a few short pieces


“A Shirt Full of Bees” by Bill McKibben

My father sent me a copy of this essay, but it’s not shareable under copyright restrictions; and I couldn’t find a publicly accessible version I was happy with. I’m sorry. If you can track down this issue of Utne Reader, through your local library for example, you can read the article yourself.

How strange the way things come together. I’ve just recently been enjoying Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; and my favorite parts of that book are her in-depth, lengthy examinations of parts of nature. One of those subjects she gets good and lost in is newts. And here is Bill McKibben, opening “A Shirt Full of Bees” with an episode starring Terry Tempest Williams (When Women Were Birds; I also loved her Pieces of White Shell) and a newt. Williams crouched on her haunches for half an hour examining the newt, “lost in the world of the newt” in McKibben’s words, and he found himself bored, restless, ready to keep walking, to reach the summit – something we do constantly, of course. And then, on another day, he steps on a yellow jacket nest, and as he erupts in hives and dashes down-mountain for medical aid – “My dog was the best dog I’ve ever had, but I doubted she was up to surgery” – McKibben sees more clearly the beauty around him. That’s the larger point in this short essay: we are always pushing for the summit, and too busy to examine the newts on our path. As I observed in Oil and Honey (the only one of his books I’ve read; but my father is rather an expert), McKibben is a gifted writer. He pulls together two anecdotes – his walk in the the woods with Williams and the newt; his walk in the woods with his dog and the yellow jackets – in a lovely, poignant, meaningful, beautifully written and well-structured essay of three pages. This is the goods, right here.


“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth

Pops reminds us that Kingsnorth was the author of “Dark Ecology” that I discussed back in January. This latest is available here.

Kingsnorth opens charmingly with recollections from his youth, ages 12, 19, and 22, in natural settings. These are the experiences that taught him to love “the other-than-human world.” He became an “environmentalist,” that radical thing. And now he laments what “environmentalism” has been bastardized into: a quest for zero-carbon emissions, for alternative energy sources, for sustainability – all good things, doubtless, except that “sustainability,” he argues, is code for finding a different way to do the same things we do now. In other words, we need to release less carbon, so we need to find another energy source so that I can still have my lights and electricity and drive my car and buy my cheaply made clothing at the mall. He points out that we seek a way to sustain our lifestyle – not to sustain the earth, which is sort of what we claim to be seeking. And of course there is the central, painful irony, that “the farmers are being edged out by south-country refugees like me, trying to escape but bringing with us the things we flee from.” He even addresses the touchy subject of “industrial wind power stations (which are usually referred to, in a nice Orwellian touch, as wind ‘farms’)” which McKibben has also struggled with. Are “wind farms” environmentalist?? There is an argument.

Kingsnorth is clever in his criticisms: “these days I tend to consider the entire bird with a kind of frustrated detachment” (that is, the oft-cited bird that has a left wing and a right wing), with which I certainly sympathize; “the colonization of the greens by the reds” characterizes all those myriad left-wingers (“disillusioned socialists, Trots, Marxists, and a ragbag of fellow travelers who could no longer believe in communism or the Labour Party or even George Galloway…”) who’ve taken over his movement. But don’t let his wittiness distract you from the fact that he is right. Again ironically, the problem seems to lie in the success of the “green movement”: save-the-planet is now a perfectly respectable, mainstream concept that you can now find on 3 out of 4 cereal boxes, and that bringing of Kingsnorth’s environmentalism into centrist politics has weakened it, watered it down, naturally, as centrism does.

Like the earlier Kingsnorth piece I read, this one gives quite a dark view in examining “environmentalism.” But like that other pessimistic-or-realistic writer, Derrick Jensen, I see his points, and I’m rather more inclined to follow him than I am to follow McKibben’s optimism.


“A Tough Flower Girl” by Phillip Connors

I am not yet done following Phil Connors. This is not a new piece, but one I’ve had to reread now that I am an affirmed follower of Norman Maclean. Connors’ article is available here.

Another fine piece of writing: Connors explores what we find so moving, timeless, and important in Maclean, but he also creates a piece of art in its own right. This short article is an excellent introduction to Maclean, in his best-known A River Runs Through It (and the two accompanying stories), in Young Men and Fire (better-loved, I think, by both Connors and myself), and in The Norman Maclean Reader (imperative for those of us left wanting more by the first two). It is an incisive piece of literary criticism and appreciation; but it also includes a personal story, as Connors opens by pointing out his biographical similarities to the great Maclean. If it is indeed “uncool to admit an enthusiasm based in part on biography”, call me uncool. Not that I share biographical parallels with my literary idols (ha), but I certainly consider their biographies integral to my appreciation. Funnily, I have just finished searching for a good Maclean biography, and am disappointed by the lack. Somebody please write this book. Phil?

Read this article because it says true things about an amazing writer, but also because it is in itself a sparkling, crystalline beauty.


“Smoke” by Phillip Connors

A new piece from Connors, available here.

I am reminded of how much I love Connors’ voice, that he isn’t afraid to have one, first of all, and that he is both intellectual and casual in it. He acknowledges that “self-quotation is a dishonorable habit, but it sounds a little smug to say I saw it coming and leave it at that,” and so he self-quotes from Fire Season, that book I loved so much, in which he predicts that “the big one” is coming. “If you live on a peak in fire-prone country, as I do every summer in the Black Range of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, the big one will eventually come for you.” This very short piece is the story of that fire beginning, and beginning to be fought, and its victory: it burned over two hundred square miles, just this past summer of 2013. There is always a conflict in considering these events. Fire is nature, a natural part of a forest’s life cycle, healthy. But we the human influence have thrown that cycle off until the fires we finally earn and reap are less healthy for the world we’ve come to love, and that’s part of the tragedy that Connors has to share. He ends this piece, appropriately, on a conflicted, hopeful, tragic note. At least he has those memories.

I’m looking forward to the next book that he is reportedly working on now.

One Response

  1. I knew you would love this stuff when you got to it; so glad that you did – both!

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