With the publication of The Trail Home, John Daniel has emerged as a major new figure in American nature writing. Readers of Wilderness, The North American Review, Orion, and other periodicals will recognize some of the pieces in this book from their earlier incarnations, but this first collection of Daniel's nonfiction (his book of poetry, Common Ground, appeared in 1988) shows his attentiveness to a broad range of environmental issues and experiences.
The collection begins and ends with essays focusing on Daniel's own life in the West, mainly Oregon and the mid-San Francisco peninsula. In the opening essay, "The Garden and the Field," Daniel recounts his efforts to grow tomatoes while living in a cottage on Wallace Stegner's land during his stints as a Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in Poetry at Stanford University in the 1980s. "I am sick of the banalities spoken in supermarkets," writes Daniel in mock exasperation. "I write poems and I want poems to eat, rich red suns of August." There is gentle humor and self-critique throughout this book of meditations on encounters with the natural world, indoors and out. The earlier essays contemplate growth and wandering, while the final essays in the volume emphasize mortality and the process of finding/making a "home." In "Some Mortal Speculations," Daniel uses several observations of death in nature as springboards toward explaining his own "discontent with mortality." Catching himself turning death into an abstraction, he notes: "My mind, like my hands, is best suited to the grasping of smaller things, things that happen close in front of me, things I can see and turn slowly in memory and see again, in imagination's second light." This devotion to observed and re-imagined particulars is Daniel's guiding method in these essays. The book's concluding piece, "The Trail Home," strongly reflects the worldviews of the author's friends and mentors, Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry. Like many important contemporary nature writers, Daniel is deeply concerned with the psychology of awareness: "We began to realize our home around us," he recalls, "we are realizing it now, by what we learn to be aware of, what we learn to see and listen for and come to know as part of our lives."
Whether discussing tomato-planting or the phenomenon of death, "The Impoverishment of Sightseeing" or the relationship between humans and animals ("Among Animals"), the essays in this volume display not only sparkling language but clear, passionate thinking. One of the most scathing and visionary essays in the book is "Remembering the Sacred Family," in which Daniel reveals the difference between awareness of ecology as an abstraction and actually living in accordance with the principle of relatedness. Although these essays certainly offer powerful aesthetic and intellectual sustenance, they go much farther—they guide us toward a refined understanding of our lives in the world.