Non-fiction review: Nature Beyond Solitude
A few weeks ago I reviewed a book in the spirit of Thoreau, which ended up irritating me a great deal. This book felt like the antidote.
Title: Nature Beyond Solitude: Notes from the Field
Author: John Seibert Farnsworth
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, 2020. 8hrs 50 min. Original hardback Comstock Publishing, 2020. 216 pages.
John Seibert Farnsworth's delightful notes are not only about nature, but from nature as well.
In Nature Beyond Solitude, he lets us peer over his shoulder as he takes his notes. We follow him to a series of field stations where he teams up with scientists, citizen scientists, rangers, stewards, and grad students engaged in long-term ecological study, all the while scribbling down what he sees, hears, and feels in the moment. With humor and insight, Farnsworth explores how communal experiences of nature might ultimately provide greater depths of appreciation for the natural world.
In the course of his travels, Farnsworth visits the Hastings Natural History Reservation, the Santa Cruz Island Reserve, the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest, the North Cascades Institute's Environmental Learning Center, and more.
When looking for something to listen to, I tend to head to the library web site, decide on a genre (very often nature writing/natural history, or outdoor adventures), and scroll until the first book that catches my attention. A couple of weeks ago I reviewed a book where that didn't work out so well. That one left me with a bad taste in my mouth regarding nature writers who want to go to the woods and be something special.
Thus it was with some trepidation that I approached this book, but I was attracted by the science element, and curious what the title meant. The answer to that is in the whole book, but not made explicit until the afterword (which means I didn't really figure it all out until then). It is easy to be distracted along the way by the observations of nature and discussions of the research projects he hooks into.
What Farnsworth discovers is that, unlike what the great (male) nature writers from Thoreau to Abbey profess, not all love of and communion with nature springs from taking oneself off to an isolated cabin and living alone in mystical communion with nature. It might come all the more from some scientific study and, still more, from the human connections we bring to nature with us--or find there.
I got a little smile from Farnsworth's dig at the "solitary male in the woods" trope that is so much used (see my critique of The Way Home, as cited above) when he recognizes that he misses his wife while on his travels, and appreciates her visits (he does admit that they are also a distraction from his work, but at the same time, they allow him to see in a different way).
One other aspect of this that intrigued me as a writer, was the project he undertook to write his field notes in the field, as they are happening. The immediacy that created is valuable, though there were inevitable issues with the awkwardness of writing outdoors, and the conflict with his need to actually do the field work. I do wonder what the editing process looked like, aside from the extra step of transcribing handwritten notes to the computer. I appreciate the change from the more common approach of writing about nature from indoors, long after the fact--powerful emotion recollected in tranquillity, as Wordsworth had it.
This is an interesting read, and I'm likely to look for other books by the author, as his writing style sits well with me. He may at times get a little too precise about the projects for some tastes--these are field notes--but if you can put up with bird lists and digressions into the habits of woodpeckers, it's a rewarding book.
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