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  September/October 1998 Features:
Two-Wheeled Revolution
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The Hidden Life of Bananas
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Last Words

Sierra Magazine
Last Words

Who is your favorite nature writer?

If you read to remember connections with the wild world, which none of us should lose, then Richard Nelson's writings from the Far North are an essential touchstone. Whether he is following Athabascan wildcrafters in Make Prayers to the Raven or deer hunters and animal-rights activists in Heart and Blood, Nelson reminds us all what it is to be alive and truly engaged with other wild animals.

His reflections about how we must return the taking and preparation of food—animal or plant—to the status of sacrament are among the most profound passages written by any modern nature writer. And yet, his capacity for humor, adventure, and rapture never allows his stories to succumb to the preachiness found in many environmental treatises today. This is the real stuff, from a guy who is as precise as any scientist and as woods-wise as the hunting dog alongside him.

Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Cultures of Habitat

In his classic book The Abstract Wild, Wyoming writer Jack Turner explains how we lost the wild "bit by bit for ten thousand years and forgave each loss and then forgot. Now," he says, "we face the final loss." Before reading Turner I could never have accepted the notion that no other crisis in human history can match the loss of wildness, including, he adds with shocking certitude, our holocausts. My sadness over dwindling wildness had been strangely muted until I realized, with a hand from Turner, that denial of essential nature led inexorably to human-to-human atrocities.

Mark Dowie, author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century

Rachel Carson. After some 40 years The Edge of the Sea is still my lodestar. Memorably, I read that clear, calm work when I was expecting my third daughter, book propped up on my ample abdomen (but it's her older sister who became the nature writer!). Then an inland midwesterner recently transplanted to the Florida coast, I was eager to know more about an ocean that both fascinated and frightened me. Carson's words were enchanting enticements into a natural world of which this city girl knew so little.

Not only that, but the book was exquisitely illustrated with pencil drawings—I remember thinking at the time how wonderful it must be to be part of such a creation. I read every other book Carson wrote, admiring her trained scientific observation expressed in an elegant and eloquent vocabulary. Her erudite charm remains to this day my idea of what nature writing should be. By a quirk of fate, I later worked with Carson's agent, friend, and literary executor, Marie Rodell, who truly changed my life by offering me a chance to write. But it all began with The Edge of the Sea, that purely beautiful book so pregnant with meaning and life.

Ann Zwinger, author of Run, River, Run and most recently The Nearsighted Naturalist

When looking for inspiration, I often read Bill McKibben. He's arguably not a nature writer at all. In his most famous book he wrote, "I believe that we are at the end of nature." Nature as eternal, as separate, as quintessentially nonhuman, as—in Sierra Club terms—wild, went out with whale oil. With the advent of fossil fuels, we began sowing the grand climate changes that are now yielding their ugly harvest of disasters. And with the petrochemical industry that followed, we began lacing the global food chain with synthetic compounds.

Today, you and I and everybody else in the world both human and nonhuman carry a "body load" of dozens of substances concocted in chemistry labs. Now, our heavyweight species (we've generated more mass of living tissue than any other species ever) is haphazardly censoring the genetic library, dispatching life forms to oblivion at a pace exceeding one per hour. Heck, we've even moved Earth, shifting the axis of rotation about two feet by impounding rivers and otherwise rearranging the mass of the globe. McKibben helps me revise my mental map to keep up with the radically new world we inhabit, a world in human hands.

Alan Thein Durning, executive director, Northwest Environment Watch, and author of This Place on Earth

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