“Rational thought Calm, reasonable, gentle persuasion. It was this quality of moderation in his writing that most impressed me, for my own inclinations always tended toward the opposite, toward the impatient, the radical, the violent.”
—Edward Abbey on Joseph Wood Krutch
The name of Joseph Wood Krutch was well-known in its day, much less so now. Perhaps the timely reissue of these three titles will do something to remedy the situation; if not, it should. On the final page of Grand Canyon, the author writes: “The generation now living may very well be that which will make the irrevocable decision whether or not America will continue to be for centuries to come the one great nation which had the foresight to preserve an important part of its [natural] heritage.” Since at any given moment not one but several generations may be counted as “the living,” it is hard to say just how prescient Mr. Krutch was when he wrote that sentence. One can only say that, while those people for whom the natural world is an object of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic appreciation remain as ever a minority in the United States (as elsewhere), still, the 1990’s show promise of being far more sensitive to the concerns of that minority than were the 1950’s, when Mr. Krutch was writing. As late as the late 50’s, “growth” was one of those incantational imperative buzzwords (like “globaldemocracy” today) upon utterance of which millions of men and women wearing 1 LIKE IKE buttons were expected to leap to their feet waving tiny American flags. The so-called Greenhouse Effect is perhaps no less an exaggeration than International Communism was, but at least it has had the effect of making people who have scarcely ever set foot off Madison Avenue (or the Madison, Wisconsin, campus) pay their overdue respects to the plight of the natural world some two hundred years after the onset of popular democracy and the Industrial Revolution.
Joseph Wood Krutch, aetat. 59, moved from Connecticut to the American Southwest in 1952, when 18 years of life remained to him. In retrospect he may be seen as the venerable precursor of a generation or two of urban refugees—known more poetically as “earth muffins”—who in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s succeeded in transforming the individualistic legacy of Henry David Thoreau into something approaching a mass movement. Krutch, a native of Tennessee, had spent his adult life in and around New York City where, as drama critic for The Nation and professor of drama at Columbia University, he established impeccable credentials as a scion of Gotham. He wrote books on the theater and several more general ones, including that for which he is perhaps best known. The Modern Temper—a rather pessimistic meditation on that subject. While resident in Connecticut, this urban man of letters wrote a book about the natural world as it transpired under his nose in his postage stamp-sized piece of New England, and found it pleasing both to himself and to some readers. Waxing bolder, he ventured into southeastern Utah to behold the great canyons, buttes, and deserts that were shortly to entrance a young man named Edward Abbey. He speculated upon these phenomena for years, and then, having arrived at the discovery that he could not banish them from his imagination, made the leap of faith that has landed so many converts in the Great American Wilderness. Joseph Krutch, for his part, came to rest in the Lower Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona, about which he had already written a book (The Desert Year) while on sabbatical leave from Columbia.
“With Mr. Krutch,” Paul Horgan wrote, “we make a journey into two places. One is the desert itself The other is his civilized and charming mind. Together they make a country where many readers will be very content.” In four short sentences Horgan identified the essence of Joseph Wood Krutch’s appeal as a “nature writer,” in whom the adventurer or even traveler was not lacking but in whom also the armchair naturalist and essayist predominated. Of the three volumes reviewed in this space, The Forgotten Peninsula comes closest to being a travel book without ever becoming much of one, despite its account of some fairly strenuous trips by fourwheel-drive vehicle along the partially existent roads of Baja, California, in the 50’s. Where Edward Abbey, say, would place such experiences near the dramatic center of his book, Joseph Krutch, by contrast, handles them almost perfunctorily, much preferring to write about what he found upon arrival at his botanical destination, and then to explain in detail what were the implications of the trip for a scientific understanding of how fast the boojum tree grows, how its seeds germinate, and why it has never moved above the Baja Peninsula into the northern reaches of the Lower Sonoran Desert. Maybe because he had spent the better part of a lifetime studying the human drama through its depiction by other human beings, Krutch appears to have detached his dramatic imagination from these things, and to have reattached them to the dramatic potentialities of nature.
To a greater degree perhaps than any other Western literary form, the drama has associated itself with the clash of moral oppositions, with moral dilemma, and with moral paradox. So it comes as no great surprise that Mr. Krutch’s greatest strength as a nature writer is his dramatic juxtaposition of the appropriate moral claims of nature with the just ones of mankind. Yet that juxtaposition is never treated in the assertive manner of the writer of morality plays, but rather with the delicate problematical sensitivity of one who happens to be a rather accomplished amateur naturalist as well as a gifted professional humanist. It is this aspect of his work, moreover, that makes Krutch in many ways the conservative’s “environmentalist,” combining as he does contemporary concerns with traditional principles and habits of thought. In his writing, as he was (from all accounts) in his person, Joseph Wood Krutch remains the urbane and polished classicist, as opposed to the rural romantic, which certainly sets him at a distinct remove from most of the far more abrasive “environmentalist” writers who were to follow. The extremism of many of these people appears never to have tempted Mr. Krutch, who insisted only that the balance of nature should include a corresponding balance between men and nature.
Still, I expect that Krutch’s argument will remain radical enough for many present-day conservatives, particularly the “neoconservatives” and those mainline Republicans who find the George Bush administration to be a satisfactory affair. Here, for instance, is Krutch (in The Forgotten Peninsula) contemplating the Western notion of technological “progress,” of unlimited economic growth, and the global population explosion:
Being but little versed in political science or sociology, I asked several specialists whether they knew of any attempt even to raise the question how populous, how mechanized, how complicated, and how abundant a society should be if what we want most is not numbers, mechanization, complexity, and abundance for their own sakes but the best life possible for a creature who has the needs, the preferences and the potentialities of the human being. I drew blanks in every instance except one when I was advised to consult Aristotle’s “Politics”. . . .
In Grand Canyon Krutch speculates on the possibility that modern man has indeed “grown” beyond his original affinity with nature, with which he no longer feels a need for either harmony or intercourse. It is true, he admits, that there appears to be mounting evidence for this conclusion, but it is also true that there is almost certain to remain a remnant for whom the presence of nature will be an essential part of their lives. (“The wilderness and the idea of wilderness is one of the permanent homes of the human spirit.”) Furthermore: “Does to experience [solitude and quietness] even occasionally provoke thoughts and suggest values not only significant in themselves but likely to provide critical insights into civilization which may influence favorably the course it takes?” And Krutch provides a wonderful quotation from J. Frank Dobie that I had never read before:
Many times I have taught that the greatest happiness possible to a man—probably not to a woman—is to become civilized, to know the pageant of the past, to love the beautiful, to have just ideas of values and proportions, and then, retaining his animal spirits and appetites, to live in a wilderness where nature is congenial, with a few barbarisms to afford picturesqueness and human relations. According to this ideal civilization is necessary to give man a perspective; but it is otherwise either a mere substitution for primitiveness or else a background to flee from.
Such a man, ideally happy, Dobie concludes, has succeeded in substituting “campfires for ivory towers.”
In another respect too, Joseph Wood Krutch was a radical so much in advance of his time as to have put him a little—perhaps only just a little—ahead of our own as well. As his description of the geological creation of the Grand Canyon (Grand Canyon, pp. 42-43) makes plain, when man worries about the effects his activities are producing in nature, it is his own future that he is actually concerned for, not the planet’s. “The sun also ariseth. . . .” As in the Hemingway novel, the hero in this drama, when the text is perceived from this particular point of view, is not mankind but the earth, which endureth, if not forever, then at least for ever where man himself is concerned. So far as I have read, even the folks at Earth First! have failed to recognize—at least to say— as much. One wonders why, since they should be almost the only people around to find solace in the humanly grim proposition that the Greenhouse Effect theory and its earthly proponents are offering us.
[The Desert Year, by Joseph Wood Krutch (Tucson: University of Arizona Press) 270 pp., $10.95 (paper)]
[The Forgotten Peninsula: A Naturalist in Baja, California, by Joseph Wood Krutch, foreword by Ann Zwinger (Tucson: University of Arizona Press) 277 pp., $9.95 (paper)]
[Grand Canyon: Today and All Its Yesterdays, by Joseph Wood Krutch (Tucson: University of Arizona Press) 276 pp., $11.95 (paper)]