Book Review: When the Wild Comes Leaping Up: Personal Encounters with Nature

For someone to appreciate a book (or any expressive work for that matter), to “enter into” it fully the way William Blake described the process, there has to be some connection made between the work and the person. Even if the writer is as gifted a storyteller as Dickens, Dostoyevsky, or Stephen King, the work will never speak to you if it does not hook your interest somehow. If you are not open to what it has to say, you will never hear its message.

The same holds true for nature. If you are preoccupied or in a bad mood, a spectacular sunrise will not set you on fire, a wood thrush’s haunting song will go in one ear and out the other, and a vortex of wind-whipped winter snow will not set your spine a-tingling. If some place or thing does not “do it” for you, or if your “doors of perception” are not “cleansed” and open (Blake again), then you will remain blind to nature’s wonders.1

Now, this essential requirement of “mutual affinity” can either save or damn a book. And the best thing about a collection of nature essays like When the Wild Comes Leaping Up: Personal Encounters with Nature is that you have many different doorways to enter into the work and then connect with it. Or you will end up walking down a lot of dead-end hallways.

Editor David Suzuki brings together very personal pieces from some heavy hitters in the eco-literary world, including Diane Ackerman, Bill McKibben, Wade Davis, and Margaret Atwood. Each author explores some important way that he or she has connected with nature, leading to the reflective musing that is the stock in trade of nature writing. Sometimes these stories will draw you in and hold you breathless; other times they will leave you wondering why some people bother to share their ramblings with the world…and get paid for it!

When the Wild Comes Leaping Up, then, is as variegated and dappled as nature itself. Some pieces will strike you as arid deserts devoid of life while others will be like tropical rainforests teeming with more species than you can count.

I had a hard time getting into the book at first, since there was no mutual affinity for a while. But then, like the moon revealing itself to Wordsworth as he reached the top of Mt. Snowdon (as recounted in The Prelude), the book drew me in thanks to the beauty and profundity of particular essays.

For example, Rick Bass’s “A Texas Childhood” struck me as superb. Bass explores the way childhood experiences of nature can form an individual to be sensitive to natural beauty later in life–a common topic, in this book and in so many others. More specifically, he wonders if those occasional knock-you-dead moments of sublimity are more or less formative than a continual interaction with the natural world. He writes,

Maybe a slow and steady braid of beauty is every bit as durable and powerful–perhaps even more so–as any tiny cluster, or bouquet, of crucible-forged revelations. Perhaps in the end, it’s all the same, and there’s little difference, in this regard, between a Houston suburb and Montana wilderness.2

Sharon Butala’s “Living Inside the Landscape” was another powerful piece for me as she reflects on her difficulties after moving to the vastness of Midwestern prairie. Finally, after many walks in that vastness and some visionary experiences, she is able to learn crucial life lessons when the spirit of the place starts speaking to her. “During those moments when I was not buttoned snugly inside myself,” she explains, “the land itself found its way into me, and taught me” (105).

Butala here shows clearly the point I started with: the need for mutual affinity and personal openness if we are to experience, appreciate, and learn from nature. Our encounters with nature will be nothing more than moments in another day without that keen sensitivity.

In the end, I think When the Wild Comes Leaping Up serves as an instance of literary diversity to match the biodiversity of the Earth. Not everything in it enable you to “See a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower” (Blake again). But certainly something will scrape the scales from your eyes so that you may see nature in a new, more personal way.

Image credit: Zest-pk, via Cmapm at Wikimedia Commons.
1. The full line from Blake reads, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell [c. 1793], plate 14). Incidentally, this line inspired Jim Morrison and company to name their band The Doors; they also quoted a line from Blake in their song “The End.”
2. Suzuki, David, ed. When the Wild Comes Leaping Up: Personal Encounters with Nature. Vancouver: David Suzuki Foundation and Greystone Books-Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 2003. 123.

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