#tobyreads: Lost Landscapes and Secret Societies


Last week’s column involved some talk of landscapes. At around that time, I’d been reading Walden for WORD’s Classics Book Group–in this case, the edition with annotations by Bill McKibben. This is, somewhat inexplicably, the first time I’ve read it; I am apparently a bad reader of the Transcendentalists. (Really need to work on that.) What struck me–among the things that struck me, really, as there were plenty–was how accessible it still felt. Some works written in the 19th century seem dated now; this, for the most part, does not. It resonated deeply, and it was fascinating to see its influence on works I’d both expected and others that I hadn’t seen coming. (I feel like there’s a pretty direct line between it and Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, for instance.)

When I’d finished, I was ravenous for more writing on nature, so I picked up the copy of John McPhee’s magnificently-titled Encounters With the Archdruid. That title actually makes sense as you delve into the book–one of the people profiled refers to environmentalists as “druids,” and at the center of the book is David Brower, former director of the Sierra Club; by that logic, a druid among druids. McPhee’s methods here are, basically, to place people whose passions for the outdoors are at cross-purposes with Brower in a space with Brower, and let a discussion emerge from there. It’s a fine way of explaining a debate: allowing rational people to debate, and allowing them to find surprising areas of affinity. (It’s also the kind of thing that I couldn’t imagine happening today: my mind kept translating bits of this into listicles: “Ten Unbelievable Things Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Floyd Dominy Says In New Interview,” etc.)

Environmental systems also play into Fledgling, the last novel written by Octavia E. Butler. It opens with its narrator, Shori, awakening after something disastrous has happened: she has lost her memory and has been badly injured. She’s also hungry: Butler is here doing a science fictional riff on vampirism, though it’s one that goes deeper than most. She has thought through the implications of what a species existing in symbiosis with humanity would involve, from familial dynamics to societal structures. Fledgling incorporates everything from visceral scenes of Shoni seeking to survive to a kind of courtroom drama. Some of the character dynamics here seem to have been designed with a longer work in mind; there’s also a level of discomfort that comes with the disconnect between Shoni’s age (53) and her appearance (much younger). It’s unsettling, though I expect that it’s meant to be: for all of the nods to vampire-novel tropes, this is fundamentally a work of science fiction, and the society it explores is both familiar and alien. 

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