As we head into the shortest days of the year, I have found illumination of a welcome sort in a compilation of writings by noted Gray's River lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle. "The Tangled Bank" presents 52 columns that Pyle wrote over a decade for Orion Magazine.
Pyle attributes the title of his erstwhile column, and now of this book, to the final paragraph in Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species," in which the 19th century naturalist condensed his wide-ranging preoccupation with natural forms to the fascinations that can be found in any local slope, rife with plant and animal life.
Pyle embraces this philosophy with his customary gusto and where perspicacity occasionally fails our intrepid scrivener, curiosity steps in, sometimes leading to "the evergreen zing" he gets from encountering a new (to him) species in its natural habitat.
In these essays, Pyle contemplates Iraqi marshes, Okinawan reefs, and the Guatemalan jungle. He communes with parrots in Perth, counts butterflies in the Great Smoky Mountains and wallows with squirrels and swallows at home.
Time and again, he considers the impact of our species on all other forms of life. Sometimes it involves the introduction of invasive species or the eradication of natural habitat. Other times, it means the utter extinction of a species - although Pyle reports on some heartening efforts to protect and re-establish endangered populations, too.
Interestingly, he doesn't dwell much on global climate change, although I would guess that if he were writing these columns today (his last column was written in 2008 - three years after Hurricane Katrina but before the likes of Sandy and the widespread flooding and tornado outbreaks of the past few years), the topic might figure more prominently in his discussions.
Writing during the era in which George W. Bush was president, Pyle does rail against that administration's environmental policies and he promotes an entirely different slant for the concept of homeland security, arguing that "any state remotely worthy of the word 'secure' will have to account not only for the safety of our buildings and their occupants, but for the safety of our nonhuman neighbors and their homes as well."
But taking in phenomena such as America's still-booming business in lawn-care biocides, or the crowded freeways that make wildlife transit lethal, or the condominium developments crowding along the shores of Puget Sound, he concedes that sometimes conservation is "a task only Sisyphus could enjoy."
Still and all, the emphasis of this book is on enjoyment of every particle, every life form, every day - made easy thanks to Pyle's felicitous wordsmithing.
To review this book, I had to read through at a brisker clip than it deserved. May I suggest that everyone reading this column treat themselves to a gift for the new year - order up this book from your favorite local independent bookstore, then savor an essay a week over the course of 2013 and get yourself outside to enjoy your own local "good green ministry."
BARBARA LLOYD MCMICHAEL writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com