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Flushed medications sneak into the flesh of wild fish. McMansions rise from marshes. Oily waves foul beaches. Every generation of messy, bumbling humans poses new perils to the natural world, and so the need is ever strong for nature writing that is scientifically up to date, muscular, moving and wise.
Herald, then, Amy Lou Jenkins, whose quietly named debut collection of essays, "Every Natural Fact: Five Seasons of Open-Air Parenting," sounds as if it might be a feel-good book about taking kids bird-watching but is instead a powerfully written ode to the connections among many seemingly disparate things, from migratory bird routes to the mood swings of an adolescent boy.
Along the way, Jenkins turns Wisconsin into Wonderland, exploring its diverse landscapes and ecosystems, its rich history and often unappreciated beauty.
Jenkins, a Milwaukee nurse, writer and teacher with an impressive grasp of natural history and the great nature writers, has a strong sense of herself as connected to others, and to all of nature:
"Like the Native American who used her rope to tether a sapling that would take decades to grow large enough to mark the trail, I must think beyond my days," she writes. "This drive might be genetic, but it feels spiritual."
Jenkins has the ability to introduce almost any subject into an essay about a walk in the woods in a way that illuminates its connections to almost everything else. Casually and seamlessly, she drops clues about herself -- about a childhood spent quietly observing (in order to navigate among tricky alcoholics), a troubled first marriage, a struggle to pull herself out of poverty, a happy second marriage and mothering two children, including DJ, an energetic and occasionally sarcastic adolescent who sometimes enjoys their treks into the natural world and sometimes balks and broods through them. DJ is a great character, full of quips and questions. "You're weird, Mom," he tells her, sometimes bearing with her lectures about nature only because "Chicks dig guys with skills," he says, quoting from "Napoleon Dynamite." Yet DJ is listening, and occasionally reflects knowledge and understanding gained on their outings.
In Wisconsin woods, marshes and meadows, in every season, mother and son get muddy, get lost, get happy. They set out to see or do one thing and stumble across others -- obstacles or wonders. Along the way, Jenkins writes, they prove the truth of an old Latin proverb: "Solvitur Ambulando." ("It is solved by walking.")
Jenkins' powers of observation are matched by her intelligence and her writing gifts. These essays are downright beautiful. They'll make you want to head for the nearest wild or semi-wild place, with or without a child. Jenkins clearly hopes you'll be inspired to do so, but honestly, reading her work is almost as good as the real thing.
Pamela Miller is a night metro editor at the Star Tribune.