Susan Zakin’s first book, 1993’s Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! And the Environmental Movement, was a zesty account of the genesis and adventures of that infamous band of monkey-wrenchers who called themselves Earth First! Like all retellings of true events, Coyotes and Town Dogs was the subject of some controversy among the very people it portrayed. But all contentiousness aside, the book remains one of the few written histories of the most radical, direct-action, activist era in the history of the environmental movement to date.
Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth is Zakin’s most recent offering. The book is an anthology of 30 writers, ranging from environmental movement superstar philosophers like Edward Abbey to New York Times best-sellers James Lee Burke and Carl Hiaasen, to writers whose names may be entirely unrecognizable in the realm of environmentalism, like the notorious late actor Klaus Kinski. Genres represented include fiction, non-fiction narrative and memoir. In her introduction, Zakin claims that over the last 15 years the environmental movement and its writing have both been reduced to navel-gazing, and she offers up her anthology as a corrective. In Zakin’s words: “This anthology maps a subtle terrain rife with conflicting impulses and seemingly irrational but all too human behavior. It is, also quite consciously, an attempt to haul a decrepit genre out of its self-imposed ghetto of boundless purity and bloodless prose.”
She goes on to paraphrase Joy Williams, a contributor to the book: “How can you fall in love with the word environment? At best, it has a sterile, technical sound, calling to mind a dustless laboratory where a race of genetically engineered actors is spawned. At worst it evokes: ‘Eat your edamame beans, Summer,’ and ‘Hey, honey, take it easy on the organic Chardonnay, would you please?’”
Zakin categorizes the environmental movement as having been taken over by uninteresting “green-ghetto” yuppies whose bloodless, decaffeinated writing simply reflects the lack of passion in their lives. In the introduction, aside from citing Barry Lopez’ seminal work Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape as one of the offending works, Zakin doesn’t really offer much substantiating information to support her thesis, aside from the sheer energy of her well-crafted writing style.
Further, Zakin fails to distinguish nature writing from environmental writing from conservation writing. Not all current environmental writing is the equivalent of wimpy New Age muzak. There are convenient omissions in her argument—where are Rick Bass, Jim Harrison, ethical hunting advocate Richard Nelson and the like? They are just a few of the many writers whose work utterly refutes Zakin’s theory that no juicy, interesting nature/conservation/environmental writing has taken place over the last 15 years. Indeed, the continued presence over the last 20-plus years of contributor Hiaasen on every best-seller list in the country refutes Zakin’s theory. Importantly, Zakin doesn’t ever touch on other factors such as the rise of paycheck activism as a possible cause for the loss of passion she laments in the movement and its writing. When Greenpeace became an organization worth 80 million dollars, it’s a good bet that reckless abandon became an instant liability.
Rather than simply release a good, solid book of nature-related writing for its own sake, Zakin offers a flimsy argument in an attempt to distinguish her anthology. However shaky the thesis statement/introduction may be, the book is a good read and certainly worth owning.
As in all worthwhile collections there is a surplus of quirky imaginative selections and standout pieces, such as an excerpt from the autobiography of the abovementioned Klaus Kinski. In this excerpt from Kinski Uncut, the actor alternately and hilariously rails against and operatically embraces the Peruvian jungle where he finds himself marooned with director Werner Herzog during the making of Aguirre, Wrath of God. One can clearly picture the tiny (5’0”) actor shaking his fist at the sky as he describes the savage beauty of his lush, carnivorous surroundings.
Another wonderful piece is Tucson writer Lydia Millet’s essay “Die, Baby Harp Seal!” Millet, a great writer by any standard, takes on the airbrushed nature-porn school of photography and calls the environmental movement to task for “failing to generate a compelling language for itself.” She exhorts the movement to get “a critical facelift or face a long, slow slide into obsolescence.” Millet rightly claims that environmentalists must be able to compete with the flash and pizzazz of pop-culture in order to fight the war—her piece is similar to, but far more eloquent and specific than, Zakin’s opening argument.
The Disney-bashing inclusion of an excerpt from Carl Hiaasen’s withering 1998 book Team Rodent is vintage Hiaasen, hilarious in its truths and in the picture it paints of a hapless, greedy Disney stuck cleaning up a public- relations nightmare during an attempt to open a sanitized, Disney-fied zoo, where real life buzz-kills like grisly rhino death and buzzard shit intrude, but have no place in a squeaky-clean worldview.
The many excellent selections in Naked include an excerpt from the late Bruce Chatwin’s classic walkabout The Songlines, and Blue from Charles Bowden’s Blue Desert. Deanne Stillman’s piece about a recreational massacre by a couple of Marines on leave in The Luckiest Horse in Reno is heartbreaking in its sheer empathetic rendering.
Zakin has gathered together a group of diverse and accomplished writers. The reader should skim through the unjustifiably grandiose introduction and just enjoy this well-curated collection.