I finally read Admiral Richard Byrd’s Alone (1938) a few days ago, and November suddenly got colder for me. But I began thinking about other books in which a lone observer takes careful note of what he or she sees, hears, feels, and thinks, with the result of producing a memorable book. Among such accounts Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) stands out, not just for the passages calculated to please would-be naturalists, where she describes a shed snakeskin she found tied in an undoable knot and a tree full of afternoon light, or where she muses about the remarkable near-identity of chlorophyll and hemoglobin molecules and stalks the banks of Pilgrim Creek for a Green Heron or a muskrat. Other observations are not so peaceful or inspiring, as, for example, those of a predatory water beetle sucking the life out of a frog, or other insects that also seem to be determined (pun intended) to “do one horrible thing after another.” Annie Dillard is not just a happy naturalist; she continually asks the darker questions about why nature seems so unmindful of the individual in any species, and why the world proclaims that if there was a Creator here, he seems to have long since left his work to run on its own, with billions of creatures needing to die to keep the wheels greased.
She says her book is what Thoreau called a “meteorological journal of the mind, and the comparison with Walden (1854) is inevitable but not very close. Certainly Dillard knows her Thoreau, and they both set out to record a lived year project of a sort not possible for most of us leading lives of quiet desperation. Thoreau’s interest, though, is not primarily in nature, but in how he can simplify his life, while Dillard has no interest in such an economy. She does seek “a reduction, a shedding, a sloughing off,” but it is of the spirit. The most interesting comparison may be with Montaigne’s “Defense of Raymond Sebond” (1569) and with the treatise it introduces and undermines, Raymond Sebond’s Natural Theology (1436), which, like other such works of the sort sometimes called physico-theology, argues for the existence of a benevolent God from the evidence provided by the natural world. Dillard’s book is a kind of physico-theology while at the same time giving a counter to that philosophic view. Dillard never questions the idea that the natural world is of such profound intricacy that it argues a creator—though, in truth, she begs this question by always assuming a creator rather than presenting one as the conclusion of an argument. But she also asks often what kind of a creator makes a world whose working is based on cruelty and death—is he a God who has made the world and then absconded? did he make it in jest? She suggests the problem might be her own squeamishness and finds compensating beauties, but “something,” she writes, “is everywhere and always amiss.”
A lighter touch is given by Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire (1968). Abbey spent two park seasons—spring into fall—working as a ranger at Arches National Monument in the mid-1950s. He talks about the joys of solitude in the austere desert landscape he had come to love in his early adulthood. He gives a once-over-lightly treatment of many rocks, plants, snakes, small mammals, erosion patterns and water sources in canyons and water courses both dry and running. Yet he insists he is not a naturalist. Nor is he an environmentalist, and he is not above crushing the skull of a rabbit with a well-pitched rock just as an experiment on surviving without resources. But the book is full of polemics about preserving wilderness.
Though the debt is unspoken, both Dillard and Abbey have another precursor aside from Walden: Henry Beston’s The Outermost House (1928). Beston describes a year he spent in a house he had built for him on the dunes above the beach on Cape Cod. He goes there in September to spend a couple of weeks, but ends up staying a year. He begins with the beach itself, and then describes the autumn birds migrating through. He spends a chapter on waves and surf. In a chapter called “Night on the Great Beach,” Beston suggests it was not primitive peoples who were afraid of night and the dark, but we. “With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea.” And he says “civilization is full of people . . . who have never even seen night,” an amazing observation for a time when there were still dark skies to be found all over the northeast. In this chapter he also describes sand fleas eating phosphorescent protozoa or bacteria on the beach and becoming completely luminous, then dying from the infection. Though he does some surprisingly inventive things with language (“luke-cold” by analogy with lukewarm, “a scatter of houses”), his style is deceptively simple; for example, he says of the spring migration of geese that he hears but cannot see overhead, “a river of life was flowing that night across the sky.” The new color that appears on the dunes in spring “is a tint of palest olive . . . born of the mingling of pale sand, blanched grass, and new grass spears of a certain eager green.”
Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes a very different account of a seaside sojourn in Gift from the Sea (1955). On vacation on Captiva Island by herself, Lindbergh writes about learning from her time there and from seashells such as the channeled whelk, the double-sunrise, and the argonauta what she calls her “island-precepts” about simplicity, awareness, and balance. Lindbergh is writing primarily about pressures, tensions, and distractions of a woman’s life at mid-life and she talks about “a room of one’s own” (without mentioning Woolf by name) and the activity of feminists. But the desire to avoid fragmentation (she uses William James’s word Zerrissenheit) and to achieve a modicum of grace, “inner and outer harmony,” is not gender-bound. Though she has a tendency to write at a high level of abstraction and generalization, Lindbergh counters the tendency with homely metaphors like those of the shells.
Books whose main characters have not chosen their solitude include Robinson Crusoe (1719) where, since Defoe had never been to a desert island, we are not surprised to find essentially no nature observation. What we get instead is a book about resourcefulness and bourgeois piety, with a lot of gratuitous biographical detail invented about Crusoe. Xavier de Maistre did not choose his solitude either, when he was confined to his quarters as a punishment for dueling. The remarkable A Journey around My Room (1795) was the result. De Maistre’s description of the features of his room include many digressions that he defends in a manner reminiscent of Laurence Sterne in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67), making clear that his subject is himself rather than merely his furniture. Like Sterne, too, de Maistre incorporates sentimental passages that sometimes contain double-entendre. In advising “any man who can do so to have a pink and white bed,” he tells about these colors in his mistress’s face when she had run up to the top of a mound. This gets him so excited he has to stop, and the next section contains only blank lines interrupted by the words “the mound.” De Maistre incorporates popular eighteenth-century literary forms such as a dialogue between the body and the soul and a dialogue of the dead. He addresses his readers directly and suggests that if they don’t like something they tear the offending passage out or even throw the book into the fire.
To return to Alone, Admiral Byrd’s idea was to have three men at a weather recording station at the South Pole over the winter of 1934, from April to October. Because of various difficulties with tractor transport from his semi permanent exploration base, Little America, on the edge of the Ross Barrier ice sheet on the Ross Sea in Antarctica, the Advance Base could not be located closer to the Pole than 80 degrees south latitude, 123 miles from Little America, and the stores he and his men succeeded in transporting there would only support two men. Byrd vetoed the idea of two men for psychological reasons and felt he could not ask one of his men to man the station alone, so he did it himself.
Byrd’s account is most interesting among these books for its sharp delineation between observation of his strange environment and his necessarily abrupt turn inward toward the subjective. He makes observations outside his hut of the sky, the horizon, and the Barrier ice he stands on. On clear nights there are “numberless stars” and the constellations—Hydrus, Orion, and the others visible at this latitude—are anchored by the Southern Cross. The sun hugs the horizon during the short days of March and early April; then in mid-April it disappears. In the darkness and ice fogs he almost loses his way outside at the end of April. He describes atmospheric phenomena such as mirages, “ice crystals falling across the face of the sun,” and effects of light such as parhelia or sun dogs and the frequent aurora australis. There are quakes on the ice sheet from subsidence, and the wind makes wavelike ridges called sastrugi, with hard ice on the crests and soft snow in the valleys. Byrd also muses about spiritual matters: the harmony of the cosmos and how humans fit into it. Then in May he begins to discern the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning from his stove. His condition rapidly worsens and he has to confront a terrible choice: he must either use the stove and continue poisoning himself or not use it and freeze to death. He tries to strike a balance, but he sickens and becomes weaker, his appetite disappears, and he eventually loses a third of his starting weight. Byrd’s attention in his narrative turns from the station’s task and the outside world to his own condition and then to the rescue mission his men at Little America have mounted without telling him their real purpose—just as he has concealed from them the truth of his worsening health for fear they will endanger their lives in a rescue attempt. The successful attempt comes, finally, once the Antarctic spring has begun. Four years later, Byrd conquers his distaste at what he fears is “an unseemly show of my feelings” and writes Alone.