An elderly English professor of mine occasionally conducted our writing seminars on the patio of his house, hard by a woods on the outskirts of Nashville. One day, while we sipped beer and he played his folk guitar—on such afternoons it seemed we rarely discussed writing—we were interrupted by a songbird that had come to feed in the backyard. The professor stopped his playing and we all listened for a while, amused and somewhat embarrassed. Finally the old man said, "That bird is mine, you know. We understand each other."
My English professor and Brooks Atkinson, the former drama critic and foreign correspondent, would have gotten along famously. In This Bright Land (Doubleday/Natural History Press, $5.95) Atkinson writes about the natural wonder of America and its systematic despoiling by four centuries of "civilized" man. Yet his is not the usual polemic leveled against the abusers of our continent. Rather, it is a low-keyed description of our natural resources and an appeal for their preservation. It is not the kind of book that makes one want to throw oneself in front of bulldozers, but rather to take long walks through a Vermont woods or pole a flat-bottomed boat into the quiet of the Florida Everglades.
Atkinson tells us what America once was—"Earth's only paradise," in the words of an Elizabethan poet—then gives us a gentle tour of what is left. He takes us down the Mississippi. He guides us through the Grand Canyon, at whose edge the first explorers turned back in disgust, branding it a wasteland. He celebrates the wonder of New Jersey's Great Swamp, which some would prefer as a jetport. He shows us the Everglades, nearly killed by drought a few years back when the Army Corps of Engineers, in the interest of flood control, shut off the imperceptible flow of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee that keeps the 'Glades alive.
The point of the book is nowhere stated so cogently as in its last chapter. Atkinson lives in the Catskills near a section of state forest planted in the 1930s when local farms and pastures became unproductive. One August morning, Atkinson notes, "a solitary rose-breasted grosbeak sat in the top spray of a tall spruce and sang with great resonance and beauty.... There seemed to be no practical motive for singing...[but] after thirty-five years, the spruces had created an environment in which a grosbeak felt content, and he said so gloriously."
In other words, Atkinson seems to say, we don't need cosmic reasons for saving what we have. The song of a grosbeak on a summer morn will do nicely.