Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
E.B. White is one of my favorite nature writers who’s not necessarily known as a nature writer. His classic essay collection One Man’s Meat, chronicling his life on a Maine farm, sits on my bookshelf near Muir, Lopez, and Leopold for its concise elegance in detailing a life lived close to the land.
A large part of that life, Michael Sims reminds us in The Chronicle Review, was White’s relationship with creatures. Sims, the author of a new book on White’s “eccentric life in nature” that led to the creation of the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, found during his research that “nothing else about [White] caught my own imagination more than his attitude toward animals.”
In everyday life, White saw animals with the view of a farmer and an amateur naturalist. He knew how to increase egg production among his chickens, how to dock a lamb's tail, how to give a pig an enema. Yet, apparently without a flicker of what a psychologist would call cognitive dissonance, he also saw animals as personality-rich companions on his own fanciful journey. He interpreted a Boston terrier’s bark as, “I’m in love and I’m going crazy." When his henhouse’s brooder stove burned itself out, he said he found the chicks “standing round with their collars turned up, blowing on their hands and looking like a snow-removal gang under the El on a bitter winter’s midnight.” Of his legendarily stubborn dachshund, Fred, White wrote, “And when I answer his peremptory scratch at the door and hold the door open for him to walk through, he stops in the middle and lights a cigarette, just to hold me up.”
The talking animals in White’s children’s books—the spider Charlotte, the mouse Stuart Little, a family of swans in The Trumpet of the Swan—were precursors to today’s pop-culture “babel of talking animals,” writes Sims, but to accuse White of mere anthropomorphism for its own sake, as Paul Theroux once did, is to miss the point:
I disagree that his anthropomorphism resulted in a deficiency of observation. I think that, contrary to Theroux’s indictment, for White personification was a form of empathy—his way of bridging the gap between self and other—that made him more aware of other creatures’ reality, not less.
White researched animal behavior intensely and incorporated natural science facts into his writing. Moreover, Sims contends, animal characters allowed White to convey more than he himself could sometimes muster, especially when he sat down to pen Charlotte’s Web, “a seemingly innocent tale of talking animals that, paradoxically, would be haunted by mortality’s scythe from the very first sentence”:
To write about the most important issues in his life, this emotionally complex and timid man, who had turned 50 before he dived into Charlotte’s Web, returned to the voice that had served him in the past. He hid behind animals, his favorite people.
Source: The Chronicle Review