Living With Nature

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

There is no precise literary term for the kind of writing William Least Heat-Moon does. Is it travel writing? Nature writing? Environmental history? Rather than search for a name to assign to it, one might do better to consider passion. Passion in its many nettlesome combinations of love, joy, desire, greed, or anger - is a fuel.

"One of the things I care about most in life is the land and the way we belong to it," says William Least Heat-Moon. "Everything I do grows out of that passion." It is a theme explored in many ways by this Missouri writer who took us on a 13,000-mile van ride in Blue Highways, and who plumbed the very bedrock of Chase County, Kansas, in Prairyerth. They are books fueled with a passion for self-discovery, understanding one's sense of place, and learning to live in harmony with the natural world.

Least Heat-Moon, born William Trogdon in 1939, grew up in a suburban setting, and as a boy, explored the remaining pockets of woods that surrounded his family's south Kansas City home. He came to the University of Missouri-Columbia to study English, and later, photojournalism.

"The notion of being Least Heat Moon was strong until I was about 16 or 17 years old. When I went off to college, all that slipped away from me." And for 20 years, he was adrift and sometimes miserable. "I was pursuing interests that were not in accord with my real, deep passions."

Writing Blue Highways was an awakening. He came to recognize a small portion of Osage in his background and the influence it has over his work and life. He renamed himself Least Heat-Moon.

I was in one of the strangest pieces of topography I'd ever seen, a place, until now, completely beyond my imaginings. What is it in man that for a long time lies unknown and unseen only one day to emerge and push him into a new land of the eye, a new region of the mind, a place he has never dreamed of? Maybe it's like the force in spores lying quietly under asphalt until the day they push a soft, bulbous mushroom head right through the pavement. There's nothing you can do to stop it. - Blue Highways

"I believe there's something that moves within all of us, that for lack of a better term, I call genetic memory," he says. "In which, things that occurred to our ancestors get passed on to us." In other words, he explains, people inherit more than just hair, eye or skin color. "We also inherit certain tendencies and certain feelings, certain inclinations to do things in a particular way. So I cite that even though I'm only fractionally Osage, I think that part of the fraction comes through, and there's a response to the land that would not otherwise be there."

More than a million copies of Blue Highways have been sold, and when his second book, Prairyerth, appeared, the Atlantic Monthly magazine likened his work to that by Henry David Thoreau, William Allen White and John Muir. He examines changing rural communities, geologic and natural history and the role human beings have in affecting these changes. Along the way, readers are brought face to face with extraordinary - though noncelebrity - people of many stripes.

Henry David Thoreau said "In wildness is preservation of the world." Least Heat-Moon would like to see Thoreau's notion embraced by all. "I think that when - or if - we understand what natural process is, and we then try to accord ourselves with that, we then are living with the way our biology has been constructed," he says carefully.

"We're the descendants of what - 100,000 years of homo sapiens? And we're the descendants of I don't-know-how-many-more million years of primates. We have a history here of our bodies being designed for a certain way of life." And yet, Least Heat-Moon laments, human beings constantly work to remove themselves from nature and attempt to control it.

"The only way we are going to 'control' nature, as if that's even the word for it, is by controlling ourselves. We have to find out what nature wants and live in accordance with it."

In pursuit of this philosophy, his next book will be about a handful of people, all living in various parts of the country, who have singlehandedly taken a stand and decided to do something to counter environmental degradation in their own communities.

"It's a book that I feel I need to do to help out, a service book in a way. It's about ordinary, single individuals making a difference." Work on the book keeps him traveling, though home is 50 acres near Columbia and the Missouri River. "Most people from other parts of the country don't realize how varied the terrain is here. Not only are my roots connected here, but it's a wonderful place because I like the climate, the weather."

Grasses and broadleaf plants coexist closely by sharing light and soil nutrients at different levels and different times of the year; in spite of relentlessly fierce competition, species so balance themselves that a big increase of one at the expense of others hardly happens unless there is an outside disturbance. In mature grassland the communities are diversely full yet in equilibrium, but I haven't heard of any prairie politician seeing or caring to apply the parable. - Prairyerth

Least Heat-Moon is a member of several national environmental groups and in Missouri, serves on the Board of Directors of Scenic Missouri. One senses he is a person eager to make up for past mistakes or missed opportunities. "A human being has reached failure because he - in my case - had spent 20 years looking inward, paying attention to himself and ignoring his life," he concedes. "The challenge is to look out, not in. Touch more of life, don't wrap it in close to you.

"When we find out what our physiology wants, find out what nature will do to help make those things possible, we can then live in accordance with our biology and nature." For William Least Heat-Moon, this idea lies at the heart of what is required to achieve both personal and environmental harmony.

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