The National Catholic Review
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Awaiting a spring that is coming slowly to the Big Apple, I fast-forward my thoughts and summon the words of the 18th-century poet James Thomson: “…who can paint/ like Nature? Can imagination boast,/ amid its gay creation, hues like hers?” Signs and wonders will soon abound in all their glory in every park across the land.

Presently—in observance of Earth Day—I am reading and absorbing some of the most powerful, prescient literary gems of nature writing from the past two centuries. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau is edited by Bill McKibben. What is of particular note about this effort, published by The Library of America, is that it will be kept in print with a gift from the Gould Family Foundation. Proceeds from the book, we are told, will be used to support the mission of The Library of America—which is to “print and preserve authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing.”

Weighing in at nearly three pounds and close to 1,000 pages, the book represents over 1,000 selected writings from some 300 sources. Savoring it as I am, at my own pace, it will likely be summer before I finish the book. The early heroes of conservationist thought, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, of course, are among those heard from. The scores of others who join their illustrious company include Walt Whitman, Theodore Roosevelt, John Burroughs, Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Rachel Carson, Alan Durning and Barbara Kingsolver.

I was moved palpably while witnessing with Thoreau on Haven Hill two loggers sawing down a majestic pine. Through the writer’s words, recorded in his Journal (Dec. 30, 1851), we see and “hear” that tree go down. Slowly, at first, “as if it were only swayed by a summer breeze and would return without a sigh to its location in the air.” Then it lies down to its bed in the valley “as softly as a feather, folding its green mantle about it like a warrior....” Then, delayed, comes a “deafening crash” to the rocks, reminding us that “even trees do not die without a groan.”

From the Adirondack wilderness to the Sierras, from Concord to Central Park, from whales to wild life and huckleberries to highways, this compendium teems with the best of the best observations and commentary on Earth and our place on it. That includes the awesome responsibility to nurture it—no matter where we live. As Frederick Law Olmsted rightly proclaimed, care for “environment is not confined to rural life, but [must be] for city life as well.” While most of the writings in this book are celebratory, many decry humanity’s profligate waste and destruction of organic life, as well as the abuse of other life forms, not least vegetation and animals.

Which leads me to point out another April observance: the founding (in 1866) of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Education is key to spreading awareness of animal abuse, and the society has numerous resources and tools for use in schools and other settings. A new venture is Henry’s Book Club, offering selections at three levels: children of 5 to 12 years; teens 13 and over; and teachers and parents. Visit their Web site to obtain valuable information, tips and classroom ideas.

An estimated 3,500 homeless-pet shelters operate in the United States. I volunteer several hours on the weekend at one near my home. In the few months I have been there, we’ve taken in a dog who had been tied to a radiator for six years (imagine the socialization issues), another so badly burned by its owner (hot iron, boiling water, etc.) it nearly died; another missing an eye and a foot; and most recently, a young cat tied up in a garbage bag and left on a major roadway. An alert driver avoided running over the bag and rescued the animal. And those are the tip of the iceberg. In an effort to reach out to youth, the founder-owner, Roberta Giordano, shows a special video in schools across the city that opens kids’ eyes—literally—to the horrors of abuse, teaches how to treat all animals, how to report abuse and so on.

It’s no wonder I am a great advocate for adoption over purchase. We and the animals are inextricably bound to one another in nature’s plan. We share the earth and its resources, we recognize the rights of the other. As Jeremy Bentham (d. 1842) once wrote of animals: “The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?”

Let us care for all God’s creation.

Patricia A. Kossmann is literary editor of America.

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