“No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life
in this stricken world. The People had done it themselves.”
— Rachel Carson (from Silent Spring)
Introduction To A Last-Ditch Effort
Humans understand ourselves as the earth’s great dominion-bearing beings. We have used that dominion as an excuse to ransack our world, tearing limb from limb, until it became an unrecognizable web of asphalt and damaged landscapes. Mountains have been toppled in search of resources, while ocean and atmosphere have been plugged with our chemical waste. Living organisms are sacrificed daily in the name of human progress. We boast in these accomplishments, delight in converting verdant trees into verdant dollar bills.
In recent years, the figurative scales have shifted, and the very real threats of irreversible, life-altering damage have emerged at the forefront of world issues. Nature, if not from sheer frustration with the exploits of our race, has continued to act out in violence, warning us of its displeasure. Now, more than ever, there is a need for returning to the literature penned in nature’s defense. However, as we do this, we must be weary of blindly accepting the ideas of nature’s past prophets. We must avoid falling into the same old wooden elucidations, which obscure the notion that this world in which we live is fully alive. Instead, we must separate the dead bones of outdated thought from the lively flesh of our world. Literature overflows with perspectives on how we ought to carry ourselves as citizens of the natural world. It is up to us to wade through this ocean of thought, and emerge with more refined translations of the wild tongues that seek to save us from our own destruction.
The Emerson Problem
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote extensively about the natural world and man’s place within it. His thoughts have become so entrenched in our perspectives of nature that they hardly strike the modern reader as shocking or inventive. What is troublesome about Emerson’s pervasive thought is that his view of nature centers on the divinity and dominion of the human race. In Emerson’s short work Nature, he expounded on this idea of man’s central place on the world’s mantelpiece, writing:
Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts . . . work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed, the sun evaporates the sea, the wind blows the vapor to the field, the ice, on the other side of the planet condenses rain on this, the rain feeds the plant, the plant feeds the animal, and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.
This interpretation becomes a problem when the belief that all of nature works to “nourish man” stimulates the belief that the most important element of nature is mankind. Humanity, as a race, has long maintained anthropocentrism as a key foundation in understanding how the world is structured. This is not dissimilar to the misinterpretation of Genesis 1:28, where it is written that God gives humanity dominion “over every living thing that moves on earth,” which has been interpreted as God giving humanity freedom to romp about as it pleases, using and destroying anything it so desires. The major flaw in this anthropocentric perspective is that it suggests that the natural world would not exist without mankind, and implies that man’s dominion veers toward domination as opposed to cultivation. We have invested heavily into the philosophical bend that somehow by simply existing as such, humanity has received the natural world as its estate, and that we can employ nature to work in any manner we so desire. The Polish poet Wistawa Szymborska offers a particularly strong criticism of this brand of anthropocentrism, writing:
We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
incorrect, or apt.
Our glance, our touch mean nothing to it.
It doesn’t feel itself seen and touched.
And that it fell on the windowsill
is only our experience, not its.
Countering Emerson, Szymborska notes that language is a uniquely human function. Therefore, words such as dominion, divinity, and nature only hold weight in the realm of humanity, which is to say that nature doesn’t exist knowing that it’s nature; it simply exists.
Further along in Nature, Emerson notes that “the universe is the property of every individual,” and that every rational creature, which by his definition is solely human, has “all nature for his dowry and estate.” Emerson worked to foster this sense of ownership, believing it would compel humans to care for and cultivate their property. As history has shown us, though, this is simply not the case. In an attempt to shed light on the environmental destruction caused by human arrogance, poet W. S. Merwin, in his poem “Rain At Night,” writes:
after an age of leaves and feathers
thought of this mountain as money
and cut the trees.
Merwin suggests that Emerson’s outdated egotism — the notion of the world as human property — has driven industrialism and consumerism, and led to the plundering of the mountains and oceans in search of profit-generating resources. According to Merwin, it is because humanity no longer views the earth as sacred that economic pursuits have risen to unparalleled importance. What Merwin pushes for is a recovery of our “forgotten language,” which connects us to the sacred earth and will ultimately allow us to recover “what the forests were like.” Now, more than ever, it is imperative that humanity rediscover a connection with nature.
Embracing the “Out There”
One of America’s most memorable voices in literature, Edward Abbey, dedicated his life to staving off the power-hungry diplomats who hoped to convert the remaining wilderness into a forest-themed amusement park. When it came to the wilderness, as opinionated and humorous as he could be, he maintained a serious reverence for the world, writing:
…that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels…and our journey here on earth…is the most strange and daring of all adventures.
In Abbey’s view, the relatively young world of mankind cannot compare on any level with the depth, beauty, age, wonder, or magnetism of the natural world. The natural “out there,” which surrounds the self-constructed human communities, has existed for far longer than mankind, and will continue to exist long after humanity is just a memory. The poet Charles Wright expands on that theme:
The natural world, out of whose wounds the supernatural
Rises, and where it longs to return,
Shifts in its socket from time to time
and sparks come forth.
These are the cracks, the hyphens of light, the world relinquishes
Briefly, then stanches with human dust.
And that’s what’s waiting for you in the meadow
In these lines, Wright brilliantly captures the idea that the world in which we live is alive with wisdom, myth, and narrative that speak to the beauty and history of all life, not just humanity. The world we live in is massive, sparking with life, and it is worth our while to explore and invest in the sustentation of all beings. We should willingly embrace the challenges, adventures, and terrains that currently face us, and we should care about the well being of our world, in order that life can continue for generations. If we choose not to, nature will see to it that we are confronted and punished for our misdeeds. As Amy Leach notes, in her inventive tales of the natural world:
For even if you have built masterful aspen castles in your mind, have toppled whole forests to throttle the writhing elements into a liveably serene personal pond . . . there is music that will dissolve your anchors, your sanctuaries, floating you off your feet, fetching you away with itself. And then you are a migrant, and then you are amuck; and then you are the music’s toy, juggled into furious torrents.
The warnings of history are powerful and the lessons nature can teach are critical, but the breadth of our world shows that our human concerns are truly minuscule in light of nature’s strength. It is up to all life, as survivors, to learn to adapt to one another, and not believe for one instant that we can really tame the wildness of nature. We are apart of a world much bigger and fiercer than ourselves, and we must fall back in line with the rhythm of life.
The World As One
More important than simply embracing the power of the natural world that surrounds our human communities is recognizing that these communities are entrenched in a larger biological and geological community. This notion that humanity is somehow set apart from all other life has developed in our disregard for the surrounding world. Instead of seeing life, we see product. Each individual is conditioned to view things in the world as a means to improve their life, as opposed to viewing their life as a means to improve the world. Mary Oliver writes that “the questions that have assailed us all” still remain, but notes that “under the trees and through the fields,” the whole of nature feels like one. This notion is something rather difficult for people to grasp today because they don’t want to view their conquests as damaging life. However, it would go a long way for humans to take a step outside, beyond the asphalt and metal structures, and look at the natural world as an equal. Alice Walker, in her piece “Everything Is a Human Being,” speaks rather critically of our inept view of nature, writing:
Our thoughts must be on how to restore to the Earth its dignity as a living being; how to stop raping and plundering it as a matter of course. We must begin to develop the consciousness that everything has equal rights because existence itself is equal. In other words, we are all here: trees, people, snakes, alike.
Possibly the most disheartening and saddening truth of where human life has progressed to is the belief that we are somehow elevated above the world around us. It stems from religious, industrial, and economic philosophies, and has warped us into a race that no longer believes we have communion with what’s around us. Somehow, we have believed the concept that, as rational beings, we have been called to rule the earth, and have ignored the idea that, as rational beings, we have been called to care for the earth, helping other creatures around us survive. Eustace Conway, famed mountain man whose life was chronicled by Elizabeth Gilbert in The Last American Man, was quoted as stating that in nature, “everything is connected, circular,” like the seasons, life cycles, and even the world we live in, but because “modern people have lost sight” of this, we have moved from interconnected circles of life toward social hierarchies mimicked by our boxed buildings “where nothing grows.”
Nature As Home
There is still a chance to regain what Rick Bass calls “the blood-rhythms of wilderness,” which are difficult to find in nature and humanity alike, and can help to channel this hunger for stability into a revolution in all “towns, neighborhoods, and cities” across our world. However, revolution doesn’t happen in an instant — it might never come at all. For those of us left to carry on the burden of life, we must not view it as a debilitating challenge, but instead come to see it as a worthy cause that will allow true progress and sustainability to continue. In his renowned A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold suggests that the “evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as emotional” process, which must challenge our “attitudes and implements,” and ultimately result, not in a reduction into primitive thought, but in a “gentler and more objective criteria” for our roles as citizens of the world. This point is crucial: what is being called for is not a reduction to more basic, elementary thought, but instead a recognition that progress moving at a quicker pace than we can control has proven to be more destructive than beneficial. The lives that this progress impacts are not just the lives of humans, but instead is every form of life that exists in our ecosystem. Finally, it is of the utmost importance that we not toil in correcting our skewed philosophies, but we must also recognize that even in the darkest hours of death and destruction, there is always hope for new life to spring forth. For, as John Burroughs put it: “The earth dies daily and has done so through countless ages. But life and youth spring forever from its decay; indeed could not spring at all till the decay began.”
Photo by Michael Waldrep