Sharing the Story of the Boston Italians
Happy Birthday, Justice Stevens

What We Talk About When We Talk about Nature

by David Gessner

David Gessner is the author of six books of literary nonfiction, including Soaring with Fidel: An Osprey Odyssey from Cape Cod to Cuba and Beyond and The Prophet of Dry Hill: Lessons From a Life in Nature. He is the editor of Ecotone, the literary journal of place. 

Gessnersoaring It is bad form to refer to one's own work and worse to quote oneself.  But here goes.

In 1999, well before Drs. Nordhaus and Shellenberger pronounced environmentalism dead, I diagnosed the field of nature writing as a terminal case in an essay and, three years later, a book called Sick of Nature.

The essay came about when, after throwing a book against a wall in which the author had droned on serenely about "being the present moment" and "living in the natural woods," I went for a walk on my unnatural beach carrying my unnatural micro-cassette recorder, into which I spoke the beginnings of an essay. When the essay was later published it began exactly the way I spoke it that day as I tramped along the beach:

      I am sick of nature. Sick of trees, sick of birds, sick of the ocean. 

Of course I wasn't really sick of the natural world, just of the way some writers chose to portray it. I was sick of the hushed voice, sick of the saintliness, sick of the easy notions of the perfectibility of man, sick of the apocalyptic robes, sick of the scolding.  But most of all I was sick of the certainty that seemed to ooze out of the words. Writers certain that they knew what would happen in the world and certain that they knew how to be in that world and certain that they should tell us these things. The odd thing was that, for all their certainty, the world they described didn't sound much at all like the world I happened to live in.

Despite this, I believed and still believe that the environmental essay has an important role both in our literature and in our current political fights, though I also believe that it will probably have a more important role if we call it something other than "the environmental essay." Let me say that I'm not much help on this one—the obvious alternative "the nature essay" is about as racy and contemporary as quilting (no offense to the quilters out there) and "eco-essay," while better, isn't entirely accurate and sounds like a trademark.  Whatever we choose to call this essay-thing it should not ooze certainty or complacency. If it's going to ooze anything—and maybe it shouldn't—let it ooze conflict. Conflict, as most of our sophomore English teachers mentioned, is the essence of art. Why should that be different when we turn our literary attention to the so-called natural world, which, after all, is a famous Darwinian hotbed of conflict? Why should we get all soft-voiced and Sunday school when describing a world where death and struggle and raw life are so much more baldly apparent than in most of our own, a world so innately fascinating that it certainly won't become more so by covering it in a sugary goo?  Why should we start to sound like scary cult proselytizers when as artists we strive to be the opposite of proselytizers, Keatsian practitioners of negative capability, that ability to be in "uncertainties, anxieties and doubts"? Or, on the other hand, why should we sometimes come off like accountants tallying up a ledger sheet of gloom?   

Nature essays, at their worst, are narrated by people who give little indication that any of them have the quality that many of us find most important for living on earth: a sense of humor. From their writing you'd never guess that they have ever laughed or farted. (Which, it needs to be made clear, is different than translating Native American Myths about trickster coyotes who laugh and fart.)   Recently I judged a nature-writing contest for a university and I thought that if I read the words "calm" or "peace" one more time I was going to pull out a gun and kill myself. Even worse was "living in the present moment," whatever the hell that is. All I know is that these pat phrases and ideas oversimplify what it means to be a human being, and for leading the usual complex, troubled, compromised, joyful, sexual, funny, loving, jealous, insecure, calm, manic lives that human beings usually lead. There is the moment, sure, but there are also never-ending goals and plans, there are maps, there are decisions and calculations and imaginative leaps into the future and back into the past... These present-moment peaceful sorts are utopian characters in the sense that they are not in flux, not full of contradictions, not on their way to becoming something else. They are already saints, have already found "it," and already exude the air of the shaman or Zen master.

But let me hold my tongue. My task in my long-ago essay was to tear down. Today's task is to build back up. What am I looking for, not merely railing against, in our dialogue about nature? First, I'm looking for a discourse with a whole lot less bunk.  And a whole lot less mysticism, (which most of us, when not on drugs, don't understand). I'd also like a kind of writing that isn't content to chew its cud out in some far off back forty literary pasture, fenced off from real life concerns like politics. While I may not be personally ready to call myself an "environmentalist," I am more than ready to fight for the environment. It is a sign of our over-specialized times, after all, that we have tried to put up a wall between writing that is "literary" and that which is political. As if the two things could be fenced off and still remain vital. It has gotten to such a silly point in this country that it is commonly said of writers that their activism hurts their art. The implication seems to be that people are meant to do only one thing, in the manner of the assembly line worker. For my part, I'm happy to accept the sloppy fact of what James Baldwin called "men as they are." But I also understand that it's time to shut up and fight. Samuel Johnson, after listening to a philosopher friend argue against "the reality of matter," got up and kicked a chair, saying, "I refute it thusly." I can have my qualms with environmentalism—its earnestness, its joiner-mentality, its current vogue---but these qualms need to co-exist with action. I may be occasionally turned off by the arguments of the virtuous, but they are right about one thing: fighting for nature is, in the end, a moral issue. And as with a lot of moral issues, we can tamp it down, push it away, or try to ignore it, but we know, at some level, that we are avoiding something and that that avoiding holds great peril, both psychologically and practically.

Now dressed in full nature writing regalia--spear in hand and animal pelts on--I am finally ready to do battle. I am ready to leave behind the effete fear that politics will somehow taint my work, to understand that this exclusion is mere fashion, and that fashions change. I am also ready to leave behind the nature writer's sense of impotence. What I want to carry into the fight is humor, irony and the personal essayist's recourse to the testing ground of self. What I want to leave behind is "Oh, how lovely!" while what I want to carry into the fight are the moments—often lovely moments, yes—when I am briefly outside of myself, moments that remind me of how multifarious and delightful this world still is and that speak to my own animal wildness.  What I want to leave behind is false romanticism. What I want to carry into the fight is the original romantic urge for the specific, the local, the real.  What I want to leave behind is quoting Thoreau; what I want instead is to follow more deeply the complex spirit of the man. What I want to leave behind are pages of facts. What I want to carry forward are facts marshaled for purpose, facts enlivened because they follow an idea. What I want to leave behind is the sanctimony of quietude and order and "being in the present." What I want to embrace is loud and wild disorder, growing this way and that, lush and overdone. What I want to leave behind is the virtuous and the good, and move toward the inspiring and great. And while we're at it I want to leave behind anything false, false to me that is, false to what I feel is my ex perience on this earth. What I want instead is to wade through the mess of life without ever reaching for a life ring called The Answer.   

My dream is to fight and to rally others to my fight. And here is my cry:

Nature writers of the world unite: You have nothing to lose but your daisy chains.   

You may also want to read an interview with David Gessner at Bookslut, an essay on migrations he posted here last fall, and his longer "green manifesto" (from which this post was excerpted) available at the literary journal Ecotone.