The Last Wild Edge: One Woman's Journey from the Arctic Circle to the Olympic Rain Forest

by Susan Zwinger

Published by Johnson Books

182 pages, 1999

Buy it online





A Taxonomic Orgy

Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman


In The Last Wild Edge: One Woman's Journey from the Arctic Circle to the Olympic Rain Forest, Susan Zwinger cobbles travels through disparate landscapes into a quest for self-discovery. Stitching regions together with raven's black call, she documents geology, botany, zoology, environmental and gender politics. She shares insights about cross-cultural wisdom, identity, and spirituality. If an expert is one who knows more and more about less and less, Zwinger, a biologist, is an expert on cryptogams. Focusing on the small things, she never loses sight of why they are important, of how each is part of the dance. She "walks in beauty," which she explains as "knowing the land as being vitally alive and that you are part of it."

Zwinger dedicates this book to the trees: "To all the western red cedars, western hemlocks, Douglas firs, black spruce, and Sitka spruce who sheltered me." Herein lies both the strength of The Last Wild Edge and the weakness. Its greatest strength is the way the journey is imbued with the numinous which inspirits all life. Its greatest weakness is that the style of the book, the biologist writer's poetic voice, is likely to appeal only to the converted, to others who talk to trees. Although she avoids using the "tree-hugger" label, her position is obvious. Thus, her voice may even turn away potential readers who could benefit and enjoy learning to hear its Earthspeak.

The unconverted -- multinational corporations, extraction industries, governments who lie, macho loggers, flesh-eaters -- all inspire some sermonizing. The voice also inadvertently offends potential allies. The writer, self-consciously American, seems to be writing for "the lower forty-eight."

It is hard for me to discover that Canada, too, is no longer a bottomless pocket of wildlife, a pocket we Americans can pick at any time we destroy our own.

Oblivious to why she epitomizes the stereotypical "ugly American," she ignores advice from the Canadians she encounters who have personal experience of the harsh lands she is determined to cross alone.

Other comments about Canada incite a negative reaction. She calls Canada "our gentle neighbors to the north." She uses "our" when talking about the Canadian rainforest, as if manifest destiny is a reality. She thinks she is buying "French Canadian beans" because the label says "harcourts [sic] rouge." She refers to "the Canadian new democratic government." Most insulting of all, she refers to "a folksong as lovely as the one about Lord [sic] Franklin's disappearance." How rude, to name every cryptogam but not to get the details of the song, its title or its writer's name. How typically imperial, repeating Franklin's error. We know what happened to him; he died because he wouldn't listen.

If the reader can tolerate the Amero-centric environmentalism, there is still the "taxonomic orgy." So many words, long and unfamiliar, impede the flow. All the Latin names of plants and the Latinate constructions such as solifluction, paludification, podzolization, glissade, pulvinate, imbricated, rhythmic susurrations. An excellent opportunity to expand vocabulary. Yet still, the language confounds. The writer's poetic flair interferes with the reader's ability to comprehend. For example, "the Olympics [mountains] are a chaos of youthful orogeny and tectonic testosterone." Conversely, it is depressing when the natural world is described and explained in similes and metaphors borrowed from Disney and Lego. This may well be the target market issue again. Is the writer clear about why she is writing this book or for whom she is writing? That some of the elements of style will limit the book's accessibility is a disappointment. I wish everyone could read The Last Wild Edge and weep with joy.

The Last Wild Edge whets my appetite for more. What is the attraction of the wild, the frontier? What personal issues propel travelers to seek edges? What are they missing? Susan Zwinger suggests the answers involve loneliness, rootlessness, a desire to escape, a quest for intimacy, to sleep in the sheltering forest. What makes people become explorers, isolates, environmentalists, eco-terrorists, nature writers? Dysfunction, she jokes. Adolescent rebellion against authority. An attempt to exert control, to empower. Or a search for meaningful work, whether that be to document an ecosystem before it disappears or to help construct a Witness Trail.

The Last Wild Edge insists that there are values other than the quantitative or the industrial. Because the scientists have lost their credibility, it falls to the artists, the shamans and painters and poets to focus their X-ray eyes, to see into the life of things, and to communicate these visions to the rest of us. Zwinger sees and communicates: how everything is connected. The relationship between space and time. "Going north is spinning backwards through time to the Ice Age."

Human time is merely an illusion as we pass in a flicker of Earth time. Constant transformations are the essence of being alive, be it human or mountain or glacier or love.

The connection between place and personal identity. The Hoh River is "a place of identity-origin for me," Zwinger notes. Then, "I am so grateful to this river. I must stay close to the Hoh: It is a ladder connecting my young self to my older self . . . " She implies that everything we want and everything we need exists in the wild. That when we interfere, we risk destroying ourselves.

For Susan Zwinger, biology is a portal into the Great Mystery. "I long to crack the cabalistic codes of [this island's] ancient organisms." In groves of old growth," she says, "there is no permanent death in the cycles of forest. Dead trees become nurse logs even before they fall, sprouting new hemlocks and many shrubs along their lengths. Walking through these silent forests, I am struck by enormous hemlocks that grow in perfectly aligned, numinous corridors. A Parthenon of grace, it seems an invisible architect works within the cycles of life and death."

Her quest for intimacy reaches its climax on a beach at the edge of the Olympic Peninsula where she rides a driftwood log slammed by waves: "I cling onto the roots with my eyes closed. With no vision, the rhythms of the universe, of asteroids smashing, of Earth forming, and of the Big Bang, all shudder into my body." | December 1999


J. M. Bridgeman is Contributing Editor at Suite 101.