[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
>    represented."
>    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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