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Earth Daze 

Prose for the planet

Thursday, May 6 2004
Illustration by Travis Chatham

Environmental writing almost always entails travel. There are the exceptional moments when places of proximity — hometowns, back yards or routine paths to the local barber — achieve enough depth of field to be understood as slivers of the natural world, but for the most part, to see the environment, you go somewhere else. And when you do that, there is a default tendency to leave emotional clutter at home and try to succumb to the place where you’ve landed, resulting in that syrupy wonder that makes so many environmental travelogues read with a uniform deferential awe about this jungle or that cataract or these caverns of unexplored depth. With all human personality left behind, only the environment remains, but without that human observer’s imperfections, what good then is the perfection of the environment?

This is the problem Susan Zakin raises with her new anthology, Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth. Accepting a priori that the environment is seldom trodden by most writers and readers, Zakin also makes the painful observation that what environmental writing does break through is often boring. Naked offers a hopeful antidote: a wide assortment of nonfiction, memoirs, short stories, essays and excerpted correspondence in which the environment is not just a setting but a character with dialogue. By keeping many selections short, Zakin is able to include 33 pieces. Among them are a few missteps, but those are spread among many strong entries, a few pleasant surprises and the solid anchors of several great examples of what prose can do for the planet.

Fittingly, the inaugural passage reaches back to Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, the 1987 autobiographical work in which Chatwin makes a sort-of-scientific investigation into nomadism, and the centrality of extra-urban wandering in human history. The four-page excerpt is from Chapter 4 — an account of the moment when Chatwin is hit by the impulse to find something in the wilderness. Chatwin describes how, with eyes literally clouded from a psychosomatic illness while working at Sotheby’s London office, he began to see again the minute he set off for Africa, and that’s when his own wandering began.

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With that push away from the dock, Zakin sails a zigzag course, from Florida to Spain to the South Pacific. It’s from way out there that Jack Hitt sends us his Ka-Ching, Bling-bling, Nauru, a story of his obsession with a tiny, remote Micronesian coral crop of an island noted for being a money-laundering haven and exporting its guano as phosphates. Spend enough time on Nauru, as Hitt does, and the place becomes a funny but tragic, farcical but true, case study in what the economics of globalization is capable of doing to a physical place, its natural resources, and even its sovereignty.

Elsewhere, there are tales of madness in the desert: a death march in the upper Sonoran by Charles Bowden, and Deanne Stillman’s melancholy story of the single black foal that survived a bizarre massacre of wild horses on Rattlesnake Mountain in the Nevada wilds. And plenty of ambivalence about whiteness in the expanse of Africa: Alexandra Fuller’s memoir of growing up the daughter of a rancher in Zaire and Zimbabwe, and a Serengeti crossing in The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski, the all-time master of rubbing his pen and paper against the relief of a place and coming away with an impression unlike anyone else’s. Rounding out the hard lines of reportage is fiction from T.C. Boyle, represented here by the great short story “Dogology,” whose cynomorphic protagonist’s aim of “reordering her senses” to enter and reinterpret the world from an animal’s perspective could stand as shorthand for the guiding principle behind Zakin’s anthology.

And some senses need reordering. Take, for example, the supreme arrogance of Klaus Kinski, which we get to sample in a passage from his autobiography Kinski Uncut, more a single prolonged pathological rant than a book, and no doubt enhanced in lunacy by the verbal flexibility of the original German. Yes, filming Aguirre: The Wrath of God appears to have occurred in a jungle, but what these 10 pages are really about is Kinski escaping his own solipsism by throwing himself into the belief that Werner Herzog is even more solipsistic, and the only role played by the environment is in Kinski’s ruminations on the various ways he could kill Herzog using the dangers of the Amazon. We find out more about the zeal with which Kinski carried his costume sword, breastplate and helmet than we do about the location. Kinski Uncut is an example of what happens when you bring so much of yourself into the jungle that it turns out yours is the darkest heart.

NAKED: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth | Edited by SUSAN ZAKIN Four Walls Eight Windows | 356 pages | $14 paperback

Susan Zakin and contributors Joe Donnelly and Deanne Stillman will read from Naked at Book Soup on Thursday, May 13, at 7 p.m.

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