As you might be aware, it’s the 100th anniversary of the U.S. national park system, and Wilmington writer David Gessner tackles the subject in the current online edition of The American Scholar, the Phi Beta Kappa magazine.
As might be expected from an environmental writer who once wrote a book titled “Sick of Nature,” Gessner takes as contrarian view.
In “The Taming of the Wild,” Gessner opens with irony: He’s posing for a shot of himself, contemplating Nature, on a mountain overlooking the Sonoma Valley — being photographed by a drone.
Nature isn’t as natural as it used to be, notes the professor of creative writing at UNCW. Just note all the traffic jams and crowded camps in national parks. He quotes (or parodies) a point of view of some contemporary “eco-modernists”:
“… (Parks are not modern nature; they are old school. Parks are not with it. Parks are where people drive in cars when they go on vacation. Parks are museums that preserve mere remnants of what Earth used to look like.”
He also notes the criticism of modern wildlife biologists:
“Wild animals need to roam. Without that roaming, the populations of these animals become isolated, and inbreeding follows. Although the United States has saved more than 100 million acres of land, this may not be enough. Conservation biologists will tell you that parks, even large parks, are islands and that islands are where species go to die.”
(Well, folks on New Zealand or the Galapagos might disagree with that, but like John Belushi in “Animal House,: Gessner’s on a roll. Here him out.)
In dissent, Gessner questions the notion that everything, even parks, has to have a “use,” in particular, a human-defined use, to justify its existence. He argues the value of uselessness — that sometimes we need to be alone, that we need a refuge from texting, screens and the Cloud. We need wildness, which can mean excitement, unpredictability and the possibility of change. And we can’t have change without land. (“Land, Katie Scarlett, ’tis the only thing that lasts …”)
He contemplates thinkers like Wendell Berry, who argue for a wider view of land use, in which nature and wilderness have their place. And he looks at arguments for such accommodations as underpasses and overpasses, to let wildlife migrate around interstates and rail lines to the next wild patch.
For all that, the argues, we still need national parks — “the best idea,” in the words of novelist Wallace Stegner, “that America ever had.”
To read Gessner’s essay in full, click here.
And speaking of Stegner: “All the Wild That Remains,” David Gessner’s parallel study of Stegner and his wayward pupil Edward Abbey, is now in paperback from W.W. Norton ($16.95).
David Gessner is an Americanessayist, memoirist, nature writer, editor, and cartoonist.
Gessner was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard College where he worked at the Harvard Crimson drawing political cartoons, most notably a drawing of Ronald Reagan urinating on an unemployed man in the gutter called "The Trickle Down Theory." He graduated in 1983.
Teaching and Editing
He returned to Harvard as a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Environmental Writing in Fall 2003. In 2004 he began teaching at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he is professor and currently the chair of the Creative Writing Department. He is the Editor in Chief of Ecotone the environmental journal he founded in 2004, which has published the work of writers as diverse as Wendell Berry, Denis Johnson, Gerald Stern, Sherman Alexie, and Marvin Bell. Recent work from the journal has been chosen for many anthologies, including the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories edited by Salman Rushdie, as well as Best American Poetry and Best American Essays.
Recent Books and Awards
Gessner is the author of ten books of nonfiction, including, most recently, Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession, and My Wild Youth; the New York Times bestseller All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West; The Tarball Chronicles; and My Green Manifesto. The Tarball Chronicles won the 2012 Reed Award for Best Book on the Southern Environment and the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment’s award for best book of creative writing in 2011 and 2012.
Magazine and Journal Writing
His essays have appeared in many magazines and journals including The New York Times Magazine,Outside,The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008,Onearth,The Georgia Review,The American Scholar,Orion,The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine,The Harvard Review, and the 2006 Pushcart Prize Anthology, for which the essay "Benediction" was selected. In April 2007, Gessner won the John Burroughs award for Best Natural History Essay of the year. In 2008, his essay, "The Dreamer Did Not Exist," appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, edited by Dave Eggers, and in September of that year his essay on teaching and writing, "Those Who Write, Teach," appeared in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.
Television, Online Work, and Blog
Gessner is the co-creator of Bill and Dave's Cocktail Hour, a website he blogs for along with the writer Bill Roorbach.
In January 2016 he served as the host of the National Geographic Explorer television show, Call of the Wild, which explored how screens are screwing with our brains and how nature can be restorative. In October 2013, he appeared on MSNBC’s The Cycle to offer his take on the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy.
His video, "Skiing the Beach," has now been watched by almost 18,000 YouTube viewers.
In 1997, Gessner published A Wild, Rank Place, a short memoir about spending a year on Cape Cod and tending to his father while he died of cancer. The book subverted the typical Thoreauvian year-in-the-woods theme with its dark themes and blunt language. This was followed by Under the Devil’s Thumb, a collection of essays about an Easterner’s years spent in the West, years made more vital and radiant by the author’s own recovery from testicular cancer.
Since 2001, Gessner has published seven more books that combine memoir with humor and observations of the natural world, beginning with Return of the Osprey, in 2001. The Boston Globe and Book of the Month Club both chose Osprey as one of the top ten nonfiction books of 2001, the Globe calling it a "classic of American Nature Writing." In 2003, Gessner published Sick of Nature.Sick of Nature has been much-anthologized and taught at MIT and Harvard University and many other colleges. Of Sick of Nature, renowned eco-critic Michael Branch wrote, "Gessner has positioned himself as a sort of Woody Allen of environmental writers" and "like Emerson, who observed that the dead forms of institutional practice must be revivified through radical acts of intellectual, aesthetic and moral imagination, Gessner rails against the narrowness of environmental literature to open the field to new (if less earnest) approaches."
This was followed by The Prophet of Dry Hill, which described a series of encounters with the great nature writer John Hay. In Soaring with Fidel, released in April 2007, Gessner continued to push the nature genre, following the entire 7,000 mile migration of ospreys from New England to Cuba and Venezuela.
A Wild, Rank Place: One Year on Cape Cod, (1997)
Under the Devil's Thumb, (1999)
Return of the Osprey: A Season of Flight and Wonder, (2002)
Sick of Nature, (2004)
The Prophet of Dry Hill: Lessons from a Life in Nature, (2005)
Soaring with Fidel: An Osprey Odyssey from Cape Cod to Cuba and Beyond, (2008)
My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism, (2011)
The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and Into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill, (2012)
All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West, (2016)
Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession, and My Wild Youth, (2017)