“Scat,” “The Underneath,” and the Appreciation of Nature

Before I’d finished reading Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath – before I’d even gotten more than a few dozen pages into the novel, in fact – I wanted to start telling people to read it. Now that I’m done with the book, the urge to share it with others is only stronger.

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The problem being that, like any great book, it’s impossible to describe The Underneath’s greatness. It is, basically, about a cat and a dog and a pair of kittens who live beneath a grouchy guy’s house and, later on in the book, about what happens when one of the little ones gets a bit too curious (as kittens are wont to do). But there’s also an ancient snake and an equally ancient alligator. There’s an old native American community, populated by a handful of shape-shifting individuals. There are rivers and creeks and an enormously important, lightning-struck pine tree. And beyond the novel’s sprawling cast of characters, in layers above and beneath the situations that unfold among them, there’s even more.

Appelt is both a gifted poet and a natural storyteller, and in The Underneath these two capacities intertwine and play off one another in profound and even magical ways. The book is divided into over a hundred chapters, some paragraph-long prose poems, others longer, full-on dramatic scenes. The writing, however, is invariably gorgeous, gripping, tender, and wise. Reading, you will find yourself constantly torn – both eager to speed ahead to find out what happens next and longing to linger over the sinuous sentences and rich, evocative descriptions.

For the writer, each chapter – whether a hundred words-long or ten pages – offers up a little lesson, a masterful example of how to build tension and suspense, how to reveal character, how to set a scene, how to slow down or speed up a narrative, how to describe a face, a tree, a house, a boot, a storm, the sound of a car, the sound of a cat, the smell of the woods, the taste of hate, the feel of regret – how to, basically, put the whole world down on paper.

But all of this exquisite language is governed by a sensitive perspective, one that folds numerous important ideas and themes into the larger narrative. Many of these are related to nature. Throughout the novel, Appelt shares her love of the natural world. Her feelings for the woods and waterways and the countless creatures that inhabit them – including us – ache out at the reader from every page. Her language is so deft and delicate that, after just a few pages, you’ll find yourself feeling the same – newly sensitized, as it were, to the world around you. After reading The Underneath, you will never look at a pine tree the same way again, will never hear a dog barking and baying without wondering at the worlds of feeling behind the cries.

It was only by coincidence that, after finishing The Underneath, I almost immediately picked up Carl Hiaasen’s Scat. In terms of style, shape, and tone, these two books are enormously different – they come, after all, from two very different writers. But Appelt and Hiaasen share a deep reverence for the natural world, and these feelings run through nearly every sentence of Scat, same as they do The Underneath. Love, respect, and appreciation of nature function in both Appelt’s and Hiaasen’s fiction like a tree’s roots. Invisible, yet integral. Unseen, but essential.

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Scat is about a missing biology teacher, an endangered panther, illegal oil pipelines, unlikely friends, accidental teenage detectives, “eco-avengers,” families (some broken, some fractured-but-surviving, some in the military, some mysterious, some strange), and also, if you can believe it, quite a bit more. And the writing is superb. Plenty of times throughout the novel, Hiaasen proves that he can wax poetic with the best of them, but he also manages to keep you edge-of-your-seat thrilled, dying to read on. And maybe best of all, Hiaasen makes you laugh.

All of this is in the service of telling a good story. Yet it’s clear that Hiaasen’s novel has a secondary mission, too. He’s seriously troubled by our modern-day use and abuse of nature, by our apathy towards its needs and our ignorance of its offerings. He doesn’t want money-hungry oilmen to barge into the woods with their bulldozers and pipelines both for the sake of the many living things that call the place home and, importantly, for our sake, too.

Hiaasen doesn’t want future generations of kids to grow up in a world devoid of even a single expanse of wilderness, to be kept from exploring and learning about the woods and nature at large, from climbing trees, building forts, hiking, camping, getting lost and finding one’s way – from cultivating an appreciation of nature that can add meaning, depth, perspective, and joy to (and throughout) an individual’s life.

Hiaasen is perhaps less subtle than Appelt when it comes to imparting his own brand of nature-appreciation, but it should be said that he never once gets out his moral hammer and hits you over the head with a message. He just has different goals than Appelt. His concerns are more political. He aims to leave the reader not just with a fresher, more-poetic view of nature, but also with a sense of urgency about its current state and prospects for survival, with a desire to change their ways and maybe even take a stand against the disregard and destruction of the natural world. Hiaasen convinces you – through storytelling, not self-righteousness or statistics – that these are important things to consider. And they truly are important, and only growing more so by the day.

If you read this blog, you know that I recently took a trip to Iceland. Besides the vast array of stunning natural sights, the thing that I was perhaps most surprised by was the almost total lack of safety measures taken to keep people from (a) interfering with those natural sights and (b) injuring or even killing themselves while viewing or “experiencing” them. When I spoke to some locals about this, they informed me that this had actually become a big problem for the Icelandic government – never before had it been necessary to put up signs or barriers warning people, say, to keep away from the edge of a waterfall, to not touch the boiling hot geyser, to watch their step when walking along a cliff, to be careful if swimming in the ice-cold and enormously powerful Atlantic Ocean, or to please refrain from removing sand, rocks, water, and any animal or vegetable life from their natural habitats.

A rare bit of safety signage at a glacier in Iceland.

A rare bit of safety signage at a glacier in Iceland.

This, of course, has to do with the huge increases in tourist traffic that Iceland sees every year. But is it just that more people equals more danger? That crowds cause new problems? Or is it, instead, that many of these new visitors don’t have the same sort of appreciation of nature – both its gifts and curses – that a people who have taken root and thrived on a volatile, volcanic island have by necessity (if nothing else) learned and handed down to their children?

Signage in America -- where adults still need to be told to wear appropriate footwear.

Signage in America — where adults still need to be told to wear appropriate footwear.

Oh, thank God. I was totally about to do that.

Oh, thank God. I was totally about to do that.

Say you’re traveling with someone who has a decently nuanced understanding of nature – would you ever have to worry about him or her reaching out and touching a jet of bubbling water as it gushed up vertically from a gaping, steam-spewing hole in the earth? Would you ever have reason to fear that he or she would climb down a series of slick, steep rocks in order to stick his or her hand into a waterfall flowing at 140 cubic meters per second?

No. Probably not.

An appreciation of nature can keep you from angering and disrespecting locals, injuring yourself, and even accidentally killing yourself. But it can also enhance and enrich your life, and can go a long way toward easing and even solving many of the political and ecological problem our planet faces, too. In their own way, both Scat and The Underneath make all of this – and much, much more – clear.

I don’t believe a novel has to carry a moral message in order to be worthwhile. But if an author is going to attempt to edify, they should make sure not to stop intriguing, exciting, and entertaining their readers, too. Both Appelt and Hiaasen have, in their own unique ways, done just this. By never letting their narratives slip away from them, the messages gently built into them come through all the more clearly and powerfully. And bound up as they are with stories we grow to love and characters we come to cherish, we won’t be able to help but take those messages to heart – and hold them there, too, for a long time. Perhaps even forever.

Psst. Take a walk.

Psst. Take a walk.

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