It is life that Joy Williams is after in this book about (at times overwhelmingly or bizarrely) death. Ill Nature means her anger, her attitude, but it really means sick Nature. Abused animal life and habitat land, ruined water, strangled forests, proxy environments, corrupted science, lost mind; for it is we, the caretakers, who are the most ill of all in what we do to the life that’s being flushed away, along with 7,000 acres daily lost to development, which only begins to tell the story. Intrusive, pointedly detailed, painfully entertaining and likely to outlast some considerable portion of the life defended in it, Williams’s bill of particulars has its own emphasis. It arises from the writer’s own Florida and the perhaps chance occasion of some of these essays, polemics and emblematic bulletins. But it adds up to a jeremiad classically American and on-the-edge uncanny, at a time of waste, greed, skewed self-love and a death wish unquestionably global–a plague even of petri dish and adoption babies in one of her population pieces that is contrarian with a vengeance.
Williams’s book often urges action. Yet it seems sometimes to doubt the possibility of action, given where we are, which is not only the land and our deeds and joint procedures but, as I read her, includes a spiritual outage for which there may not be a secular solution.
On this side of that divide much is familiar. Disposables achieving an awesome afterlife. Baboons in vises getting their brains beaten in on behalf of head-injury research. A tobacco industry pumping experimental smoke down the windpipes of thousands of dogs and rats that weirdly did not get cancer. A new image like a vision tells us that natural disasters are upon us that are likely the end of us, though we may not go first–a “deranged” heron, “white as robed angels,” “beating its head against a tree knocked down by bulldozers to widen a road.” I learn from the essay “Neverglades” that that famous Florida ecosystem park of ours is down to 20 percent of what it once was; came the ’28 hurricane, then a vast Army Corps of Engineers dike built to “protect” 700,000 acres, in fact to create an “agricultural area” to be dried up for the benefit of Big Sugar; then decades of shrinkage promoted even into the Clinton years under the pretense that the dying park, its water beshitten by dairy farms and cane-growers’ used irrigation water back-pumped through it, was being cleaned up by the alliance of federal and state government and the agricultural interests that had managed to kill it. It gets complex, as this kind of capital operation tends to.
The “earth-unfriendly” “corporate environmental community” is now apparently supported in one way or another by the National Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy and other “ECOWIMP” organizations. As for the “most reactionary of all,” what could one expect from an Audubon Society named after “the premier avian slaughterer of his time”? What have you done when you bring the gray wolf back to Yellowstone, an area abandoned in the winter by most animals, and remove it from the endangered species list to please ranchers and hunters? Florida subsidizes staged “youth hunts,” kids shooting deer from stands in wildlife management areas that help them “understand man’s role in the ecosystem.”
Animals are almost at the center of this book. How does it happen that hunters who already kill on millions of acres of public land are now invited into more than half of our tax-subsidized wildlife refuges to kill a million animals a year? “Wildlife-oriented recreation,” it is called. “Nowhere is the murder of animals, the manipulation of language, and the distortion of public intent more flagrant.” This from the famous hunting piece “The Killing Game,” originally in Esquire, of all places, where Williams lets the apologists convict themselves with their own self-serving Orwellisms: Conservationists “harvesting” venison; population control of “underutilized birds” for which special seasons are designed; “recreational” lovers of beautiful creatures exercising “a God-given right” to kill for the fun of it–that glamorous “primitive,” the bowhunter, leaving half his (or her) hits to die out of reach; or the ludicrously overequipped (and underinformed) mobile strategists using doe-urine sex lures, spreading popcorn on the golf course to draw geese, snowmobiling moose, outflanking animals that are resting, eating. And “as for subsistence hunting, please.”