A Review of Into the Porcupine Cave and Other Odysseys : Adventures of an Occasional Naturalist, by William W. Warner, National Geographic Press, 1999, for the Alumnae Horae magazine of St. Paul’s School, to be published in January, 2002
As the natural world is disappearing at an alarming rate, so is the art of nature writing. Which makes this collection of ten “odysseys” by William Warner all the more special.
This is a lovely, quietly gleaming gem by one of America’s masters of nature writing, the summation of eight decades of roaming the world and experiencing some of its most beautiful places. It belongs on the shelf with Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selbourne, Thoreaux’s journals, Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Notebook and other classics of the genre. As Alumnae Horae editor Deborah de Peyster, to whom I am deeply grateful for having asked me to review it and thus brought it to my attention, e-mailed me, “It is especially nice reading right now because it is such a peaceful book, full of the reassuring rhythms of life.”
Warner is the real deal, utterly lacking in the pomposity and preachiness and holier-than-thou attitude and socio-political naiviete and lack of compassion for their own species that other nature writers sometimes fall prey to. His writing is imbued with a gracious simplicity, an old Yankee sparseness and sturdiness, that are the hallmarks of a vanishing breed and sensibility, the true gentleman, which our mutual alma mater has produced not a few of over the years. I’ve always thought that this sensibility, when it is exists—and it is rare in any culture—verges on enlightenment. Perhaps the closest writer to Warner, in the end, is the late William Maxwell, except that Maxwell wrote fiction, and Warner, who is best known for his l977 Pulitzer-prize-winning book on Chesapeake Bay, Beautiful Swimmers, finds life as it is too intricate and fascinating to be feel the need for invention.
The odysseys all take place in the New World, except for one in the Pacific. They begin with Warner’s childhood, when it was possible to walk for miles along the New Jersey coast without encountering anything human. Warner is a New York City boy who summers at a resort called Spring Lake. In the opening paragraph of the book he describes his family situation, which sounds like straight of out Cheever or Fitzgerald :
“Very little in my upbringing seems to have pointed toward a love for the world of nature, much less for writing about it. I was born and grew up in New York City in a house that was without great books, without a father, and, for some periods of the year, without a mother. In loco patris I had only a highly irascible step-grandfather. Col. George Washington Cavanaugh was his name, and he wanted to be known by all of it. His most frequent utterances to me, apart from constant reminders that I was no blood kin, went something like this : ‘Your father is a bum, your mother is running around with every gigolo in Europe, so I suppose the spring can rise no higher than its source.’”
At Spring the young Warner, on romps with his brother and boyhood pals, discovers the rich world of estuaries and tidal flats. In a completely natural way, the curious kid learns the differences among willets, sanderlings, turnstones, whimbrels, godwits, and other shorebirds. He discovers how much he enjoys exploring and poking around in the great outdoors by himself, and over the years he comes to need periodic rejuvenating “escapes” from the human environment.
In the decades that follow, Warner spends the summer of l941 digging for dinosaur bones in northern California, he vagabonds solo down to Tierra Fuega where he is entranced by the killer whales, then he is drafted and sent to the Pacific theater. While helping secure the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), he discovers the psychedelic world of their coral reefs. Then he joins the foreign service and in the l950s is posted as a cultural attache to Guatemala City, where he plunges into the teeming and largely invisible diversity of the rainforest.
The howler monkeys particularly intrigue him. Their unearthly choruses at dawn are one of the most impressive and indescribable sounds in the animal world. (Two decades later, at the same loss for words, making all-to-infrequent use of my years of Latin and Greek at SPS, I compared howler choruses in the Amazon to “wind rushing through the portals of Hades.”)
Then we go to l980. Joining a party of very serious birders on the Dry Tortugas, Warner finds himself far more intrigued by their behavior than by that of the birds they are ticking off, and he gives us a wry natural history of one the most bizarre and obsessed human sub-types : the life-lister. He is equally bemused, climbing Mount Katahdin at the age of 52, by the l960s back-to-nature movement and all the flashy must-have gear the new generation of hikers and campers had to have before they venture into “the environment,” as the world of nature was already starting to be called.
Warner flies up to Ellesmere Island, the northernmost island in the Canadian Arctic, where, lamenting never having had one of the ecstatic visions reported by other nature writers, he finally has “a near epiphany.”
All these odysseys are absolutely delightful and highly informative, but the one that really stood out for me is the second, which is the title story. It takes place “many years ago” at “the New England preparatory school we attended at the time.” The headmaster is a “stern New England cleric.” That would have been the Rev. Samual S. Drury, fourth Rector from l911 to l938. (Most often remembered as a stern disciplinarian, Drury was also a naturalist who studied and surrounded himself with flowers and enjoyed vigorous walks, especially in Maine.)
Warner and an equally adventurous nature-loving schoolmate named Henry Buck make full use of the school’s thousand acres of lakes and deep forest. One afternoon they crawl into a cave where there are twelve porcupines. They catch one and sneak it back to their house.
This brought back fond memories of the spring of l963 when two classmates– “Jock” Wiley and Hilton Foster—and I went trout fishing and caught a humongous snapping turtle that was taking up the entire width of a small brook, with its mouth open, waiting to take off a toe or two of Jock, who was in the lead. But instead we got the turtle to clamp down on a stout branch and carried it back, triumphantly but surreptitiously, to the Upper, where we kept it in a bathtub for a couple of days.
Cigars may have been smoked on this expedition. If they were, they were undoubtedly rum-soaked crooks or Dutch Masters. Warner confesses in his Maine piece to reaching “into my pocket for a cigarette,” and then explains, with tongue-in-cheek mortification : “shocked readers should remember at this time, the United States was by and large a smoking society, which included the outdoors and nature lovers as well.”
These “escapes” into the woods of SPS were as important to me as they were for Warner. They were as important a safety valve as the rainforest is to the Mekranoti Indians of the Amazon, with whom I spent a month in l976. Periodically the residents of this isolated village, hundreds of miles from any other Brazilians, would escape the claustrophic confines of the village by going aybanh, as they called it : going berserk and running screaming into the forest. They would disappear for a day or two, then return to the village, and no one would say anything or act as if anything out of the ordinary had happened.
What I missed at SPS was any instruction in the natural history of this magnificent property that we had the run of. Which I gather now exists. But this didn’t stop either Warner or me from becoming infatuated with the world of nature and keying out the flora and fauna on our own. Often the most important parts of one’s education does not take place in the classroom. Had I known about Warner earlier, he would have unquestionably become a role model. (Peter Matthiessen and John MacPhee were my heroes in the seventies when I was bailing out of a career as a singer-songwriter and muddling toward becoming a nature writer). Our lives have taken very similar trajectories, a generation apart.
A critic is not worthy of the name, I suppose, unless he finds something to criticize, so I have diligently combed Warner’s book in search of something to take him to task for. I must report that I did find two things. On page 55, he begins a paragraph with the transitional phrase, “Small wonder then.” Then 24 pages later we get another paragraph that starts “little wonder then.” This is a trope that probably shouldn’t be repeated within at least fifty pages of its last usage. But at least Warner isn’t guilty of telling the same story twice, which I have to confess I’ve done in several of my books.
The second point is a query, really; I can’t claim to know the truth of the matter. According to the riveting natural history of porcupines that Warner provides us with (for instance, the quills apparently have an antiobiotic grease that mitigates the effect of the punctures they inflict; “such are nature’s little grace notes,” comments Warner), female porcupines are only in heat 8 to 12 hours in the course of a year. The randy males exhibit remarkable patience, tracking them for as long as a week before they finally get to mount them, which only happens after they have courted and won over the female and emerged victorious in vicious combat with numerous rivals. But this to seems to contradict what Nathalie Anger reported in the Tuesday Science Times not long ago : that porcupines “do it” “gingerly” and every day, 365 days of the year. Perhaps some enterprising student can take to the woods and find out what the real story is here.