A number of years ago, on a plane returning to the United States from Mexico, I sat next to a garrulous doctor who was also the head of New York’s cactus and succulent society. He told me about plant sales, about the traditional Bajan candy that was a great threat to one-hundred-year-old cacti, and about an earlier plane trip on which he smuggled an uprooted barrel cactus back to America wrapped in a ball of dirty T-shirts. But cacti were not the reason for this trip, he explained as he showed me a medal he had just won in a long-distance race up a Guatemalan volcano, running alongside other men in his age group, forty and older. He had been busy conquering a different harsh element of the Central American landscape. After landing, as we parted ways on the elevator up to ground transportation, to myself I thought, This is a character for a short story. But even though the stories that Ivan told me revolved around botany, geology, man’s will to bend nature, it never once occurred to me until reading May Theilgaard Watts’s essay “Looking Down on Improved Property (or an Airplane View of Man and Land)” that Ivan and his chatter might be just as suited to a short ecology study as to fiction.
In this essay from Reading the Landscape of America, Watts begins her narrative with a conversation overheard between businessmen about the evergreen plantings they had been collecting for their yards; she then reflects on the great landing strip on an orchid pinned on a fellow passenger’s lapel. Once she has sensed the small presences of nature, even in the vacuum of the airport, we find her looking out the plane window at the passing city grids and farm grids and reporting that “under this net, Nature is squirming and resisting.” At every margin, every mark on the human neatness of borders, she reels off the names “dandelion, cottonwood, ailanthus,” like a refrain announcing the little victories of hardy wilderness. In another essay from the same collection, “Prairie Plowing Match,” the concern with finding pockets of “native” flora among the “foreign” plantings imported by humans is the same, but this study finds a different refrain. She refers back to seventy-five years of local literature for text suggesting the original Illinois landscape she seeks, and she uses fragments of these historical tractor-pull programs to punctuate her description of a walk around the prairie. When she finds her “natives,” she finds them along a fence rail, on the grounds of a churchyard, and inside an abandoned school house.
While Watts wrote and illustrated several botanical identification books and was a journalist, activist, and a poet to boot, it is her essays that best showcase her poetic style and her aptitude for combining rigor with reflection. “There is good reading on the land,” she writes in the introduction to Reading the Landscape of America, “first hand reading, involving no symbols.” If Watts rejects symbolism in a first breath, she doesn’t do it to reject a literary style of writing. She chooses metaphor and simple juxtapositions as her paradigms for figurative thought. Her gift for metaphor is evident in the titles of her pieces: one essay about a prehistoric strain of magnolias in the Smoky Mountains is called “In Search of Antiques”; another about the formation of a bog is called “History Book with a Flexible Cover.” A number of Watts’s peculiarities of style and pet preoccupations call to mind some of my favorite writers of twentieth century. In her tendency to collect and collage the most wonderful fragments of nature study she is like Marianne Moore; in her interest in mapping and borders she is like Elizabeth Bishop; in her love of the plains and her Midwestern pithiness like Willa Cather. As an essayist, she makes a point, like E. B. White, of memorializing in a very human way the small battles that nature wages within itself.
Though influential in the Rails-to-Trails program, Watts was not a strictly a preservationist. She was supremely interested in the interactions of the built environment with nature. She calls the landscape “a lively, unfinished manuscript,” and this state of flux was embodied as much by the antiques collectors, naturalists, and geologists with whom she traveled the country as by the modern transportation that carried them through it. Just as Watts narrates “Improved Property” from a plane, she also writes from the vantage of a train and from a car on the highway. The latter piece she titled “Reading the Headlines Only,” because the speed of interstate traffic allowed her to pay careful attention only to the tree lines and median strips, but not more subtle details of the ecosystems through which she passed on her journey from Chicago to Atlantic City. Her whimsical solution to the vague and often monotonous “headlines” of her road trip was to suggest “a project for utilizing the vacant, characterless length of some interstate highway by allowing its whole length to become a ‘Strip of Reality.’ The procedure would be simply to do nothing: no mowing; no application of weed-killers; no shaping to channel the rain before it soaks in—nothing. Then we could all watch as the potential vegetation returned, to this nationwide strip, changing from east to west as conditions changed.” When she submitted this idea to a “conservation-minded” magazine, “they pondered, and then asked for more pondering time,” before explaining that the “highwaymen would be at our necks” and the idea was not feasible. Watts was interested in nature broader than the inner workings of any given ecosystem—she was interested in the poetics of each environment she saw, no matter at what speed she traveled though it.
None of her essays goes without man’s world as a counterpoint. When describing the migration of a small island, Watts takes the point of view of a great statue of Black Hawk that stands on the riverbank and watches as tree roots erode, logs fall, debris accumulates, and the landmass inches downstream. When outlining the formation of a sand dune, Watts and her friends have a picnic that becomes tragically sandy in the beach’s breeze. But the grit is no problem to the hikers—as they finish their sandwiches Watt’s words shore up the dune beneath them as the narrative wends into the gradual appearance of hearty grass and deep-rooted trees. Even when she tells of her own hike and her own observations, she hands the job of narration over to the landscape itself to dictate the slow stages for which humans will never stay both alive and sitting still.
The rhythm of Watts’s writing is a walking rhythm, even when she is on a plane or superhighway. Her structure too resembles any good contemplative walk as her narrative shifts in and out of the physical world. The plants she sees have their Linnaean place before they become local myths, poetic reveries, natives and foreigners, and form roots at her feet once again. She pokes her toe in all the niches. The pace of Watt’s work and the beauty of it is that she is not quite teaching about her landscapes so much as she is reading them aloud to herself, slow enough that we can keep up and sing-song enough that we want to.
Abigail Walthausen is a writer and high-school teacher in Brooklyn. Follow her blog at EdTech Pentameter.