From the Eighteenth Floor
|A Relationship with Nature||
Literature is meant to be unsettling. Novels, plays, films are inevitably hawked as "searing," "shattering." In a culture that relishes these relentless fictional earthquakes, reading about nature, one is tempted to think, ought to furnish some relief. But, alas, it is not so. Nature writers, in fact, nag us with more urgent and less answerable questions. At root, the questions come down to one: what sort of relationship ought humans to have with nature? It is not a question that promises relief from other questions. Rather, the continuation of the human story depends on our finding an answer.
"Relationship with nature"--the phrase itself is clumsy and self-conscious. For some of us, nature only exists by virtue of recurrent, conscious efforts at attention. For most, nature is hardly here--except, of course, as a series of unfortunate accidents: inopportune storms, heat-waves, droughts. We are a species that appears to have escaped nature's control--a splendid success, except that in the harsh light of global ecology, we look more like a plague than the crown of creation; and plagues die when their hosts die. True, some of us are beginning to feel guilty about the astonishing absence of nature from our lives. Guilty and worried. But what sort of relationship with nature should we, in fact, have? Or, to shift the question into literary terms, what precisely is achieved in a reading session with Thoreau or Annie Dillard or Loren Eiseley? More immediately, why read through the diverse collection of nature writers gathered in this issue of The Literary Review?
My own discomfort with nature writing has, no doubt, something to do with where I do my reading: on the eighteenth floor of a twenty-story apartment building in the Bronx. It is one of three identical towers clustered on a hilltop above the Hudson River. You can see them from the George Washington Bridge. All together they house about thirteen hundred families. When I look down from my window, I see a landscaped lawn, manicured, shrubbed, encircled by a driveway; then a street full of parked cars, and across the street, a small parking lot and two tennis courts. Down the hill a dense jumble of tree-tops is broken by the gables of several large old mansions. At last, the Hudson, brown and broad, and farther off, the green cliffs of the Palisades rising above the river.
This is a "view"--a very delightful and desirable view, but a view, just the same, a landscape. Nature is off at a distance. On the Palisades, directly across the Hudson from my apartment, indistinguishable among the trees, is a small, privately-supported nature preserve of which I am a member. I take my granddaughter for a visit once or twice a year.
Unfortunately, my childhood memories of nature are no more intimate. Where I grew up, in the middle of Kansas City, we sat on the front porch evenings and gossiped about the people who lived in the apartment houses across the street. I managed to get to scout camp in the Ozarks one summer, spent my college years just outside St. Louis on a campus that was also a farm, studied for another four years in the small town of St. Marys, Kansas, and for a year after that in a converted chateau just outside the tiny village of St. Martin d'Ablois in Champagne. Wonderful experiences all. But in none of them did I work the land, struggle with it, study or even read about it. Preoccupied with other matters, I enjoyed the land the way a city boy enjoys a park.
Nor did any conversion experience come along to change my attitude toward nature. There was no terrifying climb to revelation on a mountain-top, no primordial struggle with whale or bear, no scientific quest among the petrified relics of deep time. I stumbled into nature writing by pedagogical accident. I decided to teach American literature as a writing course, and nature seemed a "topic" student writers might like to try out. In preparing the course I discovered Loren Eiseley, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Annie Dillard, among a world of writers and writings to which I would otherwise have remained blind, and to which I owe a whole new lease on literary life.
And along with these writers came a new discomfort with reading. Now, the distance between where I read and what I read about has become an issue. I read nature writers, in fact, where most of us do our reading--at a very great remove from the struggle between humankind and the chaos of benign and hostile forces we call nature. What I inherited from that struggle is, I think, the common inheritance: a life of amazing comfort, thanks to technology, and a very ambiguous relationship with a virtually absent nature.
I have a literary relationship with nature. It seems less than enough; and yet, literary to the end, I have found myself turning to history to learn about the faltering human relationship with nature. Raymond Williams, for instance, in The Country and the City, has told the story of the disappearance from literary view of the people who work the land. Robert Pogue Harrison's Forests tells a story of demythification, which in this case is destructive: how we lost the capacity to see nature as something other than a commodity. Simon Schama takes a different tack. His many stories in Landscape and Memory tell us that we must continue to celebrate, as we always have, the age-long human interaction with nature. And yet some of his stories, as, for instance, the story of nature and Naziism, are cautionary. Cecelia Tichi's New Heaven, New Earth tells a similar story about the settlement of the United States.
I mean to retell those stories here in brief form, use them to get a sense of the problem we face as nature readers.
Where Have All the People Gone
Reading Williams has suggested to me that at the deepest level of my troubled relationship with nature are nagging questions about the social context which allows me to spend so many hours reading about it. It is not one my father, who grew up poor on the outskirts of Kansas City, would have dreamed of for his son. He dreamed of owning a farm. As a teenager he followed the wheat harvest in Kansas, but he spent his adult life in various manufacturing jobs until a lucky break got him a job as a plumber. He helped build buildings during the day and raised wonderful tomatoes on weekends in the backyard. After he retired, a cousin gave him free run of his farm to garden, fish, hunt, and chop wood. It was as close as he ever got to his own farm.
Williams speaks of his own father's similar attachment to the land:
Again and again, down to our own day, men living in villages have tried to create. . . this kind of margin: a rented patch or strip, an extended garden, a few hives or fruit trees. When I was a child my father had not only the garden that went with his cottage, but a strip for potatoes on a farm where he helped in the harvest, and two gardens which he rented from the railway company from which he drew his wages. Such marginal possibilities are important not only for their produce, but for their direct and immediate satisfactions and for the felt reality of an area of control of one's own immediate labor. (102-103)
Williams's book suggests that my father's relationship with nature was less ambiguous, less suspect than my own. Writing of nature in terms of the social relations of country and city, he calls my schoolish assumptions into question. Emerson was wrong: men who work and hunt the land know it better than poets. Though Thoreau may have had to flee from society to find nature, it is in traditional rural communities that we are most likely to find human life pulsing in harmony with the rhythms of nature. Perhaps there is nostalgia in Williams's reflections, but underlying the nostalgia is a more important idea: the quality of our relationship with nature depends on the quality of our relationships with our human fellows, particularly those who work the land.
Williams traces the West's persistent longing for a harmonious relationship with nature back to the pastoral songs of those who worked the land in the time of Hesiod, centuries before Christ. The tension that sustained those earliest pastoral songs was the obvious tension between hard daily labor and holiday joy. By Virgil's time, however, a few centuries later, the source of tension had changed. It was no longer the tension between work and play, but a more ominous tension between rural security and the threat of economic loss and eviction by forces that had their origin in the distant city. Instead of the primitive curse of earning your bread in the sweat of your brow, the hostile indifference of a dominant urban society intruded itself into the farmer's and the shepherd's struggle to draw sustenance from the earth. Virgil speaks to us from the distant past; yet we have no trouble recognizing that tension between pastoral ideals and an indifferent economic reality. Nature, whatever we might wish it to be, is no escape from history.
By the time of the Renaissance, Williams reminds us, the rural laborer had utterly disappeared from the literary countryside. English pastoral writing celebrated an "enamelled world" of nymphs and shepherds. (18) And in the eighteenth century, when the pleasant life of country gentlemen reawakened English society to the beauty of nature, the nature to which the English were awakened was as empty of workers as it had been in the Renaissance. Nature became the province of observers, scientists, tourists. As Williams says:
This magical extraction of the curse of labour is in fact achieved by a simple extraction of the existence of labourers. The actual men and women who rear the animals and drive them to the house and kill them and prepare them for meat; who trap the pheasants and partridges and catch the fish; who plant and manure and prune and harvest the fruit trees: these are not present; their work is all done for them by a natural order. When they do appear, it is merely as the 'rout of rurall folke'. .. . (32)
The nature to which country gentlemen, scientists, artists, and tourists were awakened was most often, in fact, land acquired through the usurpation and dislocation of whole villages. The land, despite the pastoral ornamentation given it by artists, architects, and writers, had been reduced to an investment, with a bottom line. Land had to be, above all else, productive. It was in this brutally economic context that Gilbert White, with his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, gave birth in 1789 to what the Anglo-American world has come to know as nature writing. Williams lays out the issue for the nature-reader:
Anyone who lives in the country can experience at times, or seem to experience, an unmediated nature: in a direct and physical awareness of trees, birds, the moving shapes of land. What is new in Gilbert White, or at least feels new in its sustained intensity, is a development from this; a single and dedicated observation, as if the only relationships of country living were to its physical facts . . . . What he is observing is not a working agriculture, except incidentally; it is a natural order in a new sense: a physical world of creatures and conditions. While Cobbett and Jane Austen, in their different ways were absorbed in a human world, Gilbert White was watching the turn of the year and the myriad physical lives inside it: nature in a sense that could now be separated from man. (119)
What Williams sees in White is, in effect, a quality of observation that is still the glory of Anglo-American nature writing: its intimately detailed descriptions of the curious and far-from-obvious processes of nature. You think of Thoreau's description of the frost coming out of the railroad cut in the "Spring" chapter of Walden, or of his fascinating account, in "Wild Apples," of the way a wild apple tree survives the constant cropping of cattle until it becomes a bush so thick and broad the cattle can no longer reach its center, from which, at last, a trunk shoots up in triumph to form a tree. It is a curious and interesting fact that you will not find such descriptions in the international collection gathered here. And yet the satisfaction, the knowledge, the pride we may take in these minutely detailed observations must be ambiguous. This sort of nature writing very often gives us a nature abstracted from human community, a nature of which humans are not inhabitants, but observing and controlling outsiders. It is no wonder that our reading about nature may be suffused with a kind of vague dissatisfaction. Nature without its laboring human inhabitants is simply not nature.
The prosperity that arose from draining and clearing all that enclosed land eventually begot a fashionable counter-demand for wild nature, picturesque nature. Wordsworth, settling in the Lake Country just as it was becoming a favorite destination for tourists, strove to connect this renewed taste for nature with something deep in our common humanity. But for Wordsworth our common humanity was not to be sought in human community, but within, in the solitude of the isolato looking deep into himself. Where Augustine looked for God, Wordsworth looked for his fellow man, within himself. Wordsworth's nature was not the merely visited nature of the tourist, but neither was it the intimately known nature of those who inhabited and worked the land. Wordsworth's nature was, and still is for many if not most of us, the nature of the poet-isolato, whose creative imagination, different from the quasi-scientific imagination of a Gilbert White, invests "nature with a quality of creation that is now, in its new form, internal. . . ." (133) Nature, abstracted from the human labor that shapes it, projects--the poet.
Writers, of course, write for readers, and readers are, for the most part, those who have been educated out of and away from their roots in those traditional communities that inhabit and work the land. Novelists, Williams tells us, must create communities within which ideals are transparent, if they are to work out the dramatic interactions among their characters. Jane Austen's knowable communities, for instance, are "outstandingly face-to-face," and face-to-face relationships are precisely what small rural communities have. But in Jane Austen, "neighbors" are not the people next door, but rather those who, "in social recognition, can be visited." In Jane Austen, "most of the people have disappeared," and so has most of the country, "which becomes real only as it relates to the houses which are the real nodes; for the rest the country is weather or a place for a walk"! (166) How vividly true this has been made for us by the recent spate of Jane Austen movies, where the workers of all that gorgeously landscaped land simply do not exist!
George Eliot, on the other hand, realized that there were "other kinds of people, other kinds of country," and that her stories had to include these "others." Still, says Williams, though country people are present in her novels, they do not emerge as subjects, but rather as quasi-objects in a landscape. Aware that her characters were "different" from her readers, she tried to make them "'knowable', in a deeply inauthentic way. . ." as "'fine old', 'dear old', quaint-talking, honest-living country characters." (170) Writers like Mary Austin and Willa Cather struggled valiantly, and in a measure succeeded, in erasing such condescension from their rural characters.
In Thomas Hardy Williams finds the clearest outline of that border across which virtually all writers must write:
The real Hardy country. . . is that border country so many of us have been living in: between custom and education, between work and ideas, between love of place and an experience of change. (197)
Though many of us were brought up within or close to some form of traditional life on the land, education has inevitably taken us beyond custom to other values--not false values, either, but values we urgently need to see through our inherited illusions. We have little choice in the matter. We must live in our twenty-story apartment houses, and apparently we must look at nature from a distance. Unfortunately, our education has inevitably communicated to us the vague sense
that the world of everyday work and of ordinary families is inferior, distant; and that now we know this world of the mind we can have no respect--and of course no affection--for that other and still familiar world. (198)
We are doomed, apparently, to both separation and nostalgia. In reaction, the writer or reader who has grown away from his roots may find himself masking his sense of separation by
a romantic attachment to a way of life in which the people are merely instrumental: figures in a landscape. . . . It is then easy, in an apparently warm-hearted way, to observe for the benefit of others the crudity and limitations but also the picturesqueness, the rough humour, the smocked innocence of 'the bucolic.' (203)
And so the story Williams tells leaves us to our complex fate, our necessary and benign dependence on technological change, our difficult relationship with those who live closer to the traditional past and perhaps also to nature, our ambiguity about the self-consciousness which education has given us, but which seems to separate us from deeper, more communal and spontaneous forms of harmony with the natural world.
Robert Pogue Harrison
We Must Kill the God of the Forest
In Forests, Robert Pogue Harrison examines another aspect of the apparently fated opposition between nature and humankind. Where Williams's countryside is pastoral, nature tamed to human uses, Harrison's forest is, or once was, profoundly other: dark and profane, a place of disturbing disorder, incest, polygamy. It was in the clearing that our ancestors found the sacred ground of God, civilization, matrimony, the family:
The abomination of forests in Western history derives above all from the fact that, since Greek and Roman times at least, we have been a civilization of sky-worshippers, children of a celestial father. Where divinity has been identified with the sky, or with the eternal geometry of the stars, or with cosmic infinity, or with "heaven," the forests become monstrous, for they hide the prospect of god. (6)
Gilgamesh, whom Harrison calls the first civic hero in literature, went out with Enkidu to "slay the forest demon, Huwawa." (15)
Gilgamesh, says Harrison, is a paradigm of the alienated and nature-rejecting heart of Western civilization. Unnaturally obsessed with death, we engage in a futile quest for immortality. His tragedy, which is also ours, echoes down the corridors of western myth. Diana, the virgin huntress, belongs to those dark and inaccessible regions where wild animals enjoy sanctuary from man. When Actaeon violates the sanctuary and sees her naked, he glimpses that kinship of human flesh with all flesh which civilization strives so hard to deny. But man is ultimately beast, and Actaeon is transformed into a stag and torn to pieces by his own hounds. Tragic humankind, for all civilization can do, is deeply rooted in wild, anarchic nature.
Humankind, however, continues to choose away from nature and toward civilization. Socrates was blunt about it: "You must forgive me, dear friend; I'm a lover of learning, and trees and open country won't teach me anything, whereas men in the town do." (Plato, "Phaedrus" 230d) While forests were being cut down for the Athenian navy, Socrates' city was a triumphant clearing, where the darkness of the Dionysian world was dissipated by philosophic light. Continuing the civilizing work of the Greeks, the Romans insatiably destroyed the most fertile regions of the world. Most of the landscape Rome destroyed remains desert today.
Christianity tried to put an end to the tragic contradiction between civilized ideals and the dark and uncontrollable forces of nature both within and outside the human spirit. Dante's selva oscura, for instance, is an allegory for Christian guilt--an appropriate one, for forests are places where one loses one's way. But Dante had lost his way, not by plunging into the primordial and mysterious wilderness of the forest, but rather by trying to follow the "straight path" of philosophy. It was his trust in reason that brought him into the dark forest. When he recognized his helplessness, he was guided on his journey through hell until, having climbed the mountain of Purgatory, he found himself in a different forest, the selva antica, a redeemed forest, an earthly paradise, a forest shorn of savagery, of wildlife, of lions, leopards, and she-wolves. Dante's selva oscura had "become a municipal park under the jurisdiction of the City of God." (85)
The humanist Renaissance, Harrison says, was an even deeper enemy of the wild than Christianity: "Never before had an ideology so thoroughly divorced the human from the animal species and considered the earth as a whole the former's natural inheritance." (92) As Renaissance Europe continued the process of destruction, exterminating all species that could not be tamed or used, forests continued to vanish into imperial navies. To Descartes the forest was the symbol of tradition; and tradition meant falsehood, unfounded faith, misguided assumptions.
According to Harrison, it was not capitalism so much as Cartesian reason that reduced forests at last to the status they have today. The Cartesian forest, an abstract and manageable resource, calls for expertise, not fear or reverence. The earliest forest law of England had seen the forest as "an asylum from the human world, a natural sanctuary where wildlife could dwell securely in the king's protection." (120) But the Cartesian forest was denuded of its "symbolic density" and, because there was no interest in wildlife, "the forest as habitat . . . disappeared." (121) And so the West arrived at a point from which we have yet to depart. Wordsworthian observers of nature who wish to think of the forest in terms other than "use" are forced to employ the language of use simply to defend themselves. Neither poetic observation nor utilitarian exploitation are satisfying forms of the human relationship with nature. But they are what we have.
Un Paysage de Marie Antoinette
Though I can claim no profound revelations about nature, I have had my moments of insight. One of them occurred on my first walk through the grounds of that small chateau in Champagne where I spent a student year in France. On a walk with a French fellow student, we paused to contemplate a landscaped hillside. "C'est un paysage de Marie Antoinette," my friend exclaimed, with a sigh of deep pleasure. Some years before, I had been struck by Jacques Maritain's description of the difference his rich knowledge of European history had made between the way he saw the entrance to the port of Marseilles and the, to him, unstoried harbor of Rio de Janeiro. (Maritain, 7) But here was that insight in immediate and vivid form: un paysage de Marie Antoinette? Of course. But then I would never have thought of Marie Antoinette as I looked at that beautiful sweep of grass and trees. My friend's vision of nature was inspired by an altogether different tapestry of cultural memories from mine. We were both overwhelmed at our good luck at spending a year living amid so much beauty. But his beauty resonated off a different world from mine. The moment doubled curiously back on itself a few weeks later when I was walking with another of my French companions. The grounds, though they were still the landscaped grounds of an eighteenth-century chateau, had been turned to good use, now that the chateau had become a student residence. Some sheep and a few cows were pastured on the grass. One of the cows bellowed loudly enough to interrupt my friend's thought. "C'est du far-ouest, ca!" he exclaimed. An American landscape he had never seen had been plastered by the movies onto his paysage de Marie Antoinette.
And that is the kind of story Schama tells in Landscape and Memory: culture gives us a nature that we ourselves have created by occupying it, mapping it, controlling it. As beavers shape landscapes by making dams, we shape landscapes by creating cultures. This, he assures us, is cause not for guilt but for celebration. It is within our human selves that we must find the wildness that will save the world. But reading Schama's celebratory book brings us face to face with another of those uncomfortable issues that bedevil the nature-reader's relationship with nature: throughout too much of history nature has tended to be our forests, not yours; our rivers, our mountains. Human beings succumb almost inevitably to the temptation to believe that nature is the peculiar endowment of our folk, our religion. Nature has played its part in the long, bloody history of nationalism, racism, Naziism, ethnic cleansing. Schama tells more stories than I can recount here, but the roll of nature in recent German history is perhaps most illustrative.
The ancient Romans felt that the only pleasing landscape was one "upon which man had left his civilizing and fructifying mark." (81) In spite of the fact that Greece and Rome's own founding myths were forest myths, classical civilization defined itself, as we have seen, over against the primeval forests. Consequently,
in the first century A.D., when Tacitus was writing, the alien forest was German, specifically, the immense Hercynian forest that extended in different belts, west to east, all the way from the Rhine across the Danube perhaps as far as the Elbe. (83)
Tacitus' descriptions of the Germans reflected both his attraction and repugnance to that wild world.
In the sixteenth century, while German forests were "fast disappearing under the axe," (95) German artists and geographers "reimagined [them] as domesticated woodlands, intersected by arable land and orchards, and living in easy relationship with the cities they surrounded," not "brutal wilderness but rather . . . places of health and wealth." (96) Traditional medieval German wild men were sublimated into "exemplars of the virtuous and natural life," and associated with those "incontestably holy hairy men: the anchorite saints and hermits of early Christianity." (97)
Germany was determined to define itself off against the citified culture of the south. Schama, a splendid historian of art, points out how the German artist Albrecht Altdorfer
managed exactly to produce images of German trees and woods that in their startlingly dense and writhing forms proclaimed an unmistakable difference from anything attempted in Italian art. (99)
Later, in the eighteenth century, when the cultural enemy of Germany was France, Johann Gottfried Herder set out "to root German culture once more in its native soil," (102) glorifying the Middle Ages, which the French Enlightenment despised, and sending the German Romantics back to the woods.
The folk tales of the brothers Grimm, tales which have given even the least traveled among us a vivid sense of that ancient German forest, also remind us of that world of traditional societies from which education has uprooted us. But here the authenticity of traditional societies appears under a more questionable light: is Raymond Williams's insistence on the importance of the man who works the soil simply a late and dangerous form of romanticism? In his Natural History of the German People (1851-1855), Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, "Germany's sociologist of 'field and forest,'" extolled the ancient virtues of German peasants. Riehl, says Schama,
saw the remnant of woodland Germany in dire peril. . . about to be consumed by the smelting furnace. . . . Their preservation was not simply a matter of patriotic sentimentality but functionally important for the life of the nation. (115)
But Riehl's Natural History was not only anti-urban and anti-modernist; it was also anti-semitic. It succeeded in persuading Germany that the German woods were
more than an economic resource: they were in some mysteriously indeterminate way an essential element of the national character; they were, as Riehl put it, "what made Germany German." (116)
Like Schama, Peter J. Bowler in The Norton History of The Environmental Sciences points up the continuity with twentieth century history:
Environmentalism fitted into the Nazi's ideology because they encouraged a suspicion of urban values and saw a renewed peasantry as the foundation of their social order. They established nature reserves--on land cleared of Jews and Poles sent to the death camps. . . .(513)
The personal history of Ingo Hasselbach, a leader of the contemporary neo-Nazi movement, shows that the environment remains a fruitful platform for German racism:
Another way we introduced the subject of race was through our 'ecology platform.' We actually believed that foreigners and Jews were destroying the environment and taking too many of our limited resources--that Aryan nature had to be preserved for the Aryan people. Küssel was especially adamant that National Socialism was an over-all biological program, and I planned weekend excursions into the woods for Party members: we'd clean up certain areas and hike alongside tourists, as if we were Boy Scouts. (Hasselbach, 45)
A biologically pure and inviolate race, then, is "natural" to its home terrain, just as certain species of trees and flowers are natural to theirs. German racial and national distinctiveness rooted itself in a woodland heritage. (Schama 118)
It is, of course, painful to acknowledge how ecologically conscientious the most barbaric regime in modern history actually was. Exterminating millions of lives was not at all incompatible with passionate protection for millions of trees. (Schama 119)
Environmentalism need not result in this sort of moral collapse, Schama hastens to point out; still, it gives one pause.
The genocide against native Americans perpetrated by European settlers was also based on myths about the land. Cecelia Tichi, in New World, New Earth tells us that the Puritans, with their English eye for landscape, were indifferent to wood, rock, or swamp. To them America was a vacant place which the Bible told them to replenish and subdue; to do so was to contribute to the extension of Christ's kingdom. Native peoples were at first to be made participants in this gospel mission, but God's design soon became clear: they were to be cleared away through smallpox. Because they had not "subdued" the land, had not enclosed it, had no settled habitation on it, had grazed no tame cattle, the land was open to those who would do all these things. Puritan writers, of course, did not acknowledge that native Americans had improved the land for centuries by burning and other means, as William Cronon has shown in Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.
Later on John Adams, certainly no Puritan, took for granted that the formation of the American spirit and the formation of an American environment went hand in hand. By the time of the revolution, the moral reshaping of the environment was considered an accomplished fact. The land had been civilized, the Golden Age of Liberty had begun, the secular millennium was here. (Tichi, 72) Not just Puritans, then, but all Americans felt an intense revulsion against swamps, floods, immense forests; they contradicted the idea of an achieved New Earth. And there was certainly no more room for the native American in this revolutionary conception of the redeemed land than in the Puritan conception.
A complementary vision of wilderness was cultivated by Thomas Jefferson, among others. His Notes on the State of Virginia is a quasi-scientific refutation of Count de Buffon's highly a priori put down of American wild life. Charles Fenno Hoffman, a New York writer, puts the nationalist dimension of wilderness in its clearest terms:
What are the temples which Roman robbers have reared,--what are the towers in which feudal oppression has fortified itself,--what are the blood-stained associations of the one, or the despotic superstitions of the other, to the deep forests which the eye of God has alone pervaded, and where Nature, which the eye of God has alone pervaded, and where Nature, in her unviolated sanctuary, has for ages laid her fruits and followers on His altar! What is the echo of roofs that a few centuries since rung with barbaric revels, or of aisles that pealed the anthems of painted pomp, to the silence that has reigned in these dim groves since the first fiat of Creation was spoken. (Hoffman: 73-74)
As easily as farm workers were extracted from the vision of English eighteenth-century country gentlemen, so native Americans were extracted from the dim and silent groves of America's natural cathedrals.
History reveals a profile of the human relationship with nature that is too familiar: Nature denatured by class bias, commodification, and race. The question remains: Is it possible, given the kind of life that most of us lead, to live comfortably and read happily, knowing that we live and read at the expense of an environmental future that is threatened by the very comfort within which we read? On the other hand, if humankind, grouping itself into fervent clans should begin to root itself in this or that little postage stamp of native soil, how is such fervor to be restrained from a jingoistic or even racist localism?
|A World of Stories||
Though there are no answers, we may perhaps derive insight from living in the midst of a world-wide efflorescence of nature writers to which this special issue of The Literary Review bears witness. We have not tried to achieve a representative sampling of that efflorescence. We have managed to gather, however, a happily varied collection of texts, poems, travelogues, essays, and chapters from novels. There is ample latitude, within so varied a collection to reflect on the many different ways human beings have attached themselves or felt themselves detached from their natural environment.
Two cautionary tales from Alaska, for instance, demonstrate the imposing weight of ethical responsibility that fishing and hunting, the most ancient forms of the human relationship with nature, can be made to carry. Nature is the source of healing for a modern native American. A contemporary Mexican novelist gently laments the loss to pollution of a companion of his childhood, the lady-bug. A Jamaican poet finds human life illuminated by the vigorous imagery she derives from the lives of plants and animals. From Iceland, a land where nature is more adversary than friend, come poems of maternal mountains and maternal night.
Appropriate to our times, Ale Debeljak suggests that our Cartesian alienation from nature may derive less from Cartesian reason than from the trauma of war, just such barbarian wars as those waged by the Serbian armies in Bosnia. War is the ultimate determinant of vision as well in one of Mati Unt's stories from Estonia. From Russia comes the longest piece: a rich evocation of an awesome nature suffering from a complex human history. Another hunting story comes from Siberia; this one asks what will happen to the traditional life of a people who were privileged hunters under the Soviet system, but are now threatened by the strange distortions of the free market. Another form of traditional life is sketched in the two chapters from Tivolem, a story located in what was once Portuguese Goa.
To my own very Western eye, the generous collection of Chinese poetry printed here, gives genuine relief. Nature in these poems is pastoral, but suffused with a sense of mystery or peace beyond the reach of words. It is, of course, the power of poetic words to point beyond words. In these Chinese poems I find myself communing with a nature that is solid but evanescent. This is not an unsatisfying feeling. Nature holds out a promise that there will always be more. Yet into this peace must come the jarring blare of Jesse Glass's "Teaching Walt Whitman in Communist China," and I am jolted into China's violently destructive present.
|If the Imagination Should Fail||
To repeat the question, then: what precisely is achieved in a reading session with Thoreau or Annie Dillard or Loren Eiseley; with native American or Icelandic poets, Russian travelers, ancient Chinese poets? The answer, I think, is simple: awakening, imaginative awakening to the multiple ways human beings actually do inhabit the land. If our task is to reinhabit the land, then we must begin by teaching ourselves to see that human beings do, in fact, inhabit a landscape. In many, many ways, more ways than we might have dreamed of. It is a matter of simple awareness. But simple awareness can fail: "Most of us walk unseeing through the world, unaware alike of its beauties, its wonders, and the strange and sometimes terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived about us." (Carson: 249) It is not the whole solution to the problem of the human relationship with nature, but it is an essential part of it, this reawakening to our own presence in a natural landscape, even when we live on the eighteenth floor of an apartment building in the Bronx. Probably because the Hudson River is a major flyway for migrating birds, I have had a redstart fly into my window and spent the day trying to guide him out. I have seen a golden-crowned kinglet hopping about in a tiny pine tree that borders the curving walk to my door, and an indigo bunting just outside the back door. A hawk sometimes sits on a tree branch over 256th Street and occasionally flashes his red tail as he soars in front of my window.
Our habitual blindness to the landscape, a blindness which can begin to be cured in so obvious a way, lends a new interest to that peculiarly scientific sort of description that American and English readers have learned to expect in nature writing. The very precise and intense observations of Thoreau, Eiseley, Dillard help us reimagine the planet we have lost. They ask us to look at nature more closely, to pry into it more curiously, to feed our imaginations with intricacies we can no longer afford to miss. As Aldo Leopold taught us some years ago, the best way to be in nature is to take responsibility for some little corner of it. But since many of us cannot buy a farm in Sand County, the next best thing is to study nature, learn about nature, collect trophies of meaning and understanding rather than stuffed trophies that hang on the wall.
Unfortunately, however, Leopold's encouraging teaching is threatened by currents of thought swirling about within the literary community. As Lawrence Buell argues in The Environmental Imagination, contemporary literary criticism is trapped by its bias against representation. Professional readers of literature are not trained to appreciate the ability to "articulate the nonhuman environment." Students, in fact, are taught to stress the gap between text and world. Yet any untutored layman who reads knows that the most obvious thing about literature is that it tells us things about the world. I vividly remember being told as an undergraduate that historical novels were unreliable history. And yet as I devoured the novels of Sigrid Undset, I knew that I was learning important things about the middle ages; and I know that Melville taught me much about nineteenth century whaling and Twain about the river world of the Mississippi.
Thoreau, Eiseley, Dillard are convincing writers precisely because they are responsive to the physical world. We do not tolerate errors of fact from them. We expect them to be accountable to the material world. If nature writers set free the play of the imagination, we demand that their imagination and ours be regulated by actual encounters with the environment.
The problem, according to Buell, with contemporary literary critics is that they have arbitrarily taken fiction as the paradigm of all literature. Biased in this way toward fiction, the critic makes Thoreau the subject of Walden and shrugs off Thoreau's knowledge of the environment. Do away with the fictional paradigm and the critic is forced to recognize that Thoreau's "most distinctive trait is environmental proficiency--not the professional scientist's command of data and theory but the working knowledge of someone more knowledgeable than we, who seeks to communicate what he or she knows in a shareable form." (96-97) Walden's relationship to the outer world is as important as its relationship to other texts. If in fiction, as Buell points out, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," in environmental nonfiction, "without the name, any flower is more or less a stranger to you." Readers have to get out their Peterson's guides or they are not serious readers.
Peterson's guides are an interesting case in point, when it comes to discussing the ability of writing to reveal a real world. Buell does not defend naive realism here. What nature writers write is fiction, artifice. But so are Peterson's guides:
Peterson's schematic bird drawings, with their emphasis on a limited number of field marks, are highly abstract renderings that have proved, in the experience of veteran birders, to enable the student to identify the originals more effectively than would a denser mimetic image, such as a photograph in the Audubon Society field guide. The capacity of the stylized image to put the reader in touch with the environment is precisely what needs stressing as a counter to the assumptions that stylization must somehow work against outer mimesis or take precedence over it. (97-98)
It is precisely the artificiality and stylization of a bird guide or a flower guide that illustrates the direction the imagination takes in reading about nature: the artifice facilitates our ability to see what is real. The guide carries us toward a more profound grasp of the exact configurations of the natural world. The artificiality of the writing of Thoreau, Eiseley, Dillard carries us to the same place.
Environmental prose makes demands, Buell continues, analogous to the demands of social fiction. It is not that we must set about learning botany or ornithology. Rather we must acquire enough environmental literacy to know what we are reading. In reading a novel of manners we accept the convention that ceremonies, conversational nuances, minute gestures, variations of dress, all these details matter intensely. We realize that we must understand these things. The same thing is true of environmental writing: one must learn the differences among plants, or at least appreciate their importance. Otherwise we are in nature as foreigners are in a novel of manners.
The challenge, for those interested in assuming it, thus becomes to a considerable extent 'reinhabitation': refamiliarizing ourselves with the physical environment that our preindustrial forebears perforce had to know better experientially, that their aboriginal forebears perforce knew better than they. (108)
Anyone who remembers the vividly excrementitious description of the thawing railroad bank in the "Spring" chapter of Walden will appreciate Buell's defense of the grotesque quality of many descriptions of nature. Nature-writers visualize, invent, recreate, fabricate, "not in order to create an alternative reality but to see what without the aid of the imagination isn't likely to be seen at all." (102) They create "landscapes in which obscure or overlooked objects become magnified or more densely rendered than they would be in the ordinary experience of them." (103) The nature writer's "disciplined extrospection is in the first instance an affirmation of environment over self, over appropriative homocentric desire." (104) Blind as we are to many of the most delicate and beautiful qualities of the natural world, we may feel tempted to object that "normal people don't obsess on flowers the way Austin does . . . . Normal people don't train themselves to look the way Thoreau trained himself to look. . . ." The environmental text, in the end, "requires us to remake our image of the world in terms of a criterion of value intentionally dislocating in its focus on the intractably and minutely factical." (104-5)
It appears, after all, that we suffer from a different and more profound dissociation of sensibility than the one that worried T. S. Eliot's. We suffer the loss of a culture of reciprocity with the natural environment. We have so succeeded in controlling the environment that we believe we are no longer subject to it--which blinds us to the destabilizing consequences of our control: skin lesions from the ozone hole, for instance. Nature has lost its underlying and pervasive reality for us while all the time it really is there and we are completely dependent on it.
In some ways the most startling and liberating moment in Buell's book, whose early chapters read as a kind of critical manifesto, comes at the beginning when he cites Vice-President Albert Gore:
I hope I do not need to spend many pages defending the reasonableness of the claim that "we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization.(2)
It is something of a shock to find so explicit a moral imperative at the beginning of a book of literary criticism. Of course, the shock is largely unwarranted. After all, for more than a decade literary criticism has given itself over to a truly relentless moralism. Postmodern criticism has been used as a way of clearing away the debris of a morally discredited male and Eurocentric culture in order to make way for the literatures of those who were immorally relegated to the margins. In this still perfervid atmosphere of moralistic multiculturalism, we do well to reflect on the fact that literature has always taken its stance on moral grounds.
Yes, literature is and must be autonomous, free of the restrictions of religious or civil authorities. But once we have granted this, further reflection forces us to acknowledge that literature is now and always has been written and read within the context of a moral vision. T. S. Eliot may have convinced us that the modern world is a moral wasteland; and Yeats, that the center does not hold, that we have lost forever the kind of clarity and conviction that inspired Dante's vision. But, as Charles Taylor argues in Sources of the Self, human beings simply cannot do without moral vision; and philosophers, artists, all who participate in defining the form of human excellence, have, in fact, shaped a moral vision for our times. Unspeakably vicious though human beings may often be to one another, we acknowledge a basic imperative to treat every person with the dignity and respect appropriate to a human being. This is the implicit vision which informs our response as we read an article on genocide in Rwanda or Bosnia. It is the vision which informs our thinking as we read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Camus's The Plague, Tillie Olsen's "Tell Me a Riddle," or a novel of Henry James. Literature is necessarily grounded in moral vision.
Buell's opening appeal to an environmental morality does not displace this humanist vision, but pushes on past it to an even more fundamental moral issue, the issue of human survival. His statement of an environmental imperative, it seems to me, liberates us from such iffy questions as authentic and inauthentic relationships with nature. Should one really try to determine who has the more authentic relationship with nature, the farmer, the cattleman, the poet, the scientist, the conservationist? Isn't it more important that all of us set our priorities and focus on what is to be done? "Good relations between nations," a familiar and diplomatically vague phrase, inevitably turns out to mean something specific and concrete: access to resources, acknowledgement of political claims, a voice in this or that decision.
Our relationship with nature ought to be similarly concrete: a commitment by those of us who live in apartment buildings as well as those of us who work the land or study it or paint it or write of it, to make "the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization." Putting the environment at the center of civilization requires political and moral action. But environmental action requires an enlivened and enlightened environmental imagination. Taylor's philosophers and artists, his articulators of moral vision may have to change their reading habits, broaden their literary priorities. Buell contends that:
Among the achievements of late nineteenth-century realism, the environmental nonfiction of Celia Thaxter, Mary Austin, and John Burroughs counts for as much as the novels of William Dean Howells and Mark Twain. Among the intellectual developments during the Depression and World War II, Aldo Leopold's formation of a biocentric environmental ethics was as important as any.... In literary history since World War II, the resurgence of environmental writing is as important as the rise of magical realist fiction. (6-7)
We do not ordinarily pause long over the risk that the literary imagination may fail. But if it should fail, if it should fail to become an environmental imagination, the stakes are large. The universe, as Wendell Berry says, is only somewhat hospitable to us. It is also "absolutely dangerous to us (it is going to kill us, sooner or later). . . ." (138) The literary imagination is our defense against that final moment.
There is, of course, no solace for so final an ending. Such endings have been experienced before, in little. The most poignant expression I have read for such an ending is the one I conclude with here, in the hope that the writings that follow may be closer to the beginning than to the end of the saving work of our human imagination:
When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.
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