Climbing the High Ridges and Stumbling

By Jeff Muse

July 1, 2015

Climbing the High Ridges and Stumbling

Soul External: Rediscovering the Great Blue Heron by Steven H. Semken 

I should be clear: I think writing well is terribly hard work, and I admire anyone who endures it. Me, I’ve yet to publish a book of any kind, and I don’t teach writing or literature at any college or university, so maybe you’d just as soon stop reading right here. After all, I’m hardly a professional book reviewer.

But because I’m a professional educator, an environmental educator, I do know this: it all comes down to creating an authentic experience.

What I mean is, no matter your profession—educator, musician, perhaps even a medical doctor—if you want to offer something meaningful to people, something that will not only get them thinking but also move them, something beyond informative, something provocative and convincing . . . well, you can’t just say it. You can’t force it. And Soul External forces it. It’s a talky book, albeit an ambitious book, yet it doesn’t convince me.

Let me explain. Thomas Larson, one of River Teeth’s editors, asked me to review the book a few weeks ago, saying I’d be perfect because it’s “an environmentally-minded memoir.” But after reading it, I’m inclined to think it’s not a memoir at all, and it’s not particularly concerned with the environment, though I would say it is nature writing, which is wide open as a genre, a big tent. Mostly, I’d call this an essay, an extended personal essay, because indeed it embodies what Brian Doyle says: “The essay is a jackdaw, a magpie, a raven. It picks up everything and uses it.”

What does Soul External pick up? Deeply observed natural history. Religious references. Clever drawings of eyeballs and tree trunks and bird eggs, and a tiny human ear on page 93. There are enigmatic whitespaces         and confusing formatting, bold words in fancy fonts, and empty pages and oddly filled pages and pages packed with prayers and magical magic-magic, and then—as if precisely to get me pissed about my own writing, my own flaw in too often telling instead of showing—quote after quote after quote. Literary quotes. Luminary quotes. Long quotes and short quotes. Soul External brims with quotes, including the great blue heron’s FRrAhhHawKWk. Yep, I copied that from page 68. At least I tried to. I have no illustrator.

I do think this book is raven’s work, but it falls short as a compelling essay. It’s hard to follow, hard to comprehend, and certainly hard to recommend. And as Bill Roorbach says, “The personal essay is a conversation with the reader,” wandering through ideas, experiences, and subject matter. For all the wandering that Soul External does, for all its ambition across time and terrain, it’s an impolite kind of conversation, too distracted by its own cleverness. The result? My experience is distracted. I don’t learn much. I’m not moved.

Of course, there are passages in Soul External that rise to what I’d hoped for when Tom said he’d “send it out priority.” The book occasionally reaches what Vladimir Nabokov called “a high ridge,” where the “mountainside of ‘scientific’ knowledge joins the opposite slope of ‘artistic’ imagination,” which, as far as nature writing and my profession go, is such         exciting         territory.

For me, that happens when the narrator focuses on the great blue heron itself, such as this selection midway through the book:

The bird is easily insulted by intrusion. When I spot a heron along a river while canoeing or on my way into the rookery, I notice there is no hesitation in the way the bird churns out a large gobbet of runny white guano as its long legs trail and wide wings fiercely flap and flap. In a light wind, I often pick up the slightest whiff of the heron’s breath, revealing an odor I can best describe as that of thick, green moss on the shady side of tree bark, an unctuous aroma additionally spiced with the pungency of worm castings and piles of dew-soaked cedar shavings and a pinch of chanterelle mushroom.

I was rapt, and I loved it. But then, sure enough, as soon as I feel like I’m learning something, that I’m actually moved while learning something and I’m gaining some momentum as a reader, the page turns silly with the look of poetry, centered yet awkward, the fonts changing, quotes charging in, and a line like this, which has nothing to do with creating an experience and everything to do with forcing it:

I believe that if I were offered
a cup of heron blood to drink,
I would do so without hesitation.


I knew right then that Soul External isn’t for me. I’m not its audience. I don’t get it. I don’t get the human-centered drama, even though I understand the book grew from the author’s years and years of observing a rookery in rural Kansas. Observing it and researching it and pondering it. And, yes, loving it and growing because of it. Growing more wild and human at the same time. I get all that.

I even get the “soul external” idea, that one could “place a soul outside the self somewhere in the wider world”—“security in some snug spot,” as James George Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough—and thereby find some sort of peace in our harried human existence.

But I don’t get the book’s treacly style. Why all the contrivances? Why so artsy?

Because frankly, I’m annoyed that the great blue heron—one of the most ubiquitous birds in North America with communal nest sites in many places if you understand anything at all about finding them, about birds in general, about nature in general and how habitats are all around us, how our homes are other creatures’ homes, how there is no separation between us         and         them—gets treated in such a melodramatic fashion for the sake of an onslaught of meaning making. It’s a disservice to nature writing—any writing, really—to grandstand in such a way. And that’s how the book comes across to me: Look how special I am because I found this spot. It’s a secret, but I’ll tell you about it.

Psst. There is no secret! If we climb the high ridge, we’ll be amazed. The best way to make that journey? In Gary Snyder’s words, “go light.”

Soul External: Rediscovering the Great Blue Heron by Steven H. Semken,
with illustrations by Andrew R. Driscoll

$21.15 Hardback  | Buy Now


Jeff Muse

About the Reviewer:

Jeff Muse lives with his park-ranger wife along the Arizona-Utah border, with mice in the walls, snakes in the yard, and tarantula wasps that make for intimidating neighbors. Long after receiving a Master of Science and becoming an environmental educator, he earned an MFA at Ashland University, focusing on the essay. Learn more at, including links to his publications in Ascent, The Common, and other venues.


comments powered by Disqus « Back to Articles

Newsletter Sign Up

shadow shadow