Masters of Nature Writing, Then and Now

During the mid 1980s Penguin Books developed a Nature Classics series and employed Edward Hoagland to select, edit, and solicit contributions for books and introductory materials. Up to the task, he immediately sent inquiries to friends, colleagues, and various specialists asking for suggestions of notable works and authors to consider for inclusion in the series. One such inquiry landed in the mailbox of Gretel Ehrlich. Ehrlich, with whom Hoagland had maintained an ongoing professional correspondence, responded with a typed and undated sheaf of papers that, among other examples, offered the following: “Muir’s lush, rhapsodic, vivid account of his first season in the Sierra, mountains which would remain his spiritual home.” She was, of course, talking about John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra (1911).

When I first accepted Dr. Warner’s offer to work in the Sowell Collection for the 2011-2012 academic year, I never thought I would find myself seated in the Holden Reading Room, casually skimming through the correspondence of Hoagland and Ehrlich in relation to either Nature Classics, John Muir, or their own individual efforts to write and publish. Yet what initially began as a job entirely devoted to the conference in April has blossomed into a fully-fledged component of my dissertation project currently in-progress. Specifically, my exposure to the collection has granted me continual access to a treasure trove of information from and about some of North America’s greatest living nature writers.

Muir, obviously, doesn’t fall into this category since he died in 1914. His work, however, was already a part of my research when I joined Dr. Warner in August of last year. A subsequent perusal of the collection’s archives brought me by happy accident to the correspondence of Hoagland and Ehrlich, the respective works of both authors, and the realization that both their names appear on the cover of my paperback edition of Muir’s  First Summer: Hoagland as series editor, and Ehrlich as the author of the edition’s introduction. Although the collection does not possess Hoagland’s original request to Ehrlich for writing the introduction, Ehrlich’s response is beautifully preserved on a postcard dated 28 May 1985: “Yes of course I’ll do it. & I’ll do my best. All the years I lived in L.A., the Sierras were my refuge. I tramped all over, summer & winter – not as rigorously as Muir of course, but I love the range & Muir astonishes me – it seems he walked all over Calif.” Which, judging by Muir’s biography, he nearly did.

Returning to my copy of First Summer, I find that Ehrlich’s fascination with Muir and his mobility continues. For he was, as the introduction admits, “a walker first, a writer later” (vii). Ehrlich begins the essay with a note about Muir’s penchant for walking that I cannot help but feel begins immediately after the conclusion of her postcard to Hoagland: “John Muir had already walked a thousand miles or more by the time he reached San Francisco in 1868. He was thirty years old. So it was nothing for him to walk the width of California, from the Oakland ferry dock through the Diablo foothills, across the San Joaquin Valley, over Pacheco Pass where he saw for the first time the magnificent stretch of thirteen-thousand-and fourteen-thousand-foot peaks (and higher) belonging to the Sierra Nevada, the mountains he would later call ‘The Range of Light'” (vii). All the while I am enamored by Ehrlich’s prose about Muir’s writings with feelings of lushness, rhapsody, and vividness – the very words she first used to describe the book to Hoagland. I have never actually visited the Yosemite Valley; the closest I have ever come was San Francisco at the tail-end of a summer road trip. Yet the power of Ehrlich’s own words about Muir’s writings have put me there. A remove from a remove of sorts, but it works.

None of these musings details the respective writings of Hoagland or Ehrlich. I’ve yet to read any of the former’s John Updike-praised essays or the latter’s respected works (other than The Solace of Open Spaces). Nonetheless, a brief exploration of two names from a paperback Penguin Nature Classics book has proven incredibly insightful. For my research, my dissertation, and  – most importantly – my own passionate attachment to a famous range of light in central California in which I’ve never stepped foot.


About Diane Warner

I'm the Librarian for the James Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community and the Natural World at Texas Tech University. That means I do all sorts of things, from arranging manuscripts to writing news releases or curating exhibits for our new collections.
This entry was posted in Edward Hoagland, Environment, Gretel Ehrlich, John Muir, Literature, Nature. Bookmark the permalink.

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