Hey, you anarchists and agitators, environmentalists, capitalist, cops, Buddhists, and urban planners--get out your pencils, your bookmarks. I'm giving you, specifically, a reading assignment: Ill Nature, by Joy Williams. And all of you who love long walks on the beach, who step over plastics, beer cans, and dead seagulls, who utilize curbside recycling as a panacea for excessive consumption but drive SUVs as if you have a personal obligation to single-handedly combat fuel efficiency and emissions standards--put on your reading glasses too. You need this class.
Again, the assignment: Ill Nature, by Joy Williams. Take the book on your next eco-tour. Use it to fire up a Critical Mass rally. Use it as the answer to every Bridget Jones's Diary spin-off novel, that entertainment industry staple, the biological clock, the pressing need to produce more children. (Williams writes: "The human race hardly needs to be more fertile, but fertility clinics are booming, making millionaires of the hot-shot fertility doctors who serve anxious gottahavababy women, techno-shamans who have become the most important aspect of the baby process, giving women what they want: BABIES.)
Read this book when you're feeling small and sorry for yourself. Read it when you lose your corporate job, when you get a raise, when the stock market falls, when you think your life matters. And to all of you in the ever-expanding Chuck Palahnuik fan club, I guarantee that Mr. Palahnuik himself, in his wisdom, heartily endorses this book, Ill Nature, by Joy Williams.
The book won't be a movie. If it were, who could stand to watch? Footage of fish dying, rare birds winking out, strip malls going up, and human babies produced at an assembly line pace. But the book should be assigned reading, and I offer the assignment now. It's almost painless--the essays are short, some barely over a page. Williams is funny in a terrifyingly dark way, and always to the point. The language is a mix of exotic, edifying, and ordinary, with words like "myxomatosis," "Kissimmee," and the more banal, yet powerful, "Chumps."
"That the Everglades still exists is a collective illusion shared by both those who care and those who don't," Williams writes. "The Park, which millions of people visit and perceive to be the Everglades, makes up only 20 percent of the historic Glades and is but a pretty, fading afterimage of a once astounding ecosystem, the remaining 80 percent of which--drained, diked, and poisoned--has vanished beneath cities, canals, vast water impoundment areas, sugarcane fields, and tomato farms. Ninety percent of the wading bird population has disappeared in 50 years..."
In the essay "Neverglades," Williams shows that we've all been duped if we think for a minute the answer to environmental problems rests in governmental studies; the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal was a peep show, sex a diversion, while Clinton managed more significant, covert relations with sugar industry billionaire Alfonso Fanjul. "The president interrupted his dalliance with Monica only once, to take a call from Fanjul..." And Clinton signed the papers that determined, "The Everglades would still be at the mercy of [sugar] cane and commerce..."
The first time I saw Joy Williams in person was at Powell's years ago. She was dressed in layers of white over white. She was thin as bone. She looked ageless but weathered, and permanently cold. Her hair was dry as tumbleweed. Her skin was well beyond tan. A silver pendant, maybe a cross, on a chain, rested on the flat space where her three white shirts parted, rested on her overly tan skin, over her breastbone. She read a short piece of fiction about a woman dying of a brain tumor. As she read, Williams' lip cracked. Her lip started bleeding. She started bleeding dark red, and I worried about all the layers of white she had on. I worried about the woman with the brain tumor, too. Williams kept reading as though she barely noticed her own body.
She kept reading, and her writing is phenomenal. Parched and tan, cracked and bleeding, she looked overexposed to the elements, forever unprotected. At the time, I wondered where they hell she'd been living. Someplace arid and inhospitable--another country, another planet? Now, with Ill Nature, it's clear she's been here, on our very own devastated planet, all along, under the same failing ozone layer as the rest of us.