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A Review of Mann & Nature by Robert Shetterly: A Collection of Essays, Perry Mann, Kettle Moraine Publishing Co., 2011 Every heart divorced from nature starves. — Perry Mann To read Perry Mann’s essays about his upbringing during the Depression on his grandparents’ labor intensive, cash poor farm outside of Hinton, West Virginia and then about his subsequent years (he is 91 now and still gardening) of farming and sharing his experiences of being in nature is to, at first, be overwhelmed by the paucity of one’s own life — no matter how financially rewarding. Perry Mann’s joyous and intense presence on the land and the acuity of his descriptions of nature leave one with the nagging feeling of never having really seen anything at all. That feeling, however, is not Mr. Mann’s intention, nor does it last long, except as a spur to get outside, observe the complex and mysterious interplay of plants, animals and weather, to plant some seeds, and to glory in nature. If there is one overriding theme of all of these essays, it is that the illusive quest for happiness need not be illusive at all: “It may be happiness is producing by hand and mind what is essential to live and the use and enjoyment of it to sustain life with enough surplus to give time for rest and reflection.” What makes these essays so sustaining and compelling is captured in what Mr. Mann means by “reflection.” He is a man deeply schooled in philosophy, poetry, economics, and science. But however academically erudite he may be, his primary teacher is nature. Reflection after keen observation of nature is the teacher that none of us needs a student loan to profit from. (“Poetry helps, but it is no excuse for spring in the woods.”) Mr. Mann sees not only the land, the trees, the fields, but its history — how it has been used or abused by humans, its geological history, and the critical role of the land in the survival of our species: “No occupation or industry or any entrepreneurial undertaking matters more to humankind than the man with the hoe.” But just as the essays remind us of the importance of small agriculture and hard work, they also are about the critical importance of relishing beauty and the consequent building of vivid memory of family, time and place. No one could write a book celebrating the joys of small farming and communing with nature without also necessarily being political. Political and corporate plundering of nature for profit is a strong undercurrent in this book and its only occasion for cynicism: “Can a nation that claims it is Christian and whose inspiration is Jesus of Nazareth reconcile its maniacal materialism with its religious aspiration…?” And: “The West’s wealth has come from the shameless spending of its natural legacy, that is, the mindless conversion of its soil, forest, streams, and other natural resources into forty zillion pieces of silver, a betrayal of God and nature so gross Judas’s treacherous bribe- taking pales in retrospect.” Such sentiments fit well in a continuum of writers about land use in this country from Thoreau and John Muir through Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson to Wendell Berry. And such a statement about betrayal derives from Mr. Mann’s conviction: “I know in my soul’s deepest depths compliance with nature’s demand is man’s true salvation.” And he knows that the monuments of accomplishment that humans cherish depend on that compliance: “…the base of any civilization, the substance upon which its most magnificent creations stand, is topsoil. When the topsoil goes, all goes.” And he chronicles how we are squandering that topsoil at a prodigious rate. However, the overall tone of this book is not anger at the desecration of nature. These essays celebrate nature’s mystery and beauty, how it sustains one’s soul, offers happiness, and shapes a sustainable meaning for life. The essays are about delight, delight in the transitory moment and delight in the memory of ecstatic of perception. There is an ache in them, like the ache of muscles worked hard in honest toil, of a life well lived. Perry Mann loves gardening and nature primarily because he relishes precise and poignant taste. He says, “I gathered green onions, the succulent sizzles of spring.” Let his essays be your green onions. Robert Shetterly Brooksville, Maine March 26, 2012

 

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