By Adam Regn Arvidson
Rational thought. Calm, reasonable, gentle persuasion. It was this quality of moderation in his writing that most impressed me, for my own inclinations tended toward the opposite, the impatient, the radical, the violent.
That’s how Edward Abbey described Joseph Wood Krutch in an essay that appeared initially in the journal Sage and then featured in Abbey’s 1988 collection One Life at a Time, Please. The piece, called simply “Mr. Krutch” (that’s “krootch” if you’re reading aloud), recounts Abbey’s 1967 interview of Krutch—the last formal interview the latter granted before his death in 1970. The circumstances and content of the interview say much about both men: it took place in the desert burg of Tucson, it resulted from Krutch’s acceptance of Abbey’s simple cold call (Abbey admits to having simply looked up the well-known Krutch in the phone book), and it features a palpable tension as then-debutant Abbey tries to direct the conversation but is instead led along by Krutch. It’s an excellent read.
Abbey, of course (as described in an earlier installment of this series), is known for his passionate defense of and writing about the desert. Krutch, perhaps exactly because of that more “reasonable” voice, is far less well known—he is probably the least recognized name among those profiled here—but he also comes to mind mostly because of his desert writings. That late 60’s interview brought together two men with similar loves at the very moment the environmental movement was in the midst of legislatively changing the world. It is a pivot point on the environmental timeline.
Moving forward, Abbey would publish Desert Solitaire less than a year later in 1968. Within two years, Edward Hoagland and Wendell Berry would be on the scene, the Clean Air and Environmental Policy Acts would become law, the elder desert sage would publish his life compendium, The Best Nature Writing of Joseph Wood Krutch, and Krutch would die, just two months after the first Earth Day. Moving backward, Krutch published books contemporaneously with Loren Eiseley (whom Krutch admires specifically in the Abbey interview), Rachel Carson, and Peter Mathiessen. Krutch was born in 1893 (the only major mid-century writer to see the turn of the last century), and in fact his writing should have been contemporary to Aldo Leopold (born in 1887), except that Krutch came to nature writing quite late.
Krutch began his writing career as a theater critic and professor at Columbia University. He wrote biographies of Edgar Allen Poe (1926), Samuel Johnson (1944), and–who else–Thoreau (1948), as well as a book-length thesis critical of science and technology (The Modern Temper, 1929). The Thoreau book, initially just another biography project, made Krutch take a closer look at environmental topics. This is from his 1962 autobiography More Lives Than One:
One winter night shortly after I had finished Thoreau I was reading a “nature essay” which pleased me greatly and it suddenly occurred to me for the first time to wonder if I could do something of the sort. I cast about for a subject and decided upon the most conventional of all, namely Spring.
That first essay, “The Day of the Peepers,” led quickly to Krutch’s first nature-focused book, The Twelve Seasons (1949). He was 56 (by contrast Abbey published Desert Solitaire at 41 and had by then already written three novels). Krutch’s most famed volume The Desert Year came out in 1951 (the same year as Rachel Carson’s best-seller The Sea Around Us). The Voice of the Desert expanded on the earlier book in 1954, and travelogues on the Grand Canyon and the Baja Peninsula followed in 1957 and 1961, respectively. Other books, more philosophical in nature, alternated with these environmental tomes, making this an extremely prolific time for Krutch: including the Thoreau biography and his autobiography, 11 books in 14 years. It was almost as if he was making up for lost time.
Abbey describes Krutch’s style exactly right. The quote above from More Lives Than One is a perfect example of the lilting, matter-of-fact, discover-as-you-go tone of Krutch’s nature writing. (How ironic it is, by the way, that Krutch’s autobiography is called More Lives Than One and Abbey’s last essay collection is called One Life At a Time, Please.) Though I think Krutch’s language matures a bit through his career, that by-golly sense of wonder is always present—tempered, though, by hints of the intelligentsia of which Krutch can easily be considered a member.
Some examples: first from “Don’t Expect Too Much from a Frog” (1953):
The whole philosophy of frogs, all the wisdom they have accumulated in millions of years of experience, is expressed in that urrr-unk uttered with an air which seems to suggest that the speaker feels it to be completely adequate. The comment does not seem very passionate or very aspiring, but it is contented and not cynical. Frogs have considered life and found it, if not exactly ecstatic, at least quite pleasant and satisfactory.
“Urrr-unk” and “feels it to be completely adequate” are delightfully opposing semantic poles.
And from “Journey in Time,” part of the 1958 Grand Canyon book:
As soon as nature has made a mountain, she seems to regret it and she begins to tear it down. Then, once she has torn it down, she makes another—perhaps, as here, precisely where the former mountain had once towered. Speed the action up as in those movies of an opening flower, and the landscape of the earth would seem as insubstantial and as phantasmagorical as the cloudscape of a thundery afternoon.
The first sentence here is decidedly low-brow, but then comes “phantasmagorical” and “cloudscape.” Even Krutch’s essay and book chapter titles are a little aw-shucks. The first four chapters of The Desert Year are “Why I Came,” “What It Looks Like, “How to See It,” and “How Some Others Live Here.”
To use a thrice removed quote, Mark Tredinnick, in his unique exploration of writers’ home landscapes, The Land’s Wild Music (Trinity University Press, 2005), pulls this Krutch gem from Frank Stewart’s A Natural History of Nature Writing (Island, 1995): “[Nature writing is] experience with the natural world, as opposed, for example, to science writing, which is knowledge about the natural world.” Krutch happily admits to being a novice. In the essay called “On Being an Amateur Naturalist” he says, tongue-in-cheek, “I think I know more about plant life than any other drama critic, and more about the theater than any botanist.” That humility is a refreshing departure, and one that lets the reader feel ignorant without shame. A recurring story in The Desert Year sees Krutch trying to discover why bats always spiral a certain direction when exiting a cave. He writes to scientists and even imagines himself gaining some recognition in scientific circles for raising this apparently never-before-asked question. He wonders if they go the other way in Australia. He envisions some non-verbal compact among the bats, to eliminate traffic accidents.
For to Krutch, the bats are sentient and are possessed of personalities. So are the spiders and the birds and even the saguaro cactus. This belief sets Krutch apart from the other writers of his time, hearkening back to a more romantic notion of nature found often in the writings of John James Audubon and, at times, John Muir. Tredinnick in The Land’s Wild Music goes so far as to put Krutch in a box with Leopold, Henry Beston, and Carson, while the opposite box has Abbey, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, and “all the other Thoreaus of the baby boom” (ugh! a group Thoreau reference–see my rant about Hoagland, here). This belief also set him against the prevailing science of his day, which relied on dissection to study living things and considered all plants and animals mere machines governed by instinct and natural selection. Krutch’s writing believes in the real lives being lived in the natural world: the joy, the sorrow, the patience, the humor.
For instance, in The Desert Year, he watches courting lizards:
When I first noticed this pair the male had just made a direct, crude approach toward the female and she, quite properly resenting this matter-of-factness, scurried away as from an enemy about to devour her. The male stopped disappointed; shrugged his lizard shoulders; started off in the opposite direction; and was then obviously surprised to discover he was being followed at a discreet distance….
Besides the advances and retreats which are the essential features of all courtships, this one consisted principally of poetical speeches or amorous arias, though I could not be sure which since the sounds were completely inaudible to me, at least through the window…. [The] lady would listen intently, move a little closer, and then edge away again when her suitor approached to ask what effect his eloquence had produced.
Ahh, the rigors of flirtation, and life, for all creatures, not just we humans.
The other day I hiked with my youngest son Mason for the first time in a state park. He is six months old and was strapped to my chest, contentedly looking up at the silver maples. A small woodpecker exploring along the trunks caught my eye. Soon the bird flew to different branch where another woodpecker was already tapping. As the first bird arrived, the resident woodpecker pecked aggressively in his direction, spread his own wings wide, and called out a series of shrill staccato tones. The interloper followed suit and the two danced on the branch, arms outstretched, beaks threatening.
I imagined what they might be saying to each other—or, rather, what Joseph Wood Krutch might imagine them saying to each other. I am sure he would have exactly the right dialog.
Proceed to the next essay, on Wendell Berry; or return to the Table of Contents.
—Adam Regn Arvidson