaces. Boyle wants readers to consider how white Americans of the comfortable classes imagine the environment (still wide and open, for one thing) and their Latino neighbors (in the novel, by turns servants, criminals, and invisible), so when Delaney pens a column about a solo overnight camping trip to the woods near his home, Boyle peppers the piece with nature writing clichés. Although Delaney's wife has ferried him to the trailhead in her Lexus and will collect him before breakfast, our camper believes he is a mountaineer bivouacking in the wilderness. He identifies several plants by both their colloquial (and italicized, parenthetical Latin) names. He beds down, thrilling to a coyote lullaby. He doesn't mention that a coyote has recently devoured his wife's beloved dog. Neither does he acknowledge the malnourished Mexican immigrants squatting in the canyon below his campsite, who provide the day labor in his community and whose presence he resents, yet whose right to coexist he defends to his neighbors. He leaves out any details that might interfere with the Disney-like quality of this episode.
Environmental historian William Cronon writes that when Americans look at wilderness, "we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires." Nature is Delaney Mossbacher's vanity mirror. Revealing far more about Delaney and his socioeconomic class than it does about the environment, the column reads like a narcissist's diary entry about a one night stand with nature—or with his vanity mirror. Pick your metaphor—the act and outcome are the same. Because Delaney's column contains so many crimes against nature writing, I have often used it in my writing classes as an example of what not to do if you're writing nonfiction about nature. "Don't write like this," I tell my students. "Don't be like Delaney." Just look at this asshole, Boyle seems to say to his readers. Do you recognize yourself?
Actually, I do. T.C. Boyle's egomaniac-in-the-wilderness column is brilliantly crafted, but with all due respect to Boyle, my nature writing is worse than Delaney's. I can claim these bragging rights because I have the evidence in several nature essays I wrote roughly a dozen years ago, both before and after I was a graduate student in the creative writing program at City College of New York. I wrote them during what I now think of as a dreamtime of money and days, when I left one life route I had plodded for years and took a different course. Suddenly, it seemed as though a forest bloomed from every cracked Manhattan sidewalk. Doors swung wide. Fancying myself an ecotourist, I traveled and wrote about some of what I saw, committing my own crimes against nature writing.
Several of those pieces focus on a solo trip I made to Alaska. I titled one essay after the common name of a wildflower that grows abundantly in the Northwest. I had fallen in love with its color, a shade of pinkish-purple slightly brighter than my prose. Let's call that essay "Alaskan Rhapsody." "Alaskan Rhapsody" focused on a day hike over a green glacier in Alaska's Denali National Park; the hike took our party across a glacial river and through a wildflower meadow and culminated in the mother-of-pearl mouth of an ice cave. I was aping—badly—the work of writers I admired. I chronicled the names of plant species I would be unable to identify a week later. Drunk with wonder over the calendar-page scenery, I eroticized the landscape, even made love to it. (Ow—on so many levels.)
This didn't make it into the Alaska essays: While I sat one afternoon at a picnic table in an Anchorage park just before traveling to Denali, a woman joined me. Short, dark-haired, a little stocky, she cupped a Styrofoam bowl of vanilla ice cream that she churned to custard with a plastic spoon. She told me between spoonfuls that she lived in a northern village and had flown to Anchorage because her elderly mother had been raped and murdered and her cousin was on trial for the crime. "Terrible thing to do to a 70-year old woman," she said. Her face knotted up and she swallowed a dose of ice cream. She was awaiting the outcome of the trial. I didn't know what to do with this history, so I ignored it, made small talk, asked her about some of the things she'd been doing since she arrived in town. She looked at me, startled, then repeated herself, pausing between each word. "My—cousin—killed—my—mother." I spotted her a few times over the following days, sitting with a couple of men—friends? family?—on public benches around town. They sat quietly, waiting. We didn't speak again.
It gets worse. In another essay, I recall a week-long hike with a naturalist and a group of nature writers in Washington's Cascade Mountain Range. I gushed about the landscape and sprinkled the piece with the names of plants I would forget as soon as I left the region. The essay includes a section on my return to New York City. When the bus I took from the airport back to Manhattan stopped at a red light, I found myself trying to identify a curbside tree by scrutinizing its leaves, just as the Washington naturalist had taught me to do. I transferred from bus to subway for the last leg of my journey home. It was a Saturday morning and the subway car was nearly empty. A couple of exhausted-looking women shared pills from a prescription bottle with a yellowed label. Somebody had left, on one of the seats, a plastic grocery bag containing two packages of steak. A toothless man eyed the steaks eagerly. When I look back upon it now, I see a tableau of terrific pathos. But at the time I was cranky after a red-eye flight and peevish about coming home to New York, and I felt as if I'd hiked out of the Cascades, boarded a plane in Seattle, and disembarked into a bad cartoon. What was I doing here in this city and among these people? It was too easy to forget that I was fortunate to have a day job from which I could afford to take a vacation instead of dangerous night work from which vacation came in a bottle, spoon, or needle. I didn't recognize how privileged I was to be able to buy steak if I chose. It didn't occur to me that those of us who make it through life with a mouthful of teeth have either spectacular genes or deep pockets, and that an adult with few original teeth has survived poverty and acute pain. I just wanted to go back to the woods.
During my final semester at City College, I had the good fortune to take a nonfiction writing workshop with Wayne Koestenbaum. I brought "Alaskan Rhapsody" and my other travel pieces to school. My workshop colleagues offered helpful suggestions about focus and purpose, how to move beyond description, how to craft a more compelling narrative. I recall one classmate asking if a word I used to describe the interior of the Denali ice cave—nacreous—wasn't a little over the top. "But it was nacreous," I protested, guarding my little pearl. Never mind that this was a graduate creative writing workshop. I had recently learned the definition of nacreous and I wanted to use it in a sentence, just like I'd done in Building Word Power exercises back in fifth grade. That is a great sentence. These are words to live by.
I had come across nacreous in Margaret Talbot's 1996 New Republic essay, "Les Très Riches Heures de Martha Stewart," a send-up of the elitist new cult of domesticity, the same bourgeoisie that T.C. Boyle pricked via his fictional nature-writing gourmet cook, Delaney Mossbacher, in The Tortilla Curtain. Talbot's essay roasted Stewart and her disciples, who would preoccupy themselves with fancy menus and precious table settings (homemade pumpkin soup served in embellished pumpkin shells!) while people died of starvation and genocide in Rwanda. I plucked nacreous from that essay as swiftly as I might have pounced on a vintage costume bauble at the Manhattan flea markets I frequented during those years, borrowing Talbot's vocabulary but not her critical eye. Why did I fail to recognize myself among the fluffy white marshmallows Talbot skewered?
The trips to Alaska and elsewhere were gifts I gave myself, and I worked hard at my job in New York City to pay for them. That job followed one I'd held in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city with its own problems but, nevertheless, a place where strangers were friendly to me. Kim, the receptionist at the Ohio company, befriended me from my first day. The position wasn't a good fit and I resigned after a year to take the New York job. The new gig had a surface glamour that impressed some of my Cincinnati colleagues, but not Kim. "Those New York women," she sighed the day we said good-bye. She shook her head and looked at me. Perhaps she saw my full potential. "Don't turn into a bitch," she said.
"I won't," I said. But I did anyway.
Our City College nonfiction workshop was congenial, and Koestenbaum remarked one day that we were different from other groups he'd known. "You're very kind to one another," he said. It didn't occur to me at the time that I was the object of that kindness.
Barry Wallenstein, my thesis advisor, was diplomatic, but after he read the first draft of my manuscript, he gave me the sort of look that I imagine a doctor gives a patient when the prognosis is grim. Wallenstein and Koestenbaum are kind men and good teachers, so they didn't shut me down. Instead, they directed my reading and prodded me to find my voice. Because among the many problems with those essays were my two voices, tangled at the root. One was faint, muffled by a lifelong gag order. The louder voice was mostly false because I wanted to be someone else—smarter, stronger, agile rather than clumsy, tough, not tenderfoot, bold instead of crushingly shy. Someone else who had come from some other place.
I grew up in privileged circumstances and like any materially fortunate suburban kid, I'd had my pleasurable episodes in mud and clover. But I grew up in a cesspool. My siblings and I—all six of us—hatched and grew in the shit tank. We bobbed for apples and played Marco Polo. We swam for our lives. I didn't know what to do with this history, so I ignored it until I couldn't. Then I revised it. In those early nature essays, I was trying to transcend the tank—to pick out the leaves and salvage a few moments of Wordsworthian wonder time. But truthfully, for every minute of childhood clover, there were eons of TV. Real love for the physical world came much later, and when it did, I wanted a year on the edge of a forest. As far back as I could remember, I had found refuge in books, and much of my reading in American literature had trained me to see nature as teacher and healer. Gretel Ehrlich's The Solace of Open Spaces, Ernest Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River," Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature ("In the woods, nothing can befall me...") and so many others had promised as much. Forest time would fix everything. I worked hard and applied for wilderness writing residencies. The rejection letters got nicer, but I never cracked the cabin door. And weeks of Alaskan rain didn't rinse the slop from the leaves I carried in my fists.
There was nothing in "Alaskan Rhapsody" and little in the other works about the evidence of trouble I found everywhere I traveled in Alaska, like the bruised faces of women, the discouraged remarks of fishermen whose hauls were down, the spruce trees dying of bark beetle infestation enabled by global warming, the daughter of a murdered mother awaiting the outcome of her cousin's trial. There was nothing about the time I overheard a Denali bus driver say, "Not a lot of serious crime up here—a lot of domestic violence," and I wanted to scream, How can you say domestic violence isn't a serious crime? There wasn't even much about Denali beyond my admiration for the gorgeous landscape. I noted these things in my journal but they never made it out of the notebook. Neither did the cesspool, although that filled my notebook, too.
Here's what's scary: I worked really hard on those essays. I polished "Alaskan Rhapsody" until it was, well, nacreous. Here's what's scarier: "Alaskan Rhapsody" was accepted for an anthology on ecotourism. To my dismay then and to my relief now, that anthology never found a publisher, and I extend my sincere apologies to the editor if my essay was the deadweight that sank her project. When I wasn't eyeballing the landscape, my gaze was riveted to my own well-fed navel. (And it's at this point that I have to wonder if it's possible to cram your head so far up your own ass that you can gaze at your navel from the inside.) Far worse than Delaney Mossbacher's one night stand camping trip column, this was egotourism: the solipsism of a closed mind—closed to everything but beauty—in open spaces. I mean no disrespect to Gretel Ehrlich by that remark. I cried the first time I read her work, just as I cried the first time I read the work of Annie Dillard, Rick Bass, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, and many others because I couldn't write like they could. I still can't.
Joan Didion once observed that our notebooks—and to this I would add, if only in my case, personal essays—help us "keep on nodding terms" with the selves we once were, the better to remember and understand them, and sometimes the better to avoid becoming them again. Look at what a jerk you were. Don't be that jerk again. Having reread my early works and winced at my former self, I recalled the subway episode of the prostitutes, the steak, and the toothless man a few years ago, when I was again living in New York City, again riding a bus from the airport back to Manhattan. A young man, pale and blond, so high his face was beatific, boarded the bus, laughed, and began canvassing the passengers, his litany tumbling monotonously and without pause. Excuse-me-can-you-please-help-me-please-spare-some-change-excuse-me-can-you-please-help-me-please-spare-some-change. Although I was returning from a conference where I had given a talk about environmental justice to nature writers and scholars, and although I was thinking about the prostitutes and the toothless man—
Do you recognize yourself?
"Don't turn into a bitch."
Don't be that jerk again
—I cringed from the young man as he passed me, unable to reconcile my indifference with the compassion I knew I should feel.
Neither can I reconcile the self-loathing that underscored my life with the narcissism in those early essays. But I wrote them back in the dreamtime, when there was more than enough money and my thirties would last forever, years before a loved one would scoff, You always go wherever the wind blows you, before whole forests of doors would close.
"It all comes back," Didion writes of the way our past pages conjure forgotten dramas. Hey, shit makes good fertilizer, my brother reminds me, offering, like a comforting pat on the shoulder, this law of biophysics he has heard hundreds of times from his AA buddies. He's talking about our childhood, but instead I'm thinking of a story I read recently about an organic gardener who, dissatisfied with the manure she purchased, acquired a chamber pot and began fertilizing her garden with her own excrement. (I know—foul.) I'm not egotistical enough (anymore) to imagine that my early works would make good compost. And I don't need to think about that gardener or to channel William Burroughs to feel like dropping to my knees and puking; those sophomoric essays make me want to do that. But that's the good part. Because if all those missed opportunities for compassion and growth didn't come back, I'd have scant chance of doing much better than that gross gardener, spooning crap onto the earth and admiring the bloom. I long ago left off seeing nature, which makes my existence possible and which I kill a bit every day, as my vanity mirror. And now I'm staring down the woman those early pages reflect with such mortifying clarity. Look at what a jerk you were. Don't be that jerk again. Now those are words to live by.
When I was young, I wanted to be an actress, so I wore a lot of makeup. When I grew older, I wished I'd been born with the brain of a wildlife biologist, so I wore fleece and a little less makeup. I also traveled to some wildish places and wrote essays. I wrote "Scatology" after rereading those years-ago works.