[Paleopsych] Boston Globe: Sick of nature
Werbos, Dr. Paul J.
paul.werbos at verizon.net
Mon Aug 16 21:44:35 UTC 2004
At 05:21 PM 8/16/2004 -0400, Premise Checker wrote:
>Sick of nature
>Today's nature writing is too often pious, safe, boring. Haven't these
>people re-read Thoreau lately?
>By David Gessner
> I AM SICK of nature. Sick of trees, sick of birds, sick of the ocean.
There is a lot of politically correct stuff by people who talk about nature
but never connect with the realities.
Yet the antithesis... reads to me a lot like postmodernist
deconstructionism, which has its role but is not
exactly a sound foundation to build upon either...
> It's been almost four years now, four years of sitting quietly in my
> study and sipping tea and contemplating the migratory patterns of the
> semipalmated plover. Four years of writing essays praised as "quiet"
> by quiet magazines. Four years of having neighborhood children ask
> their fathers why the man down the street comes to the post office
> dressed in his pajamas ("Doesn't he work, Daddy?") or having those
> same fathers wonder why, when the man actually does dress, he dons the
> eccentric costume of an English bird watcher, complete with
> binoculars. And finally, four years of being constrained by the gentle
> straightjacket of the nature-writing genre; that is, four years of
> writing about the world without being able to use the earthier names
> for excrement (while talking a lot of scat).
> Worse still, it's been four years of living within a literary form
> that, for all its wonder and beauty, can be a little like going to
> Sunday School. A strange Sunday School where I alternate between
> sitting in the pews (reading nature) and standing at the pulpit
> (writing nature). And not only do I preach from my pulpit, I preach to
> the converted. After all, who reads nature books? Fellow nature lovers
> who already believe that the land shouldn't be destroyed. Too often
> when I flip through the pages of contemporary nature books the tone is
> awed, hushed, reverential. The same things that drove me away from
> Sunday School. And the same thing that drove me, unable to resist my
> own buffoonery, to fart loudly against the pews.
> As the 150th anniversary of "Walden" approaches on August 9, it may
> pay to remember that Thoreau's great book also has its share of fart
> jokes, including references to Pythagrians and their love of beans.
> Bad puns, too, but you get the feeling that that isn't what the
> anniversary party is going to focus on. Instead the same, tired old
> cut-out of Thoreau as nature saint will be dragged out, St. Francis of
> Concord, our sexless -- and increasingly lifeless -- hero. It makes
> you wonder if anyone's actually taken the time to read his strange and
> wild book lately. If they did they would find sentences that fulfill
> Emerson's epigram: "My moods hate each other." Sentences that are, in
> turn, defensive and direct, arch and simple, upright and sensual,
> over-literary (even for the times) and raw. Of course I'm not claiming
> that Thoreau's book is free of nature reverence, just that the pious
> tone is often contradicted -- delightfully, thornily -- by moments
> like his confession that, for all his reasoned vegetarianism, "I could
> sometimes eat a fried rat with good relish, if it were necessary."
> In fact one of the interesting subplots of "Walden" is the fight
> between Thoreau the prude and Thoreau the crude. For a ringside seat,
> open to the chapter called "Higher Laws." Here Henry's dainty shudders
> rise off the page as he bemoans our "reptile and sensual life," the
> messy side of existence that would include the sex he rarely -- if
> ever -- had. But if we tire of this schoolmarm railing against the
> sins of the flesh we need only flip back to the chapter's opening
> lines, where we encounter Thoreau almost overcome by his urge to mug a
> woodchuck. In fact he is so aroused by the furry rodent that he feels
> "a strange thrill of savage delight," and is "strongly tempted to
> devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for the wildness he
> It is precisely that wildness that is missing from so much of our
> contemporary nature writing. There's lots of wilderness, sure, but one
> of the things that is lost is the element of quest -- of personal
> wildness -- or what we might call the Montaignean aspect of Thoreau's
> book. Strange that a book like "Walden," so outside of genre and
> driven by such a boldly personal and idiosyncratic quest -- "I went to
> the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the
> essential facts of life. . ." -- should have created a genre that is
> so often dry and impersonal.
> As with so many endeavors, nature writing has become specialized and
> polarized. On the one hand there is the generally healthy movement
> from the anthropocentric to the biocentric, from human-focused to
> world-focused, a movement that Thoreau anticipated late in his life
> with his more scientific writing. This movement has led to some fine
> objective writing, but it has also led to many dull pages, exhaustive
> and occasionally exhausting works. The problem is that most readers
> are human beings and therefore naturally interested in the human. The
> driving youthful question that enlivened "Walden" -- "How to live?" --
> has been all but forgotten.
> Or usurped by the opposite camp. At the other pole are writers with a
> too easy access to the "spiritual," writers who replace hard-won
> thought with idealized references to Native Americans and who repeat
> the word "wonder" over and over. Theirs is a cloying and simplistic
> philosophy of "nature is good," and they see symbols in every acorn.
> Nature becomes a kind of bland church, and these writers seem intent
> on smearing themselves with what Mark Twain called "soul butter." Long
> gone are the fried rats.
> Of course I am loath to name names, lest the nature-writing mafia turn
> on me. But this tendency afflicts even the genre's best and most
> original writers. Wendell Berry, for instance, the prolific essayist
> and Kentucky farmer who has truly taken up Thoreau's mantle of both
> quest and nonconformity, slips at times into a kind of high-priest
> tone, a too certain voice in this wildly uncertain world, one that
> begins to sound a lot like agrarian bullying. Farming, he tells us (in
> one admittedly beautiful passage), "is, in an ancient sense, the human
> lot." But there are those of us who are more in touch with our ancient
> hunters -- our inner woodchuck muggers -- than with our inner farmers.
> And while Barry Lopez's much-revered "Arctic Dreams" displays a
> remarkable empathy with the nonhuman, at times the book seems written
> by and for a creature other than a human being, as if Lopez has
> forgotten that people, not polar bears or narwhals, are his readers.
> . . .
> Meanwhile anyone who writes about a bug or tree is called the
> "Thoreau" of this or that place. Edward Abbey, who celebrated and
> fought for the southwestern desert and won fame for his 1975 novel
> "The Monkey Wrench Gang" (about an activist plot to blow up the Glen
> Canyon dam), once complained that nature writers, "like vacuum cleaner
> salesmen . . . scramble for exclusive territory on this oversold,
> swarming, shriveling planet." It's only gotten worse in the years
> since Abbey's early death in 1989. As the world grows more crowded,
> our fiefdoms shrink. No less than the much reviled developers, we
> nature writers scurry to make a living off the land and scenery,
> subdividing and developing new areas.
> And it's not only our plots of land that are smaller. Observe that
> freakish character -- The Incredible Shrinking Nature Writer. If you
> drew us to scale and made Thoreau a giant, and placed Aldo Leopold and
> Rachel Carson at about his shoulder, you could keep drawing us smaller
> and smaller until you sketched in me and my crop of peers at insect
> size. It may be, as some suggest, that our time marks a renaissance of
> nature writing. But it's a renaissance of ants.
> If nature writing is to prove worthy of a new, more noble name, it
> must become less genteel and it must expand considerably. It's time to
> take down the "No Trespassing" signs. Time for a radical
> cross-pollination of genres. Why not let farce occasionally bully its
> way into the nature essay? Or tragedy? Or sex? How about more writing
> that spills and splashes over the seawall between fiction and
> nonfiction? How about some retrograde essayist who suddenly breaks
> into verse like the old timers? How about some African-American nature
> writers? (There are currently more black players in the NHL than in
> the Nature Writing League.) How about somebody other than Abbey who
> will admit to having a drink in nature? (As if most of us don't tote
> booze as well as binoculars into the back-country.) And how about a
> nature writer who actually seems to have a job?
> Perhaps Abbey, who worked for years as a fire lookout and park ranger,
> provides a hopeful example. Despite his tendencies toward
> bumper-sticker humor, or maybe in part because of it, his best books,
> like "Desert Solitaire" (his classic 1968 memoir of Utah's
> canyonlands), display a personality -- by turns angry, self-righteous,
> rapt, gruff, delighted and just plain silly -- every bit as varied and
> ornery as Thoreau's. Though Abbey had his obvious (macho) flaws -- and
> led a very un-Thoreauvian life, with many offspring from many wives --
> he wrote sentences that had the advantage of being alive on the page:
> there is a sense of quest and, furthermore, of something urgent at
> stake in that quest.
> Consider this passage on snakes, from "Desert Solitaire": "I'm in the
> stifling heat of the trailer opening a can of beer, barefooted, about
> to go out and relax after a hard day of watching cloud formations. I
> happen to glance out the window and see two gopher snakes on my
> verandah engaged in what seems to be a kind of ritual dance."
> Typically he doesn't waste any time getting down on the ground: "I
> crawl within six feet of them and stop, flat on my belly, watching
> from a snake's eye level." After some fretting about
> anthropomorphizing (a label often pasted on any writer who dares to
> stray from the strictly scientific), the passage turns into a
> consideration of the kindred spirits of man and animal. And it only
> works because he has gotten down and dirty.
> Were Abbey alive today, he wouldn't be entirely without good company.
> For instance there's his vital and prickly Western heir, Jack Turner
> of Wyoming, whose book "The Abstract Wild" thumbs its nose at much of
> the current accepted biological dogma, including the need for
> biological controls and radio collaring in the name of science, with
> real gusto. And there's the delightfully unsentimental Joy Williams,
> whose recent collection "Ill Nature" rants joyfully against hunting
> and baby-worship and in favor of a radical animal-rights agenda. And,
> not to ignore the more biocentric writers, there's Carl Safina, whose
> "Eye of the Albatross" has plenty of paragraphs on primary feathers
> and lice and breeding habits, but who also conveys a constant sense of
> why these things matter, not just to the birds but to us, and how --
> in the words of another chronicler of the albatross, Samuel Taylor
> Coleridge -- "we are all one life."
> Which is the point after all. By cordoning nature off as something
> separate from ourselves and by writing about it that way, we kill both
> the genre and a part of ourselves. The best writing in this genre is
> not really "nature writing" anyway but human writing that just happens
> to take place in nature. And the reason we are still talking about
> "Walden" 150 years later is as much for the personal story as the
> pastoral one: a single human being, wrestling mightily with himself,
> trying to figure out how best to live during his brief time on earth,
> and, not least of all, a human being who has the nerve, talent, and
> raw ambition to put that wrestling match on display on the printed
> page. The human spilling over into the wild, the wild informing the
> human; the two always intermingling. There's something to celebrate.
> David Gessner, who lives part of the year on Cape Cod, is the author
> of four books, including the newly published "Sick of Nature"
> (Dartmouth), a collection of essays.
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