Literary nature writing has a strained reputation among LDS audiences, with some reason. It’s hard to forget that Ed Abbey, the crusty padre of nature writing, gave us the infamous Mormon character Bishop Love in The Monkey Wrench Gang, setting up Love’s vision of unlimited development of the West as being not only representative of Mormon attitudes about wilderness but also as natural enemy to environmentalist interests in the American Southwest.
I attended a reading Cactus Ed gave at BYU back in the early 80s, held in the Wilkinsen Center, I think. In an act of sympathetic anarchy, someone in the mostly Mormon audience slipped him a six-pack of German import beer. Abbey mingled with the reading attendees, all the while clutching his brown paper bag beneath his arm.
I saw him again in the late 80s at the University of Arizona, where he was on the faculty. As he drifted down the hall, a strange expression of serenity on his face, I heard other students also watching ask each other, “Well, do you think Ol’ Ed’s gonna to make it to class today?” Ed Abbey died March 14th, 1989, at the age of 62, reportedly following four days of esophageal hemorrhaging. A probable contributing factor to his untimely death: years of hard living. Of course, hard living was a trademark of his prose, and his famous name is associated with a brand of environmentalism linked with misanthropy.
Terry Tempest Williams is perhaps the best known Mormon contemporary writer focusing on environmental concerns. Like Abbey her writing about the Southwest region has received national acclaim. Yet her seeming ambivalence toward LDS culture and toward her own multi-generation Mormon upbringing has caused some LDS to class her as a non-Mormon writer, with some even considering her to be anti-Mormon. A few individuals feel so strongly that Williams’s prose attacks the church that they took steps to block her readings at BYU.
Two years ago I attended a writing workshop taught by literary nature writer and NPR commentator, Mary Sojourner. With great emotion, she told how during one of her readings a woman in the audience shouted, “The only way this world has a chance is if human beings are wiped out!” Mary seemed to be in agreement with the overwrought audience member’s sentiment.
LDS don’t know how to interpret the ambivalence, misanthropy, or sorrow that crops up in traditional literary nature writing, especially when the high rhetoric expressing such emotions threatens LDS lifestyles and beliefs. Well I have good news: there’s a new kind of literary nature writing emerging, one that depends more on educating rather than blaming, illuminating rather than lamenting; one, I believe, that Mormon audiences may embrace with enthusiasm.
This new kind of literary nature writing may be summed up by the vision statement of Isotope, a literary nature and science journal out of Utah State University. In Isotope’s earlier incarnation as Petroglyph, works of either sorrowful lament or the wildly, sometimes irrationally celebratory type once found outlet. When Petroglyph changed name to Isotope, it received an ideological makeover as well. Perhaps realizing the old bipolar personality of nature writing limited the prospects for influence and appreciation, Isotope sought a broader way: it expanded its original traditonal nature writing mission by inviting science and a better-natured rationality to the table.
Admittedly, one unfortunate effect of such a merger could be the degrading of science into pop-science, but in this humble reader and writer’s opinion, the vision statement of Isotope and the work of writers like Ellen Meloy (The Anthropology of Turquoise) and Craig Childs (The Secret Knowledge of Water) bring a new grace and, darn it, friendliness to nature writing, freeing up the narrative for development into something more fertile and attractive to LDS.
Perhaps it’s time for LDS writers of environmental persuasion to begin developing the literary nature writing tradition within their culture. One thing for sure: Mormons are way underrepresented in the literary eco-writing world. I see no compelling reason for that vacancy.