THE OTHER END OF THE DRIVEWAY: AN AMATEUR NATURALIST’S OBSERVATIONS IN THE MAINE WOODS, by Dana Wilde, June 2011, Booklocker.com Inc., $16.95, 278 pages.
A goldfinch flew over Dana Wilde’s head as he stood on his porch in Troy.
“We rarely see those around here,” said Wilde, squinting into the sunlight. “I guess it’s a good omen.”
The bright yellow bird darted about, high in the trees, and his mate, appearing like a pale gold sprite, joined him in the dance.
The visit was brief, but perhaps, if the bright pair stir enough of Wilde’s interest, they’ll become characters in his growing collection of essays. But they’ve come to his yard too late to be included in Wilde’s recent publication, “The Other End of the Driveway,” a collection of nature essays he has written over the past six years, many of which have appeared in his biweekly Amateur Naturalist column in the Bangor Daily News.
Dragonflies (or “prehistoric monsters”), goldenrod, earthquakes and Maine’s winter freeze intertwine with ancient poet Rumi and Irish faeries.
“Go out in the woods with all of these biochemical processes taking place, but what’s happening to you in the midst of it?” said Wilde. “The answer is, you keep getting blown away by all the beauty of it.”
Wilde’s goal is not to balance science and experience, but to pull them together in short stories born from his walks in the backwoods of his 9-acre property.
“Experiencing beauty is a real thing — so how is that coming out of the chemistry of an apple blossom?” said Wilde.
Outdoor adventurer Henry David Thoreau and naturalist Ralph Waldo Emerson created the wilderness sensibility that Wilde experiences, a way of looking at nature in awe of its beauty rather than in fear of its complexity.
Annie Dillard, author of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” greatly influenced Wilde’s literary sensibility in the late ’80s. First inspired to try her hand at nature writing while camping on Mount Desert Island, Dillard combines mystical experiences of the wilderness with scientific processes in her many publications.
Wilde writes about whatever grabs his attention, and this year, spiders keep popping up in his house. When he can’t find them in the kitchen, he pursues them in Unity Park, in the wooded area behind the ball field where wetland brush is the perfect habitat for the eight-legged insects that are pulling on the threads of his imagination.
“It’s like a house of horrors,” said Wilde, who says that he doesn’t particularly like them crawling on him, but when he looks down to see one crawling on his pant leg, he leaves it there and feels honored, in a sense, to be experiencing that connection.
Growing up in Cape Elizabeth, Wilde thought he was a writer starting at the age of 12. In high school and college, he aspired to be a science fiction writer. But in learning about the world at the end of his long dirt driveway, he realized that science fiction writing isn’t so different from nature writing.
“Really, the whole world looks like a science fiction novel to me anyway,” said Wilde. “The spiders, to me, are clearly intelligent, and so are the cats and so are the crows.”
He likens pollen-bearing bees to comets. And of the great blue heron, Wilde writes, “It had the angles of a pterodactyl and the beauties dinosaurs lacked, and it was, amazingly, totally silent.”
Wilde carefully placed “The Great Bear Maine,” a longer essay, at the center of the book. It combines earth and sky, mankind’s ancient relationship with the land and the constellations, and touches upon natural, anthropological, astronomical and spiritual topics, uniting Wilde’s many interests in one piece.
“You have to learn the stars, and it gets boring fast if you don’t put more into it,” Wilde says, who hauls his 4.5-inch Newtonian reflector telescope onto his back porch on clear evenings to stargaze. “In the fall, you can almost see with your naked eye the M31 galaxy [also known as Andromeda Galaxy], if you know where to look. It’s 2.5 million light-years away.”
Wilde says he always will be an “amateur naturalist,” though he has read books about stars and physics for 30 years and he uses field guides on a regular basis to learn the types of grasses growing in the bog off the shore of Unity Pond or to identify a wasp egg sac.
His formal education is in English, which he spent years teaching in Maine and Eastern Europe. He also served as a Fulbright Scholar in China and South Africa, and has been a National Endowment for Humanities fellow. In addition to the Bangor Daily News, his writings have appeared in a variety of literary and academic publications, including The North American Review, Puckerbrush Review, Exquisite Corpse and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
In the fall, he hopes to gather his outer-space essays into a second Amateur Naturalist book.
“In 35 years or so of writing, you accumulate a lot,” said Wilde. “You want something to show what you’ve been doing all this time.”