Friday, January 13, 2006

Four Most Influential Books

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey
No single book has had more influence on me than Ed Abbey’s 1967 classic Desert Solitaire, about his +/- year spent as a ranger (of sorts) at Arches National Monument, with its glowing red cliffs and petrified dunes, just outside Moab, Utah. Even today, when I have the opportunity to read the sharp and philosophical narrative, it puts me in a mood to leave all behind, to head for the starkly beautiful vastness of the American southwest, to live like the desert hermit that Abbey invariably was. Desert Solitaire was prescribed reading—with Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf and D.L. Lawrence’s Secret Go the Wolves—for my honors biology class at Colorado State University, before the semester even began. What a way to start college!

A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold
Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is not unlike Desert Solitaire, though first published two decades earlier (1949), in that it’s as much an exploration of time in place as person in place. Leopold is known as the father of conservation, eloquent spokesman of the land ethic. Almanac, likewise assigned reading as a freshman—in my fundamentals of fish and wildlife biology class—spurred a change in my thinking just as it spurred a paradigm shift about ‘resource management’ on public lands, especially U.S. Forest Service lands. It is the book I give to ardent doubters who ask: What’s so important about conserving nature? It converts these questioners through elegant language and deep wisdom.

The Selected Poems: Expanded Edition, by A.R. Ammons
As a junior at Auburn University, I took a Contemporary American Poetry course, taught by Miriam Marty Clark, whose doctoral work focused on A.R. Ammons. It’s no surprise, then, that we focused on Ammons during the course, using his Selected Poems: Expanded Edition (1987). Until then, I was mostly familiar with the more-known though older American poets like Frost, Cummings, Bishop. In Ammons, though, I found a poetry full of tight language and imagery that spoke directly to my passion for nature, and nature as spiritual guide (as in “Hymn”). To this day there is no poetry collection I turn back to more than this one. And to this day I think there is no poet who more influences my own writing than Ammons, with perhaps the exception of…

American Primitive, by Mary Oliver
Even though I was a known ‘environmentalist’ and therefore sought out ‘nature poetry,’ I don’t recall reading any Mary Oliver in college. One afternoon post-graduation, however, I was browsing the warm poetry shelves at the Boulder Bookstore and came upon Mary Oliver’s American Primitive, published in 1984 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Immediately I was captured, and have been ever since. Oliver’s poetry speaks to me in ways that even Ammons’s cannot—in its accessibility and natural beauty, not to mention brilliance. If there is salvation in poetry (and who here among us doesn't believe there is?), then Oliver is our patron saint.

Up Next: Four Most Influential Authors Not Mentioned Above

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