Searching for Unfamiliar Terrain in “The Nature Book”8 min read
The Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, established the National Wilderness Preservation System to safeguard federally owned land, beginning with 9.1 million acres, called “wilderness areas,” to be “designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.” Wilderness was defined as a place essentially untouched by humankind, one where a person is “a visitor who does not remain.” The desire for places where we are not is a deep and multifaceted one. Because of the climate crisis, this desire is increasingly urgent; into this charged atmosphere comes “The Nature Book,” an experimental novel by Tom Comitta. “The Nature Book” is entirely made up of descriptions of the natural world that Comitta has copied from canonical novels and spliced together in oddly mesmerizing combinations. As the afterword explains, no words have been added to the phrases, sentences, and longer passages that the book borrows; some words, however, have been erased. What’s omitted are the human stories. In doing so, “The Nature Book” attempts to create a novel that is itself a wilderness.
“The Nature Book” sits at the crossroads of two innovative traditions: collage texts and posthuman fiction, which reimagines boundaries between the human and the nonhuman and decenters human perspectives to challenge anthropocentrism. Rarely, however, does that happen as radically as it does here. “Posthuman fiction” often refers to novels or stories that involve nonhuman characters, such as, for example, cyborgs or monsters; by creating a book solely about the natural world, with no traditional characters, human or otherwise, Comitta poses a question latent in the genre: What is our fiction without us?
When I began “The Nature Book,” my hope was that it would be pleasantly lulling. My fear was that I would be bored. Fiction is, at its core, anthropocentric. As every novelist knows, descriptions of the natural world are famously the parts readers skip. We want to get to the conflict, to the action, and to the insight and meaning they engender, and we understand those as arising from human introspection and interaction. “The Nature Book” has none of these things. Without characters or plot as we conventionally understand them, what remains are ecosystems; wild animals, including various birds, deer, wolves, and horses; weather; bodies of water; celestial bodies; and the Earth as seen from above, all woven into a fairly seamless stream. The source novels are exclusively ones originally written in English, a further constraint that serves to focus the book largely on North America, the Caribbean, and the British Isles. Drama is created by animals navigating their environments, storms gathering, the way light changes with a new time of day, the gradual arrival of a season.
If this all sounds a bit musical and a bit atmospheric, that’s because it is. The book feels, at its best, symphonic, both in its structure—four movements, the third of which is the most distinct and the last of which references the first and goes out in a brilliant burst—and in the way language echoes, builds, works its accretive magic. We often inhabit the perspective of a disembodied watcher, like a drone, sometimes hovering near the land, sometimes zooming over wilderness from above, freed from our physical constraints and able to more fully witness the Earth’s vastness and beauty. Seeing the world like this, without us, traversed in a way we could never traverse it in our human bodies, is a powerful and exhilarating experience.
“The Nature Book” is studded with incredible writing: on any page, we might encounter a phrase like “spring was a very flame of green,” which I learned came from D. H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” when I looked up the source, or “but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air,” which Willa Cather used to describe the high desert in “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” Moments like these turned my mind inward and outward at the same time. The miracle of the sentence; the miracle of the world.
But single authorship isn’t the point; Comitta wants to meld individual voices into an anonymous and cohesive whole. The writing that emerges from these blended voices can be dreamily evocative, as in this passage describing how light fades as a late-summer evening arrives:
Here, my sleuthing suggests that we open with a little Jack Kerouac, followed by a strong dose of Lawrence, author of what is, to me, the most striking part of the passage for its strangely animated vividness and its musicality: “the sky overhead throbbed and pulsed with light. The glow sank quickly off the field; the earth and the hedges smoked dusk.” The passage is capped with a penultimate sentence by E. L. Doctorow and a final one by Toni Morrison and another author whom I could not identify. This unlikely chorus suggests a shared human ability to be entranced and moved by the passage of time as it is physically embodied by a summer dusk: changing light, a changing sky. It’s oddly affecting to see other aspects of the natural world, like springtime, approached again and again by different writers, as happens in a section that guides us through the seasons. The experience is communal in a pleasing way, suggesting a timescale larger than a human life.
The joining of different human consciousnesses, different perspectives and syntaxes, creates a strong tension; I could always feel many minds teeming beneath the surface of the prose. Occasionally, I recognized an author, which could be both disruptive and amusing, as when “Moby-Dick” or “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” entered the group chat. Mostly, though, distinction exists as uneasy intuition of a shift. An oddly off-kilter voice, the voice of the book, arises.
So, too, do a range of linguistic patterns. At times, the effect can verge on prose poetry. Some sequences are relatively straightforward: “Across the jungle, the sky, the water, the bark of the trees, everything that wasn’t green became green. Bright green—green as grasshoppers. A green so bright and emerald that, next to it, vegetation during the monsoons was drab olive.” Others exhibit a vertiginous Ashberian slide: “Some act of God was possible, but unlikely. It was too late. The land was too huge. Water too far away. Animals were failing elsewhere and in a variety of scenes.”
“The Nature Book” is, at times, maddening; I wanted it to be more slender, more controlled, less . . . wild. I missed people; I missed our stories. But I came to feel that time spent wandering in the book, even when I felt frustrated or lost, was of value; it was like time spent wandering through unfamiliar terrain. We go to a wilderness to test ourselves and to experience an environment indifferent to our presence, which can help us recontextualize our place in the world. “The Nature Book,” too, can feel disorienting and alienating, which is not surprising; a book that begins as conceptual art, a highly constrained formal experiment made of other people’s language, is not there to prioritize a reader’s comfort but to challenge us. In this way, it resembles a wilderness in one of the word’s original senses: a place that is self-willed, a separate, self-sustaining ecosystem with its own imperatives independent of ours.
In other ways, “The Nature Book” isn’t like a wilderness at all. Posthuman fiction can show us a lot of things, but what it can’t show us is a world without us. Comitta allows concrete traces of human presence to remain in the book’s metaphors and similes: a moon, for example, is said to be “white as cocaine”; a sky is described as the color of “the smoke from damp fuel.” We’re there, too, in the cardinal directions, in calling an animal’s meal “breakfast.” But we’re also there in the very fact of language. We’re there in the syntax itself. What we see in the book is not nature but a reflection of ourselves looking at nature and superimposed upon the view, as when we gaze through a window turned, in part, to a mirror by the darkness outside.
Part of what’s moving about our attempts to create a wilderness entirely separate from us, both in fiction and in the natural world, is that such attempts are impossible: we create the language, and our environmental impact now permeates even the remotest regions, including Antarctica and the spot on the planet farthest from all land, Point Nemo, in the South Pacific Ocean. No true separation is achievable without our extinction—and after that, our voices are silent.
The distinction between humankind and wilderness has never been simple or clear; the Wilderness Act, for example, protects land once home to native peoples, who lived in ways that left little trace before they were displaced by the violences of colonization, which eventually led to wide-reaching forms of environmental violence. “There has been no wilderness without some kind of human presence for several hundred thousand years. Nature is not a place to visit, it is home,” Gary Snyder writes in “The Practice of the Wild.” But it is a home we are irrevocably changing: when we look out the window, we see a world shaped by industrialization’s global impact. Regardless of how far we travel, leaving behind human influence in the Anthropocene is no longer possible, even temporarily. When the Wilderness Act was passed, this was already true; scientists agree that global warming had already begun and, with it, our cataclysmic effect on the climate.
It is so human to yearn for wilderness—to want to experience ourselves as insignificant, overmatched, stripped of true agency, dissolved—even as human activity has compromised its independence from us. “The Nature Book” shows us what we have left of the old world as we move into an increasingly unpredictable climate future: our records, our memories, and our imaginings of a world beyond our influence.
I began writing this essay in early January from a cabin in Dummerston, Vermont, near the small rural town where I was raised. The cabin, which is essentially a single room with a vaulted ceiling and a walled-off section for a bedroom at the back, is a converted sugar shack, formerly used in the production of maple syrup; sap from maple trees would have been gathered here in vats and boiled for hours, sugared off to a dense, delicious residue. On the cabin wall, old taps are displayed. As a child, I would help my father tap maple trees on our property, hang tin buckets to catch the slow drip of sap, gather that mildly sweet liquid, which I would sometimes taste, unfiltered and cool in the morning chill, and boil it down. The taps are familiar to me, as is the landscape outside the cabin. Gentle hills, pine and maple trees, old barns, stone walls. But this year, there was no snow. Instead, the temperatures were springlike, the dirt roads slick with mud. Time is running out: the warning signs have arrived. Sap runs best when the nights are below freezing and the days warmer, usually in late February and March; this year, it began early. Before too long, if things don’t change, it may cease to run at all. ♦