Thursday, May 01, 2008

Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie

Grassland is definitely not the work of a doting professor, but the keen wit of a hard-hitting journalist, which Richard Manning is. Reading Manning can still be difficult, though. Not because he writes poorly - the euphony is verse poetry at times. And not because he writes badly - the precision and economy of prose is exemplary. But because he is so smart it hurts, and so honest you want to crawl under a blanket and hide.
They say we should love that which is better than us, for we tend to become what we love, and by that logic I would want to edit this unwieldy tome. Grasslands feels as if it were written in pieces, which perhaps such a vast and encompassing interest as an entire biome must be. There is literally the feeling of your mind being tugged in many different directions;"broadening". Yet the entire work is cohesive, inevitable; massive yet solid. You feel it in your forehead. He wants to download everything, and it is delightful and excruciating to wonder at which droplets out of the entire firehose of creation, heaven and hell and the human psyche, he lets fall to the page, perfect and complete and confusing.
The work is relatively short - if he had taken more liberty with tangents, as Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams, the read could easily have topped 1000 pages. This is, afterall, the story of an entire ecotype, 1/6 of the world. Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass falls easily within its radius, but so too does history and interview, travelogue and diary, speculative science and definitive natural history.
When I saw Richard Manning speak last summer I listened breathless as his shaking rustled the crumpled notes he'd scribbled "some contrairian thoughts on". His son had just left to a second tour in Iraq, and I wish him all of the best in his travels, and the forests around his home were all on fire, and I wish these natural places the undisturbed recovery that only nature, in her wisdom, can provide. That was Manning's point then -- that perhaps we shouldn't believe in the perfectability of humans anymore, of the good inherent in our work. Perhaps our every action is a mistake, and the idea of a sustainable agriculture, and hence civilization, is an illusion.
Such are the troubling thoughts Manning, and I, end with.

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