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Never Mind the Osprey? Nature Needs New Music

Today's post is from David Gessner, author of Soaring With Fidel and The Prophet of Dry Hill. The following is adapted from his new book, My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Search of a New Environmentalism, which was just published by Milkweed Editions. This post originally appeared on his blog

Mygreenmanifesto My new book is about many things, including the need to fight for a limited wildness, but it is also, to a lesser extent, about language. I’ve always wondered why our words grow soft and mushy when we begin to talk about nature. Perhaps I am too persnickety, too preoccupied with the language that we use to describe the natural world, but I am in the minority that believes we should watch our words, that false language both reflects and encourages false thinking, that our lives depend on our sentences. I feel particularly strongly that “being in nature” should not be described as some precious or highfalutin' experience. After all, didn’t we as a species evolve, along with our words, while spending a million years or so living in the midst of the natural world? And wasn’t our relationship with that world, among other things, quite practical and direct? “Nature” is where the living roots of our language evolved, which suggests that that language should still be able to circle back and describe the place from whence we came without fencing it behind some quasi-mysterious mumbo-jumbo.

So many people who speak for the wild world seem to feel the need to speak in the voice of the mystic, with a hushed, voice-over reverence. We affect this high priest tone, and everyone else is expected to get down on their knees and listen to the whispered wisdom of the shaman. At times like those there’s very little indication that any of us have the quality that many humans find most important for living on earth: a sense of humor. You’d never guess that any of us 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.)

I cringe when my language grows too flaccid on the one hand–oh, Great Blue Heron, help my soul and keep all sweetness and light–or, on the other, too rigid and devoid of feeling–Great Blue Heron, or Ardea herodias, is a member of the Heron (snore). . . .

Lately, I’ve been invited to give a lot of talks and when I speak people sit listening, rapt, or at least putting on rapt faces. I suppose if I really wanted to make it big I would start spreading the word of doom and intoning the phrase “global warming” over and over, hitting my audiences with it like a big stick. But I’ve got other ideas, however, impure little ideas that get in the way. For instance, sometimes I think that, from an artistic point of view, the end of the world might be kind of interesting, at least more interesting than all the dull predictions about itAnother troubling notion is that I’m not really sure I want to be this thing called an environmentalist.

I’m not trying to be glib here–I don’t think it’s unimportant to fight for environmental causes. It’s just that I would like to put forth a sloppier form of environmentalism, a simultaneously more human and wild form, a more commonsense form and, hopefully, in the end, a more effective form. Because the old, guilt-ridden, mystical enviro-speak just isn’t cutting it. Maybe the musty way of talking about nature needs to be thrown over a clothesline and beaten with a broom. That’s what I’ve been trying to say at these talks I’ve been giving. My role, to put it more clearly, is to try to pull the pole out of the collective environmental ass. It isn’t easy work. For a costume I wear a Hawaiian shirt and to get into character I drink a few beers. Throughout my talks I make jokes about how earnest everyone is and the audience usually laughs along semi-masochistically. Sometimes I get carried away. I start feeling megalomaniacal and believe I am the bringer of a new language. I imagine myself to be Bob Dylan at Newport, playing electric guitar among the folkies, trying (futilely) to get them to yell out “Judas.”

This last metaphor was confirmed by one of the door prizes I was given recently, a CD tribute to Rachel Carson’s work, after a talk at a conference in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, to celebrate Carson’s life and work. On the way home I listened to a song on the CD about the demise of the osprey from DDT, and then another on the birds’ remarkable comeback, a subject I wrote a book about. It is fair to say that Carson is one of my greatest heroes but the music that came warbling out of my speakers seemed to be sung by a caricature of a late fifties Pete Seeger wannabe, who wailed about the poisons coursing through the ospreys’ bodies with such excruciatingly earnest detail that it almost made me root for the birds’ death. Anything as long as the song ended. This, I found myself thinking, this is part of the problem. Why does nature turn us into this kind of warbler? It makes me long for a new sort of music, a music anyone would listen to; a music that the Dan Driscoll’s of the world could actually work to: a punk osprey tribute sung by, say, the Sex Pistols.

And maybe, I think now, that’s a good place to start.

A new music.