Darwin discovered that evolution proceeds with neither direction nor purpose. The natural world is largely indifferent to plan or plot. Yet we, story-seeking creatures that we are, see the world around us as more completed, more accomplished, than what came before. Tom Comitta’s The Nature Book explores these tensions by stitching together hundreds of fragments in the history of literary writing about the natural world—this excerpt alone is a collage of ninety-seven novels ranging from Hawthorne to Arundhati Roy. Though the text of The Nature Book is a polyphonic effort of writers, humans are absent from the actual story. In this seamless anthology, we forget that the experience of reading about nature is mediated by human voices and, when suspended in the text, succumb to the magical illusion that we are perceiving the world in itself.
The caribou watched the landscape whiten and shape itself under the sculpture of the moon. It was a spectacle of incomparable beauty, the slopes bathed in lustre, the silver-edged darkness of the woods, the spectral purple of the hills against the sky, and it seemed as though all the beauty of the night had been poured out on the snow-dusted peaks.
A cathedral hush overlay all the land, and a sense of benediction brooded low—a divine kindliness manifesting itself in peace, in absolute repose. It was a time for visions. Peak beyond peak of rock and snow, bluish, transcendent in heaven. The moon rising higher, brighter, shining down over the gigantic outline of the mountain range. Clouds drifting for miles. There was a little sign of wind from the north. And down in the center of the ravine, the faintest wind from the westward. It was almost motionless, for all nature reposed under the eye of the quiet moon.
But on that particular winter’s night this emphasized silence was gradually disturbed by a sound not easily to be verbally rendered. A wail? A cry? Its tone rising over the lower tone of the wind. Caribou could be expected to have the power of smelling and fled into the darkness before this event. A baby rabbit, terror ridden, squirmed through a hole. Everywhere the vastness and terror seemed to spread over the hillside and the valley; birds flew after the caribou. Now, in rapid succession, a moose, a pair of red foxes, red deer, roe deer, and elk continued after the birds. But why would they—anybody—stampede?
What actually happened was this: The moon had risen. Its great shield of gold stood over the east, and by its light a wild howling began, which seemed to come from all over the country, as far as the imagination could grasp it. The howling had a cold and beggarly sound, sometimes intolerably like an outraged voice. The wolves were coming together.
The first howls were taken up and echoed through the forest. Their call started low, a singular uneasy moan that threaded through the trees and gathered, as one by one the pack joined in, their voices wild and raw, rising into a full-throated howl. In a few minutes, however, low, shaggy clouds scudded over that part of the horizon where the moon had just risen. The howling of the wolves ceased altogether.
The moon had disappeared, leaving just enough of its faint and fluctuating light to render objects visible, dimly revealing their forms and proportions. So powerful was its radiance that the clouds soaked up the light like a stain: some clouds to the west; a swift cloud moving from left to right; vast clouds overhead, writhing, curling, then uniting in one giant river. It was a murky confusion—here and there blotted with a colour like the colour of the smoke from damp fuel—of flying clouds, tossed up into most remarkable heaps, suggesting greater heights in the clouds than there were depths below them to the bottom of the deepest hollows in the earth.
Now the moon-light shewed a bit brighter through the thickness of the gloom, faintly, as though the gale were a private misfortune of her own, as if, in a dread disturbance of the laws of nature, she had lost her way and were frightened. It became only a matter of time until the overcast had thinned and split and was beginning to curl up and pull apart into dark clots; the full white circle of the moon came out now and then between them. It seemed to rise out of a clear window in the sky, looking down from far above like a captive. Then the clouds cut off the moon again, and the moon feinted this way and that, trying for a shot past the clouds. The clouds swept across it swifter than the flight of the vulture. When the moonlight went, there was nothing to be seen. Suddenly the moon came out and shone like a flashlight right into the frozen forest. A beam of light threaded down through the trees and found a shrew ripping to pieces a frog twice its size, spotlighting them as though they were the main attraction of the evening. The spotlight punched out of the night sky was alien and unnerving. It was not the same.
As far as the eye could see, this light excited and upset. Moon was sending its faint light to cast strange, grotesque shadows among the forest, and by its light, an old wolf, gaunt and battle-scarred, came forward into a clearing.
The old wolf sat down, pointed nose at the moon, and broke out the long wolf howl. The others sat down and howled, a ring of wolves, with white teeth and lolling red tongues, with long, sinewy limbs and shaggy hair. They began to howl as though the moonlight had had some peculiar effect on them.
Viewed in this light the wolves became real, not an amusing reference in a casual conversation. There were seven of them. The presence of their knowing was electric in the air. They bunched and nuzzled and licked one another. Then they stopped. They stood with their ears cocked. Some with one forefoot raised to their chest. There were more wolves a-coming. Here and there dots moving singly and in twos and threes and larger numbers.
Just then a heavy cloud passed across the face of the moon, and the wolves disappeared. Nothing below the horizon was visible, but the living ring of terror encompassed the sides of the clearing and gave animation to the scene; a bright afterimage remained in the gloom. The world was then only that old sound of the wind, and the bitter cold.
When the moon came back as white as cocaine, the wolves were howling and moving north. They loped paler yet and grouped and skittered and lifted their lean snouts on the air, loping and twisting. Dancing. Tunneling their noses. Loping and running and rising by twos in a standing dance and running on again.
The wolves ran like streaks of shadow; they looked no bigger than dogs, but there were hundreds of them. The dry powder blew about them in the cold moonlight and their breath smoked palely in the cold, as if they burned with some inner fire, and the wolves twisted and turned and leapt in a silence such that they seemed of another world entire. They moved down the valley and turned and moved far out on the plain until they were the smallest of figures in that dim whiteness, and then they disappeared.
As the night advanced, the memory of those wolves faded into a sweeping darkness of clouds. The membranes of foggy mist went over the moon and remained near an hour, blocking out nearly all the light. Then a new danger came on in stealthy and measured glides, like the moves of a chess-player.
Slowly at first, from far off over the mountains, the clouds were stacking up—new forms much different from their predecessors. Low clouds and ghosts of an upper-world made strange shadows on the ground, and a monstrous cloud forty thousand feet high blew over. It was not snowing, though the sky was heavy with it, an even pewter weighing on the airy white hills that rolled up to meet it, so that the world seemed reversed here: dark water above circling clouds.
Once the sky had clouded over, the temperature had dropped a degree or two. Wind gusted, stirring the snow-laden branches of the pine trees. It was freezing. Along the mountain’s-side, wind whipped the snow that had settled in its rocky creases. Then the wind began running a long hand down a slope to where the land divided, and there the wind seemed to hit hardest, blowing the snow up off the ground in fiercer and more bitter sweeps.
It was some five minutes later when the wind changed once more, magnifying as it rose, till it whistled tidings of death and annihilation. It was about nine degrees, but the wind brought it down well below zero—so cold the air cracked like ice. Another five minutes, and the snow began to fall again, cutting off the peaks of mountains. Soon when the wind blew, big white flakes were whirling over everything. The scene was enveloped in snow. Yes, a wild northwester was blowing, one of those storms that had followed the birds from the polar basin as a white pillar of a cloud, and individual flakes could not be seen. The blast smelt of icebergs, arctic seas, whales, and white bears. It was the breath of ice, almost unbreathable. The clumps of trees in the snow seemed to draw together in ruffled lumps, like birds with their heads under their wings.
The sky was invisible now. The snow was now falling more heavily, and swirled about fiercely, for the arctic wind was beginning to blow a capricious gale—now from the west, now backing around to the north, sending clouds of powdery snow madly in all directions. The air, afflicted to pallor with the hoary multitudes that infested it, twisted and spun them eccentrically, suggesting an achromatic chaos of things.
Visibility was poor. Everything was muffled, blurred, indistinct, out of sight. Gone! But there were times when there were pauses between the snow flurries and it was possible to see a great distance. Through the churning white of the blizzard, through flying spray, the presence of a shape approaching the indestructible wind might well appear but as a few atoms. Something which had seemed like a bird might actually be dead—a rock or something. At one moment, an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life appeared. It was hard to see at first, but there it was, about two hundred feet from the upslope of the hill, looking as ghostly as the white waste of snow: a dead horse; that is to say, a poor horse which the wolves had killed, and at least a dozen of them at work, not eating him, but picking his bones rather, for they had eaten up all the flesh before.
After looking intently, a snow fall made sight impossible. The wind rose in a gust, driving snow against huge and ill-defined shapes. The darkness was shot with swirling whiteness. A coughing, whooping sound and bending, tortured shadows resolved themselves into fir trees being pushed by a screaming gale. Snow swirled and danced. Snow everywhere.
The crazily dancing snowflakes represented the whole of life, a dance of death spun on the edge of nothing. In the delirium of the dance, the wind whooped louder, came now in fierce bursts, and the snow was driven with fury as it swept in circling eddies. Would now the wind but had a body, it would have gone romping on top of that stupid hill, destroying everything one way or the other. Wobble, boom, the end. The empty end. Nothing seemed certain. Angles, colors, the riot of snowflakes, the din of the hollow sounding wind grew stronger and harsher. The twisted evergreens hissed. The deciduous trees were groaning and creaking, their dead white branches angling to the threatening clouds. The whooping and impersonal voice of the wind, so huge and hollowly sincere, came now with fiercer and more bitter sweeps, and more steadily from the north, and it was still coming down like a madman. Some of the drifts were over five feet deep. The wind was constantly changing them, sculpting them into sinuous, dunelike shapes as nightmarish as a moving gargoyle in the distance.
And soon the snow had begun to spit down from the sky like lead. In the hills, the snow was falling faster and more furiously on a dim world without feature. The animals were failing. Gray squirrels streaked down mottled trunks where shelter had once been. The caribou themselves, a group of five dashing through the snow, descended through the impenetrable clouds of white mist into a bottomless chasm of vague greenish-gray pines, far away and far below.
The biting chill wrapped the scene! The air stung like acid. The murderous wind filled the night with spectral chaos, and the snow hurled up white hills that fumed like volcanoes. All nature seemed to tremble, everything in panicky motion. The steady knife edge of the wind cut back and forth, the low whistle of the wind cranking up to a womanish shriek. The caribou came down with occasional periods of quick descent, tearing down the snowy hill, the snow driving thick like white sheets flapping in your eyes. Through this white madness, the snow came harder, curtaining them off from the world, two or three caribou half-skidding back down to the more or less level surface of the snow, leaving the wind to build to the low-pitched scream that would go on all night, a sound they would get to know well.
Source texts in order of appearance:
Alaska, James Michener
Ethan Fromme, Edith Wharton
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
The Octopus, Frank Norris
The Shining, Stephen King
Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence
Big Sur, Jack Kerouac
Zasstrozzi, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru
Farewell Summer, Ray Bradbury
The Sea-Wolf, Jack London
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
Billy Budd, Herman Melville
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya
Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey
Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
The Rainbow, D. H. Lawrence
Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy
Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel
The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf
The Purple Sage, Zane Grey
The Conquest, Oscar Micheaux
Dracula, Bram Stoker
The Mountain Lion, Jean Stafford
The Desert of Wheat, Zane Grey
My Ántonia, Willa Cather
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
St. Irvyne, Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
The Big Sky, A. B. Guthrie
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe
Nemesis, Isaac Asimov
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
Centennial, James Michener
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway
A Bend in the River, V. S. Naipaul
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
Zone One, Colson Whitehead
The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
I Love Dick, Chris Kraus
The Magus, John Fowles
The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
The Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko
The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
A Sicilian Romance, Ann Radcliffe
Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Thomas Hardy
Hawaii, James Michener
Plainsong, Kent Haruf
The White Peacock, D. H. Lawrence
White Fang, Jack London
Possession, A.S. Byatt
Walk Me to the Distance, Percival Everett
The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner
On Beauty, Zadie Smith
Yonnondio, Tillie Olsen
The Homesteaders, Oscar Micheaux
McTeague, Frank Norris
Lonesome Land, B. M. Bower
Song of the Lark, Willa Cather
Ice, Anna Kavan
Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, Henry Fielding
The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger
Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
I am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe
Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett
The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
Winter in the Blood, James Welch
The Prairie, James Fenimore Cooper
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
The Monk, Matthew Lewis
Jaws, Peter Benchley
Loon Lake, E. L. Doctorow