Monday, August 10, 2009

The wind that talks in trees speaks pine in my ear.

It's lines like that one, along with the lines of his excellent detailed artwork, which make me love the books of David M. Carroll so much. His latest, Following the Water: A Hydromancer's Notebook, shows and tells his annual observations from the first breaks in the ice through its reforming in a New Hampshire wetland.

The evocative opening page describes his winter pathways in his old house, amidst overflowing bookcases and paintings and art supplies. The words which follow, whether in the forty page title essay in which he describes his route through the wetland, a route you can follow on his detailed map inside the covers, or in a chapter consisting of a single paragraph, are like paintings themselves. You'll want to savor them with the same method he uses in his walks/wades: very slowly, with frequent stops.

Turtles are his first love, and there are many of them here: Spotted, Wood, Blanding's, Snapping, Painted. The early chapters are filled with more suspense than you might expect in such a book as he finds the first turtles of the year. He beautifully mixes his own emotions regarding individual animals he's observed for years with reflections on the never-ending processes of evolution and species interactions. His pain, anger, and despair result not from what occurs in nature but from the modern gods of "development" and "progress".

But it's not only turtles he observes and records. Many fish, insects, birds, frogs, snakes, and plants are also found in these pages. An encounter with a gray fox comes in a fine chapter in which he's exploring a suburban wetland on behalf of a group trying to stop further development, trying to remain out of sight from nearby houses and roads, the roads named after what used to be there--Trillium Way, Ferncrest Drive, Birch Lane. After describing his reluctance to do this because of past frustrations after doing this sort of fact-finding comes this wonderfully understated line: "There is also the fact that paid turtle work is uncommon and sometimes hard to turn down." He's not at all surprised when the police show up to watch him--having spent a lot of time downtown looking for falcons with binoculars and in various other fascinations over the years, I could relate.

The final chapter raises the question of preservation vs. conservation in a very personal way for the author. Should some areas be left completely wild, not "saved" as parkland for people's recreation? Is there any room left on the planet for nature to be nature without human presence? To misquote a famous doctor, "Who speaks for the turtles?"

The merging of an artist's close observation of the natural world with a love for and need of that world, the emotions its destruction stirs in him, and his talent at putting all of that into words is a combination I can't resist. The man is my favorite living nature writer; it's not for nothing that he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" a few years ago. I hope you'll check out all his excellent work.

You can read an excerpt from the book here, and there are also links to a video/interview you should definitely watch and an older article the magazine published about him. If you'd like a t-shirt with his artwork, you have a choice of turtles or a dragonfly here.


Northland said...

Thanks for a great review of Carroll and his books. "Following the Water" is now on my wish list.
I was guiding a group from Holland, MI Pictured Rocks this past few days. It was a trip of supporters of DeGraaf Nature Center.

The director of the center told of a freeway that cut through a wetland down there. After traffic carried out a mass slaughter of turtles each year, the public mounted a campaign to put in a turtle exclusion fence. The fence was denounced by the area's Republican State Representative as a foolish use of public funds. His reasoning was that the turtles didn't damage motorist's cars, and highway funds were for highways, not turtles.He was overridden by the grassroots forces that wanted the fence - a small glimmer of light within the overriding push to develop...

Anonymous said...

It's a wonderfully written review. Thank you for posting it. I'll grab the book with my next paycheck. Thanks for the links, too, a new tshirt is in my future.

greentangle said...

Glad you both liked the post and I'm fairly sure you'll enjoy his books as well. I might be getting 1 or 2 of those t-shirts myself--my Thoreau collection of shirts is wearing out and I don't think the Walden shop still sells all of them.

Good for the people of Holland, Northland. I remember when Republicans didn't hate the natural world any more than Democrats--now it's one of a million one side or the other issues.

Pictured Rocks is the one big UP site I never visited. We went through Munising all the time, and may have done a bit of the land trail but every time we were passing through and thought of doing a boat trip, it was always pouring or something.

Allan Stellar said...

I'm willing to bet that your review of the book is better than the book itself...

greentangle said...

Oh no, that's not even remotely close to being true! But if you have an in at the MacArthur Foundation, I could really use one of those genius grants about now. Get one for yourself while you're at it. ;-)

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Greentangle,
This is a great place to update my reading list!

Northland said...

I have started "Trout Reflections" by David Carroll and find it to be an excellent read in the Thoreau tradition of "surveying snowstorms" and phenomena in nature and writing the observations and thoughts up in a narrative much like a journal. Carroll writes

I take to these untouched brooks to keep appointments with the seasons, and sometimes to fish. There is something that draws me here, something in the watching and wading, the "being here" that links me to another kind of native, that race of my own species, the Native Americans, who lived here for thousands of years without taking a single thread of running water from the enormous tapestry of the wild landscape.

After reading Carroll's lyrical prose like that above, I knew that I had in my hands a book to treasure for its beauty and truth. And Carroll's line drawings and paintings are superb.

greentangle said...

I'm glad you agree with me about how good he is. That's the one book of his I don't own and haven't read; used to have a copy and skimmed it but sold it.

In getting rid of most of my books, it's become clear how much I'm drawn to nature writers from my New England roots--Thoreau of course, Carroll, John Hay and Robert Finch from Cape Cod. Must be something in the water, or the genes.