COURTESY NANCIE BATTAGLIA
Winter is harsh in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, but black fly season–a six-week stretch in May and June–is even more pitiless. “Blackflies hover in a cloud about your face and move with you for miles, so great is their need for your warmth and company and blood,” observes Bill McKibben, who lived in the region for a number of years. The insects swarm on any sliver of exposed flesh. They crawl into ears, noses and mouths, leaving trails of bites in their wake.
Under siege from the flies, some towns have enlisted exterminators to treat larvae-infested streams with an organic pesticide. One year a petition calling for this measure circulated in Johnsburg, where McKibben lived. But he and some of his neighbors balked at signing it, even if they had trouble accounting for their qualms. McKibben ultimately arrived at this explanation: the black flies “remind me day after day in their season that I’m really not the center of the world, that I’m partly food, implicated in the crawl and creep of things.” The petition failed, and the annual plague continued.
This vignette goes a long way toward illuminating McKibben’s ethos. He reveres what is natural, even if he doesn’t like it. Indeed, he welcomes visceral reminders that the world is not designed to serve his interests. These reminders jolt him out of the solipsism he dislikes in himself and that he sees as rampant among Americans. For this he largely blames consumer culture, where, he notes, every commercial ingratiatingly addresses “you” and your pettiest desires. Rejection of the consumer mentality–which can prevail in the woods as well as at Wal-Mart–is central to McKibbenism. And yet, as any ascetic knows, renunciation can breed its own manner of self-indulgence, just as humility can engender pride. McKibben recognizes these ironies. “I consume inconvenience,” he writes in “Consuming Nature,” “turning it into a pleasurable commodity; it becomes the fuel for my own sense of superiority.”
The author of a dozen books and countless magazine articles, McKibben is ubiquitous on the sustainability scene–the go-to environmentalist for keynote speeches, forewords, blurbs and anthologies. He has now compiled a collection of selected work, The Bill McKibben Reader, and it reveals a writer whose environmentalism runs deeper than the mainstream versions he’s helped to inspire. The contemporary “green” resurgence is still largely limited to small-bore economic and personal adjustments–hybrid vehicles, cap-and-trade proposals, solar panels. McKibben’s environmentalism, by contrast, is essentially religious: a guiding set of beliefs about what humans owe to a sacred source of life.
Religious overtones are, of course, not unusual in environmentalism, as demonstrated by a splendid new anthology of American environmental writing McKibben has edited, American Earth. In “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf,” from 1867, John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, describes his encounters with Yosemite Valley in a mood of unmistakable spiritual ecstasy, and always defers to nature’s perfection. Consider alligators, then reputed to be creatures of the devil. Muir, anticipating the “deep ecology” proponents who would deplore “anthropocentrism,” wrote, “Fierce and cruel they appear to us, but beautiful in the eyes of God.” In “Huckleberries,” from 1861, Henry David Thoreau expresses a similar faith in nature, ascribing to it a divine form of wisdom and benevolence: “nature is doing her best each moment to make us well…. Do not resist her.”