Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004

Nature, Through a Civilized Lens

Thomas Urquhart must be an inveterate journal-keeper. Part memoir, part essay on the environment and some of the ways human beings connect with it, For the Beauty of the Earth is really Urquhart’s meditation on his own life, from his unusual transatlantic childhood through a career that included a dozen years as director of the Maine Audubon Society. Given the details he provides along the way, it’s clear we’re dealing with a disciplined diarist or – if he wasn’t taking notes – someone with a prodigious memory.

This is not an autobiography in the conventional sense; the years don’t march by in order. The reader is obliged to follow Urquhart as he jumps, engagingly, from present to past and back again, guided by his own sense of what’s interesting or significant. (If the book sounds as undisciplined and rambling as Bill Clinton’s autobiography, it’s not.)

The strength of For the Beauty of the Earth is really the author’s wide-ranging mind: we read about an early interest in birds nurtured in Britain and the United States, two of the places where Urquhart lived as his father handled diplomatic chores for Her Majesty’s Government, but then we delve into the art of Tintoretto in 15th century Venice – an early environmentalist, compared with most Italian painters of the period. “Where the prospects of Paolo Veronese…seem to open a window onto a pastoral idyll,” he writes in a chapter entitled “Birding Through the Renaissance,” “Tintoretto’s compositions bring the roar of the wind right into the room…the vertiginous swirls that animate his paintings seem to spring directly from the elements. One can almost hear them, and it is like the sound that a meteor makes as it rushes to Earth.”

If anyone has heard a meteor rushing to Earth it’s probably Urquhart, whose travels have taken him everywhere and who is – as this book aptly demonstrates – an acute observer wherever he goes. Besides England, Scotland and Italy, he takes us to France, Italy, Belgium, Mali and various parts of the United States.

But if For the Beauty of the Earth isn’t a conventional autobiography, travel book or treatise on art, it does have a unifying principle, namely that many of Nature’s most interesting and beautiful aspects can be found in one’s own backyard, in landscapes shaped by human use. “The fields in which humans and nature have played together over a long period of time,” he writes, “are the landscapes that set our souls to singing. The hedgerows of England, the woodlots and fields of New England…we need to focus as much energy on saving them as we do the rainforests.”

His message, then, is the same as one learned through observation on peopled, sometimes abandoned islands: such places may be less than true wilderness, but they are sacred still, perhaps even sanctified, by human the vision and toil that made them as they are. “Just as, in the end, it is the quality of the job that is more important to our sense of worth than the place we take our vacation,” Urquhart writes, “it is the countryside in which we live each day that we need to maintain and that should be lovingly husbanded, not taken for granted, as our constant source of refreshment.”

This tension between wilderness – unaltered nature – and the equally beautiful world humans are capable of creating is what animates Urquhart’s writing. In the best sense of the word, For the Beauty of the Earth (the phrase comes from an Anglican hymn) is a civilized look at the world.