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At its very best, nature writing lets us experience vicariously an environment that we're unlikely to ever encounter ourselves and, simultaneously, sets us to thinking about that environment in new or unusual ways.  David Rains Wallace succeeds only in the first of these tasks.

Bulow Hammock is a wooded swampland in eastern Florida, around Daytona.  Wallace, whose grandmother lived in nearby Ormond-by-the-Sea, has been visiting it since he was a child.  In this book he writes, often compellingly about what he has observed there and he relates his own experiences to those of the great naturalist John James Audubon, who seems to have hated the place, and those of William Bartram, whose 1701 book, , was apparently influential in the development of Romanticism.  So far, so good.

But, in addition, Wallace throughout tries to prove a rather dubious premise : that the human brain and the hammock have many similarities :

    I wondered if I might explore the hammock not only as a home of wild plants and animals but as a
    connection to my wayward brain.  The brain is like forests in being diverse and multilayered.  I'd
    even felt in the western mountains that the old-growth forests might have a kind of consciousness
    arising from complexity.  Like my brain, the hammock was structured hierarchically, with newer,
    more complex things growing from older ones.  Most mysteriously, brain and hammock shared a
    propensity for mimesis, for producing similarities between different things.

This whole train of thought, which starts out merely silly, eventually trails off into pure blather.  The desire of environmentalists and their allies to anthropomorphize nature is perfectly understandable--the more human that nature is made to appear the more likely we are to protect it.  But here's one thing we can all be certain of, the trees of Bulow Hammock do not have a consciousness; they don't actually realize that they are a forest.  Nature is fascinating enough without our overreaching to draw human connections which simply do not exist.

These rather dubious speculations on Wallace's part end up detracting from the book, rather than adding to it.  I'd still recommend it for the beauty and wit of his observations, but it fails rather spectacularly in the reach for broader themes.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -David Rains Wallace (Central Washington U.)
    -ESSAY: THE NATURE OF NATURE WRITING  (David Rains Wallace, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of John Muir and American Wilderness. By Michael P. Cohen (David Rains Wallace, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of FOUR CORNERS History, Land, and People of the Desert Southwest. By Kenneth A. Brown (David Rains Wallace, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of TIME'S ARROW, TIME'S CYCLE Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. By Stephen Jay Gould  (David Rains Wallace, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of AGAINST THE TIDE The Battle for America's Beaches. By Cornelia Dean  (David Rains Wallace, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of ASSEMBLING CALIFORNIA By John McPhee  (David Rains Wallace, NY Times Book Review)
    -Florida State Parks : BULOW CREEK STATE PARK
    -REVIEW: of BULOW HAMMOCK Mind in a Forest. By David Rains Wallace (Jack Rudloe, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE KLAMATH KNOT Explorations of Myth and Evolution. By David Rains Wallace (Clifford D. May, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Bonehunters' Revenge Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age. By David Rains Wallace (John Noble Wilford, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of "The Bonehunters' Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age" by David Rains Wallace  The fury of two paleontologists tells us much about the temper of the late-19th century. Unfortunately, the book is a slog. (THOMAS HACKETT, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Bonehunters' Revenge (Richard Sassaman, History Net)
    -REVIEW: of The Monkey's Bridge Mysteries of Evolution in Central America. By David Rains Wallace (Wade Davis, NY Times Book Review)