The nature writing of James Michener
One does not often associate James Michener with nature-writing. He writes epics, sometimes likened to fictional documentaries, with wide strokes on broad canvases. Yet in most of his epic stories, it is difficult not to find a a chapter or more about the land, its formation, the animals, the plants and the people who live amongst them.
Like another of my favourite authors, Louis L’Amour, Michener is one with the panorama that he writes about, be it desolate and strange, or familiar and unremarkable.
King's Peak seen across Henry's Fork basin. This scenic vista, the essence of his books about continental USA, corresponds to the broad and diverse subject matter of Michener's epics, considered by some to be fictional documentaries. (Image : Hyram K. Wright. GFDL)
Somerset Maugham once stated about writing that :
The best style is the style you don’t notice.
So it is with Michener, he researches his biology, his geology and writes. When he does so, he transports us back into time. In our mind, a movie runs, initiated by his simple, eloquent yet powerful style.
Prehistoric Bison painted by paleolithic man in Altamira cave (Spain). (Image: Reconstruction by Emille de Cartailhac, 1906. Public domain).
Take for example this passage from “Portrait of Rufous” from his novel ‘Centennial‘ :
..the wolves that hung about the edges of a herd, hoping for a bit of luck, spotted the little calf. They had a good chance of picking him off, since the older bull was endeavouring to kick him to one side. So they closed in on the running pair, trying to insert themselves between the baby bull and the mature one.
They failed. Once Rufous recognised their strategy, he became a changed animal. It was his responsibility to protect calves, no matter how bothersome, no matter how distant the retreating heard. Accordingly he scanned the terrain as he ran and spotted a small embankment that may provide protection.
Twisting his head abruptly to the right, he headed for the rocky bank. As if the young calf had been physically attached to him, he turned at the same time and the two galloped to the refuge. There Rufous turned to confront his enemies, keeping the calf beside him and well protected by his large flank.
The wolves closed in, eleven of them, but they were powerless against his horns and massive head, nor could they slip behind him to attack his tendons because he kept his rear tight against the rock. If he had not been hampered by this irritating calf, he could have been beaten back the wolves and returned to the herd, but with that encumbrance, he could do no more than protect himself.
He did manage one other defense. He bellowed several times – the low guttural cry seemed to roll vainly across the vast pririe. But he was heard. The bison having outrun their fright, had stopped and were aimlessly milling around when the master fighter of the herd to whch Rufous belonged, the large black bull, heard the cry of distress and doubled back to investigate. With him came the bull with the slanting left horn, and the closer they approached the intermittent bellow, the faster they ran.
Rufous - painted by a paleolithic artist half a world away. (Image: Public domain photograph.)
Geological happenings such as the formation of the land masses, oceans, archipelagos, glaciers, mountain ranges, great lakes and valleys are all grist for the mill to Michener. A moving hot spot through the Earth’s crust left islands strewn like a string of pearls. Such things fascinated Michener, for in two books – Hawaii and Centennial – he has included a chapter on how the land was formed, the violent volcanic upheavals in the Pacific in the case of the former and the titanic pushing of the continental plates in continental North America in the case of the latter. Not only does Michener write on such seemingly dry, dusty topics, he in fact waxes poetically about them.
Black and blood-red sunset reflected in the dark ocean waters of the Bering Strait remind one that islands in the Pacific were borne of fire and lava millions of years ago. (Image: NOAA, public domain).
See how Michener writes about the very first super-ocean in the chapter “From the boundless deep” in Hawaii :
“Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been fixed, there was, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others. It was a mighty ocean, lying to the east of the largest continent, a restless, ever-changing, gigantic body of water that would later be described as pacific.
Over its brooding surface immense winds swept back and forth, whipping the waters into towering waves that crashed down upon the world’s seacoasts, tearing away rocks and eroding the land. In its dark bosom, strange life was beginning to form, minute at first, then gradually of a structure now lost even to memory. Upon its farthest reaches birds with enormous wings came to rest, and then flew on.
Agitated by a moon stronger then than now, immense tides ripped across this tremendous ocean, keeping it in a state of torment. Since no great amounts of sand had yet been created, the waters where they reached shore were universally dark, black as night. Scores of millions of years before man rose from the shores of the ocean to perceive its grandeur and to venture forth upon its turbulent waves, this eternal sea existed, larger than any other of the earth’s features, more enormous than the sister oceans combined, wild terrifying in its immensity and imperative in its universal role….
…then one day millions of years ago, a rupture developed in the rocky bed of the ocean. It occurred near the middle of the sea, a bit closer to what would later become the western United States than to the shores of eastern Asia. Some great fracture of the earth’s basic structure had occurred and from it began to ooze a white-hot liquid rock. As it escaped from its internal prison and came into contact with the ocean’s wet and heavy body, the rock instantly exploded, sending aloft through the nineteen thousand feet of ocean that had pressed down upon it columns of released steam.”
In most books, Michener chooses one or more animals, their stories to tell as part of the textual mural. In ‘Chesapeake’, he writes of Onk-or, the wild goose, and of Jimmy, the Blue Crab, which formed part of the delicious New England fare and on whose shell, several fortunes rested. In Texas, he writes of armadilloes whose determined predations left a hapless Texas town helplessly unable to protect their lawns. In Alaska, it is the story of Nerka, the salmon.
An American Mastodon, the most recent of the genus of extinct probiscideans. While mastodons had a size and appearance similar to elephants and mammoths, they were not particularly closely related. (Image: 1897 portrait by Charles Knight. Public domain.)
In Alaska, we also get to meet two fascinating prehistoric pachyderms – the Mastodon and the Woolly Mammoth.
Whats the difference between a Mastodon and a Woolly Mammoth? Mastodons lived from 40 million years ago (mya) to about 10,000 BCE. They were browsers – they fed on leaves, soft shoots, or fruits of high growing, generally woody, plants such as shrubs. They had no hair.
Michener writes in ‘Mastodon’ :
Nowhere else could the subtle relationships be intimately observed. Ice high, oceans low. Bridge open, passageway closed. The ponderous Mastodon lumbering toward North America, the delicate horse moving toward Asia. Mastodon lurching toward inescapable extinction. The horse galloping toward an enlarged life in France and Arabia. Alaska, its extremities girt in ice, served as a way station for all the travelers, regardless of the direction in which they headed. its broad valleys that were free of ice and its invigorating climate provided a hospitable resting place.
On the other hand, Mammoths had a thick layer of shaggy hair and were grazers (grass eaters). They lived from 4.8 million to 4,500 years ago. In Alaska, they existed at different points in time, when the climate was different.
Both these animals were wiped out as part of the great Pleistocene megafauna extinction.
Matriarch leads her herd across the Alaskan tundra. (Image:Mauricio Anton, License CC - A - 2.5 generic.)
About woolly mammoth, Michener writes:
One day late in winter, twenty-nine thousand years ago, Matriarch, a mammoth grandmother, forty four years old and beginning to show her age, led the little herd of six for which she was responsible down a softly rolling meadow to the banks of a great river later to be known as the Yukon. Lifting her trunk high to sniff the warming air and signaling the others to follow, she entered a grove of willow herbs that lined the river, and when the others had taken their place besides her, she indicated that they might begin feeding on the sprouting tips of willow branches. They did so with delight because they had subsisted on meager rations during the previous winter, and as they gorged, Matriarch gave grunts of encouragement.
It is in the novel Centennial that we see Michener provide a bewildering array of animal stories in a chapter titled ‘The Inhabitants’.
Let the word ‘chapter’ not fool you for Michener provides a complete set of animal stories discussing the appearance and interaction of the earliest creatures. He starts from the dinosaur “Diplodocus” to go on to the fore-runners of the modern horse, the prehistoric bison, the giant beaver, the rattlesnake and more.
Jimmy, the blue crab of Chesapeake Bay. (Image: NOAA - public domain.)
Michener is careful about his research. An account of his preparation for the novel ‘Covenant’ can be found here. In “Jimmy the crab”, one meets a Blue crab facing the challenge of extensive siltation and excessive fresh water. The story tells of how a hurricane created such a problem for the crab, the crabs efforts to cope and their eventual death due to pollution. It is told simply, the secrets of crab biology informed in a most matter-of-fact way and harsh reality not denied.
Michener loves his animals. His writings bear no sign of anthropomorphism except in the choice of the subjects themselves. He writes of the love he felt for a pet hyena in Spain where he wrestles and plays with a creature whose robust jaws could have crushed a limb or his face but which never did so while holding them gently within its formidable maw. He also tells of a fellow-feeling that he felt for a particular grizzled old bison when he spent time studying a bison herd. He decided to make this bison and the hyena the protagonists of two stories.
To find Michener’s nature stories, one does not need to trawl through his literature, which of course is the best way to read him and understand how he viewed nature in its context. The stories have been collected and during his lifetime itself issued as “The Creatures of the Kingdom”. The book has a foreword by Michener himself and tells of his attitude to nature. Michener writes:
I cannot think of myself as exceptional in any respect. I know that man could never have survived the violent volcanoic upheavals in the Pacific Ocean that created the glorious chain of Hawaiin islands. The first tenants of the newly born Rocky Mountains surely did not walk upright. My kind has lived here on Earth only a few million years; the dinosaurs thrived for a hundred million. And I am not homocentric enough to think that man embodies all that is best in the animal kingdom, in which he plays a dominant path. He cannot slither along his belly like a snake or use his nose to feed himself the way an elephant can. He has not the incredible hearing system of a bat, the sense of smell of a bloodhound, or the capacity to survive underwater like a slug. He cannot cast off his aging skin like a crab or stand motionless for hours on one foot like a blue heron. Man is a wonderful creature, majestic in his mental capabilities, but in many other respects he is either limited or downright deficient.
Great Americans series - 59 cents James Michener 2008 issue
So what is Michener’s reason for including such powerful nature writing into his epics ?
One reason could be that Michener wants to portray a truth he himself has expounded…
“If man assesses himself honestly when he compares himself with other animals, he can avoid getting a swollen head…“
That then, in my humble opinion, is Michener’s ultimate purpose of writing about nature – to portray man as just one facet in a long timescape. An important cog admittedly in the machinery of the world today, but a cog nevertheless.
Image credits: All images have a free license and can be found on Wikimedia Commons. Go to the source page with full details of attribution and licensing by clicking on the image. Except for the stamp image which is used here under fair use.