Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land by Robert Michael Pyle

wintergreenAs I mentioned last week, I read Wintergreen in preparation for a class I am taking this very weekend from the author, Robert Michael Pyle. It was an intriguing read, and I’m looking forward to learning from the man himself.

The copy I read, borrowed from Pops, is a Pharos Edition, meaning that “one of today’s most exciting authors” hand-picked and introduced it in a reprint. Wintergreen was originally published in 1986 by Scribner; this 2015 edition is being called a 30-year anniversary, and David Guterson (The Other, Snow Falling on Cedars) brought it to Pharos.

In a word, Wintergreen is a book in defense of the ravaged land of the subtitle. That land is the Willapa Hills of southwest Washington (near where the Oregon line meets the coast), where Pyle settled after growing up in Colorado and studying in Seattle and at Yale, and some other stops along the way including Great Britain. This land is ravaged, of course, by logging; but Pyle argues that it is still beautiful, still deeply rich in natural wonders, and worth saving. Pyle is a biologist and a writer, and his style is both reverent and carefully descriptive and detailed. His tone can be occasionally irreverent and jokey; he is conversational, humble, and disarming, absolutely likable. I intend to like him, when I meet him.

In his own words,

This is the plan of the book: to describe the Willapa Hills and the wildlife they support, both native and alien; to examine the impact of intensive forestry upon the land and its life; and finally, to assay the ability of organisms (including ourselves) to survive in the aftermath of massive resource extraction. Throughout, questions of biogeography, ecology, and evolution in the wet, wintergreen world find their way into the text.

And four sections of four essays each do this work, as promised. It is kept from being overly square, in that structure, by Guterson’s intro, a Prologue, and an updated Afterword written for this 2015 edition.

I felt a great affinity for the sense of place that is so central to this work, especially because the place Pyle loves is an underdog, a humble and much-derided place. He writes,

In attending to these neglected hills I try to appreciate them for what they still are, without holding against them what they once were.

He takes his reader leisurely through what this place once was – the hugest of the huge old-growth Douglas firs et al, the ones whose stumps were repurposed as roomy homes for families – and what it is now – second-, third- and fourth-growth, and stump fields that however hold their own beauty, and remarkably biodiversity. He writes beautifully. There is undeniable poetry in the line,

The backs of old barns break and ancient boats and Studebakers deliquesce into the fundament.

Or, when introduced (and little-loved) nutria are quirkily described:

Wombatlike but generally black, they add a definite presence to an already-altered ecosystem, and they are somewhat more interesting than cows.

His audience is understood to be somewhat sympathetic to his feelings and beliefs: that the natural world deserves our protecting even while that is a rather arrogant concept; that old growth forests are special; that green is good. He takes some background knowledge for granted (first approaching the question, “what is old growth?” on page 198), but this is not much of a risk. He is right about the background his readers come to him with.

As he acknowledges in the newly-added Afterword, some of the specific details of politics, policy, and specific local conditions in the 1986 edition are a little dated now. But none are incorrect; and he brings us up to date in this Afterword. The questions I noted during my reading were well answered. Any period-specific feeling to the whole is enriching, if slightly distracting: it makes this text feel grounded in time as well as literal ground.

The pace of these 369 pages is not rushed, but indeed rambling. Patient readers, however, who love a certain level of detail and a good, rain-soaked, mature story, will be well rewarded.

Rating: 8 individually loved stumps.

5 Responses

  1. My reading of this classic has been a long time coming, in so many ways. I am charmed by Pyle’s personal dedication & slug-sketch in my copy (written for you, the courtesy of my name notwithstanding.) Once begun, it took me weeks; from the opening pages, I did not want it to end. I savored it, one ramble at a time. It may take me equally long to process; and then, I may simply begin again.

    A few things I will mention now, in addition to your fine summary in the face of the impossibility of that task; one obviously does not summarize Bob Pyle.

    Alliteration!! If there is one form Pyle obviously loves, it is that. Sprinkled throughout; often in fun, sometimes strained to the point of self-parody, but I grew to love & anticipate each; sometimes they came in a deluge. A few favorites: “the waterproof wildlife of the wet world of Willapa.” Or, re: threats to the micro-inhabitants of stumps, which “devastate the denizens of downwood.” Or, describing a rich forest understory with “bunches of bracken bound with bramble twine.”

    This book, first and foremost, is a celebration of place that ranks with the very best (as Guterson basically says in his introduction.) I fell in love with the place he describes, which as you say is anchored in 1986 and no longer exists in a literal sense. Achingly, I want to be there and experience it as he does, with him; that is masterful work in writing.

    But further, I am smitten with its author, taken with the mystery (for me) of one person with all those voices: expert naturalist, irreverent playmate, conversational friend, humble philosopher and absolutely likable.

    Going to the heart of Wintergreen’s theme, loving a ravaged land: how does one describe Pyle’s nimble wandering between extremes of rage & anger at the ravages, and wide & deep appreciation for this place? Thoughtful, wise, discerning, sober, circumspect, prudent, generous; I struggle to put it to words.

    Presuming a friendly audience (as you suggest), he offers the willing reader an intimate and personal tour. At every stop along this journey, we are challenged to observe carefully (like a good naturalist); to see the complexity and share his generosity in considering the good with the bad.

    Chapter 15 of 16, the briefest of them all, is distinctive: “And the Coyotes Will Lift a Leg.” Where many “nature writers” fear to tread, he steps lightly but confidently. In direct, sober & precise language his focus on Willapa widens. “We are but a drip of spittle on the whisker of a beast in a constellation we can’t even see.” The view is bleak: it is “late in the day for us to clean up our act, and I am assuming we will not.” (this in 1986! – and not “corrected” in 2015)

    Yet, again he offers keen observation as a salve: his self-professed “cosmic optimism… nature in the broadest sense will carry on… Natives like the salal and the coyote thrive in the logged-off land… These organisms evolved under stress; they know adversity and eat it up… Last night the coyotes called by the covered bridge… ‘We are here to stay.’ That’s what they say.”

    He ends with an aphorism he created, fully expecting to be set straight “in the second edition” by the true author (this, the 3rd, stands uncorrected.) Crediting inspiration from Barry Lopez recounting native coyote stories, he pens: “When the last man takes to his grave, there will be a coyote on hand to life his leg over the marker.” Readers who savor the sunshine in this chapter, along with the others, likely have absorbed Pyle’s Wintergreen magic.

    Postscript: I heard Pyle commiserate and read poetry at our local indie bookstore 10 days after the Nov, 2016 election. This again, was a test of his flexibility & resilience, his cosmic optimism in the face of ravages. Visibly conflicted and emotional, his Wintergreen charm was still on display. He described his “radical joy in the natural world, even while it crumbles.” He read from scraps of paper, days-old poems inspired by recent events. He carries on, thoughtfully.

    • Yes. Still a good one. I have his The Thunder Tree waiting on my shelf. Also, his Walking the High Ridge was published by Milkweed Editions, which is a further connection as I’ve now loved several of those (Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, review to come, blurbed by Phillip Connors; Things That Are; The Pine Island Paradox, another review to come). Making these kinds of connections is pretty rewarding.

  2. One more thought: I sense a gap in his “wide, high & deep” observation of this place: where are the native peoples? He is distinctive in blending people’s stories with the wider world. Mentioned only in a few contexts, we know there are indigenous stories there. Over all these years, I would expect him to absorb more of that (or even the lack thereof, if that’s the case.) Or am I projecting the exceptional role of Salish people in my corner?

    Any insight into this from your contact?

    • I’m not sure I have insight from my contact; my memory is inexact at this distance. I don’t disagree. Maybe he has a blind spot, or simply doesn’t cover everything. I’m sure there are other angles he’s missed, and whose absence you’ve missed in turn, because they aren’t special to you as this one is. No book can have everything in it. Which is not to excuse him, but maybe to partly explain?

  3. […] decades of writing and naturalist study, Robert Michael Pyle (Wintergreen; Where Bigfoot Walks) thoughtfully collects essays on a theme in Nature Matrix: New and Selected […]

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