The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

GIVING UP on LANGUAGE:
Or Why I Quit Reading Thoreau
David Taylor, September 2003

I do not know where to find in any literature, ancient or modern, any account which contents me of that Nature with which even I am acquainted.
(“Walking,” Thoreau)


I am watching purple martins sky-write dinner poems in the pinks and gold of evening clouds; however, I am trying to leave them to their work of eating and make nothing more of it. Just watching is difficult for someone like me who works with words for joy and employment. I am drawn to keep a journal nearby and sketch in my stick-figure style, but always first or last, pictures become words. Perhaps it's some zen fancy or just one of those concluding moments of external silence and internal discussion, but I am forcibly putting down the pen as it concerns any meaning I find in these birds.

I've given up on the swerves and swoops of language for a while. Not for long though, as I love abstraction -- metaphor and simile -- and the play of sounds and syllables on the tongue and ear. Deep down, too, I can't help feeling all our discourse about nature is abstraction, whether it be science or animism, poetry or essay, incantation, article, or experiment. Maybe our senses alone, without a need for contextualizing them for another, is the least artificial effort we may attempt:

cardinal chirp,
pecan branch,
compost scent,
sharp edge of yucca,
dandelion flowers on the tongue.

But such description makes for poor poetry, for what is poetry without inference or implication? Or science without hypothesis?

Sometimes, I tire of the linguistic gymnastics of nature writing, and critics and scholars of it -- the nature writer looking at himself looking, and the second remove of those who tumble and somersault among the works of the former (even though I have made most of my living this way!). I am not an anti-intellectual; I read as voluminously as the next PhD. I teach classes in environmental literature and philosophy and believe they matter. Now, though, this yang of contrarianism at hand, I wonder what service this impulse for leaving language could provide.

I am reminded of backpacking trips with a dear friend Ian Marshall, another wordsmith by career and vocation. Our first few days of hiking are chock-full of wit and repartee. “Rarified-eco-phenomenological-anthropo-biocentered-feminist hegemony,” I swear I have heard something like that. Not to mention the literary theory thrown in for spice. We love these talks, and they have made for some of our best academic presentations. Always on the third day, our talk slows; physical exhaustion and repeated philosophies and counter arguments stem the freshet of words and our conversation becomes the sound of footsteps, deep breathing, and of course, that stuff around us, nature. Even our rest times are less conversational as we take off and adjust our packs, get a snack, and Ian checks his maps. We take to singing in the evenings rather than talking, playing a child's guitar we bring along, Ian always with his penny whistles. Somehow at the end of our trip, we have little to say to each other because we are conversing in other ways -- gestures, smiles, silence, adjusting a shoulder strap. However, it takes a few days for us to come to these other stories and languages. We like others of our species are better equipped to fill up our meetings with our usual ways of conversing.

By now, the gentle listener has surely considered the paradox and silliness of my task -- my giving up on language. Most likely she has noted that I have to this point* added 494 words to the discussion of my dis-ease with describing the natural world and offered nothing, either homeopathic or pharmaceutical, as a therapy or cure. Too, she has most likely surmised this mood is in part a product of my impishness -- if the percentages of approval lean to one side, I inevitably weigh in on the other. Friends and family members say, “He loves to debate.” Foes and formers say, “He's a pain in the ass.” Fair criticisms it seems to me, but today's musing feels more lasting than just orneriness -- more like trying to describe something I've mostly seen in passing or new environmental storylines I have a sense are being written now. My desire to give up on language isn't giving up on it at all, of course. I guess I'm just giving up on some of the narratives we've inherited -- and for me now, in the free time and joy of this warm evening, the martins still going about their lives, my wife sitting next to me, I am trying to push back the urge for metaphor, the comfort of solitude, and the desire for some spiritual resonance.

This seems a likely place to begin a brief discussion of Thoreau, being a bit of a crank himself. I'll tell you up front there are few things I dislike as much as one more interpretation of Thoreau as it has anything to do with the natural world. Perhaps no other figure in the environmental movement has suffered as much from a blind, cult-like allegiance to some idealized notion of the role of the natural world in individualism. As Lawrence Buell says in The Environmental Imagination: "[Thoreau] is one of the few American writers to have become canonized as both a popular hero and a hero of high culture." These prostrations at Thoreau's feet have led much of 150 years of nature writing along a trajectory of romantic self-discovery -- need to find myself; live alone by myself in nature; find myself; tell everybody else how I found myself. The list of authors and thinkers who have followed this recipe in cookie-cutter fashion with rainbow sprinkles of Thoreau quotes is, kindly said, long! But those who have read the whole of Thoreau's work know what I have described here isn't Thoreau, especially his work and efforts after having left the pond (1849-1862). What I am critiquing here is Walden and the two predominant narratives drawn from it: the hero quest and transcendentalist spirituality.

Joseph Campbell has suggested that the hero quest is an archetypal storyline -- the individual decides to leave his civilization in order to go through a series of trials and discoveries, comes to a new understanding by these experiences and returns to his civilization with a new understanding, yet somehow separated from them by his experiences.

In American environmental narratives the hero quest is an adolescent rite of passage, though, where the natural world serves as a vehicle for one's self-examination and trial; where others, human and non-human, are less important than the idealized “I”; and where community in any form restricts the self or is distinctly separated from the self. Not surprisingly, the narrative voice of this archetype looks not so deeply at the natural world as having intrinsic value, but how it may inspire, encourage, or challenge the speaker. Individuals (people, plants and critters) play a less vital part of the story and function more as caricatures and plot devices, and community, whether it be our current, forsaken “dominant paradigm” or familial history, must be shunned for individual authenticity. For novice readers, check the last chapters of a nature book and see how often the author uses “I”; at least Thoreau uses it more sparingly near the end of Walden.

Too, people are left out of these kinds of searches and texts. I am reminded of the Emerson line in “Self-Reliance” about leaving one's spouse, children, parents and siblings if one must in order to find his self-reliance, and of course Emerson was thinking only of men leaving the family. His conversations are to himself and us only as an imagined audience as he digs deeper through supposed bonds of society, as though obligation and commitment are not a kind of human ecology. The farther he finds himself from any human responsibility, the freer he is to find himself or what too many in this tradition would call his “true self.”

Inspiration and spirituality are dangerous topics for the nature writer, for they presuppose the author order what he sees to fit some ideal of what the sensory experiences should mean: enlightenment, connection, longing, ecstasy, The tradition is so steeped in transcendentalism that authors feel almost compelled to make something more of the non-human world, or maybe better stated, authors feel the need to make something meaningful for humans out of the non-human world-self-realization, cosmic understanding, even the “darkness” of a Darwinian world. For example, must things always mean something? Not surprisingly, these stories often read like self-help books written with a “natural setting.” Surely, there are times that one might truly be inspired by an observation, but can we as authors leave such things behind the words and let such a life-change affect the word choice and not the story?

I am being reminded now about my negativity. My wife is finishing a good cabernet; she looks at the setting sun through the purplish-red of the wine, and swirls the sediment in the bottom of her glass, as she says, “Offer more than what you don't like.” Our puppy is chewing on a small piece of firewood, mulberry from my father's house. So I stop the musing for a while look back to the birds appearing and disappearing behind the bamboo.

Maybe she's right, and after a little grumbling, I'll agree. I have wondered what such a work would be like because there really isn't a tradition for it in American literature. We have natural histories, transcendentalist testimony, and advocacy, but we don't have much in the way of place-making as most citizens go about it. The majority of our nature writing celebrates wilderness areas more often than margins, observes the extraordinary over the commonplace, and embraces the misanthrope over a gregarious sort. These preferences suggest a critique of modern society-cities stifle the soul, everyday existence is lacking, and the individual is more important than the community. However, much has been written, performed and taught about place-based writing in the last few decades. Most of these works treat their home with reverence and love -- deep, passionate love. Some have a good naturalist's understanding of the local place, using geology, botany, etc. They explore the emotions of their relationship to a place -- ancestry, family, partner, child, spirit, etc. Maybe even god, or a god. I can't help feeling many of these works are the legacy of Walden -- the Pond his world and his world an avenue to universal patterns, doves, hounds and bays, the eye of the universe. Perhaps this is the significant danger in our American wilderness legacy--that wildness must be not only a pristine condition but also a spiritual state for the author.

I'm told, though, that long-term ecological restoration needs public participation, and any sense of a long-term public needs restoration, too. As a writer I believe in this connection, not because I concern myself with environmental issues, but because it is at the core of why I write -- close observation deepens relationships -- non-human and human alike, and relationships that deepen benefit all involved and narrative has the ability to express the voices of multiple characters in a storyline.

Holmes Ralston III says:
The logic of the home, the ecology, is finally narrative, and human life will not be a disembodied reason but a person organic in history. Character always takes narrative form; history is required to form character. The theory can provide a skeleton but not the flesh. This is true, perhaps more evident in culture, but it is not less true in the human relations with nature.

Restoration asks us to rethink all this and work relationally with our home -- a home most likely degraded by human interaction. A sense of place is created in the process of restoring, and in restoring, a deeper home than field guides and pretty views might ever offer. A home created in the working with and learning in the working.

Such a work it seems to me would reject that legacy of romanticism, for the natural world, in most places, is damaged at the ecosystemic level, and seeking solace from something we have injured without acknowledging that injury seems ignorant at best and abusive at worst. Our daily lives would be a part of the story not the exception. And the stereotyping of those in white hats and those in black hats would be replaced with deeper characterizations. “American places are but a moment's bright flash, followed by long, confused memories,” writes Howard Mansfield in The Same Axe, Twice. So many of our narratives are about the moment, the unique, the wondrous. Always shifting, changing, moving. Maybe rethinking our environmental stories offers us a chance to quit moving and settling, to begin living and working with our neighbors, to start a local dialogue about what's local, and how to live within the local, and most importantly, to learn how to listen.

In “Walking” Thoreau seems to focus most of his attention on “wildness” being as the frontier spirit and from this he says we might derive a gammatica parda, a mother wit derived from the vast, howling mother of ours, Nature. Most often, his grammatica parda is translated/interpreted as a visceral and physical language of the earth, a soiled (in the best sense) grammar. However, Thoreau follows these comments here with a discussion of what he calls the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance. “What we call knowledge is often positive ignorance; ignorance our positive knowledge,” he writes. He continues by claiming: “Which is the best man to deal with -- he who knows nothing about a subject and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks he knows it all.” My own sense of his notion of a grammatica parda is one where the speaker is not so sure of nature's meaning for himself or the universe --one where the wise speaker or writer listens to the language of others from multiple backgrounds and experiences and gathers them as compassionately as possible. There is an egotism to language embedded in its existence as deeply as our own species' ego; it wants to be the thing it represents. Maybe too it is our own desire to find something in language that redeems us or connects us spiritually. A certain humility on the author's part might in part free her language from such desires.

Maybe an unassuming nature is what I am most interested in -- when a writer lets go, to the best of one's ability, of his desires for the product and lets things be in words by what he doesn't know and sees, by what he has heard, read, overheard, and laughed with others about. A strength of ignorance that provides her the courage to approach scientists, philosophers or linguists with her research and learn.

All this seems to be at the heart of restoration aesthetics. As artists, scientists, philosophers, janitors, etc., we must think through the language of our profession, believe in the relevancy of our background to others and the importance of their involvement in community, and practice incredible patience and attention in listening and learning. Our communication must broaden and detail, use analogies and comparisons readily intelligible, find commonalities and disagreements, and be open to improvement and editing. Finding local audiences outside our discipline needn't lessen the quality of the art or science. American environmental writing has a long history of advocacy: the nationalism of the 18th and 19th centuries (our species are bigger than your species!), the first cries about loss in the late 19th century, the jeremiads of the 20th century, and the downright pissed off of the western writers. The author's voices vary between wise and placid to passionate and shrill. Some of these works have brought about profound change -- Muir, Carson, and Abbey for example. Others not. The tradition survives, though, on an us vs. them tone that pleases many involved in environmentalist works. It's easier to rally folk against something or somebody than to create a dialogue between lots of people.

My wife is wise. She tells me when I am being a jackass, distant, obsessive, etc. This list could certainly go on. It hurts when she tells me these things. Yet she also tells me when I am loving, being a good listener, involved and working with her in the marriage. I am a better person for that dynamic, and I do my very best to be an equal partner and offer her the tough and loving lessons she offers me.

Restoration is about relationship, and at its best mutual and attentive. Our partner in this physical and spiritual relationship is as flawed and perfect as our own understandings of it. And how we work within this relationship has everything to do with how healthy all things will be in the future.

An art and science is arising that sees in stories, and looking with deep humility at how to build a mutual and sustaining dependence. This is, after all, the deepest home -- listening, learning, and giving to everything and everybody else, and in turning from self, growing in self, whether as an individual or a species.

The martins have stopped. Or I can't see them for the dark now, so I can only presume they have stopped and begun roosting for the night. The screech owls have started their calls to each other across the open spaces of the backyards. The bamboo rattles in an imperceptibly soft wind; the smell of a barbeque drifts in from somewhere down the street. The beer is cool: tangy and bitter at first taste, and then sweet. It is always light enough to write in the journal about pleasantness and something deep, but I'll hold off for a little while more.

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