Entering Nature

The Human Self in the Natural World

A series developed by Franklin Burroughs

Contemporary writings that address in interesting and distinctive ways the affinities that unite and the distances that separate the human and the non-human.

  • The Tree by John Fowles
  • Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
  • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
  • Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

Nature writing has pervasively concerned itself with connections between the outer world of rivers, rocks, and trees, and the inner one of spirit, imagination, and identity. In 1836 Ralph Waldo Emerson confidently announced that “the whole of nature is a metaphor for the human mind,” and he found nature to be everywhere harmonious, uplifting, and august. He still saw it from the perspective of a cultural heritage that was thoroughly anthropocentric, human-centered: “Nature is made to serve. It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which his Saviour rode.” By its silent ministry, Nature would in effect confirm and renew traditional conceptions of the dominion of the human soul over its earthly environment.

It was not Emerson himself, but Henry David Thoreau, his thoroughly unruly disciple, who determined to subject these serene transcendental assurances about the beneficence of nature to the test of actual experience. He went to Walden to find what a real encounter with the natural world would be, “and, if it proved mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” And it is really from Thoreau that our tradition derives, and seeks “to know it by experience” ­ by a testing, measuring, examining, and assessing of the boundaries between nature and the self. There is always a seeking to experience, in imagination and in fact, the naturalness of the human and the humanness of the natural. This seeking involves the possibility of both “meanness” and “sublimity”: is nature the great adversary, from which civilization shelters us, or is it the inspiration that underlies all that is good in civilization itself?

The tradition of nature writing eludes the usual kinds of definition and classification. It draws on the vocabularies and perspectives of science, philosophy, religion, historiography, journalism, fiction, and poetry; but it has a wary and skeptical sense of the limitations and simplifications that are inherent in any single, specific intellectual discipline or literary form.

Such variety makes it difficult to generalize about nature writing as a genre, and perhaps that is as it should be. Beginning with Thoreau, its tradition has had strong tendencies toward the revolutionary and the iconoclastic; it calls for a new way of considering the human enterprise, for new assumptions about the sources of our thought and the purposes of our lives. Barry Lopez sees the tradition as one that may eventually alter the terms of American nationality: “I believe this area of writing will not only one day produce a major and lasting body of American literature, but that it might also provide the foundation for a reorganization of American political thought.” Abbey does not envision his work as having quite so decorous an impact upon the institutions of power. He describes Desert Solitaire as a “bloody rock. Don’t drop it on your foot ­ throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose” Annie Dillard, Lewis Thomas, and John Fowles do not take aim at political targets, but they all insist upon what Dillard calls “the mystery of continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.” That is, upon paradox, instability, multiplicity; upon an order of things that undermines, overwhelms or simply ignores human attempts at physical or metaphysical ordering.

Solitude and separation come, in these works, to be vital salutary. Abbey and Lopez focus on simply physical isolation, and it is recognizably related, in its harshness and extremity, to the isolation of the prophet, who seeks vision, not simply refuge or peace, in the desert. Fowles and Dillard find what Fowles call the “ordinary wild” ­ the small woodlot or stream bank ­ adequate for purposes of a contemplative removal from the utilitarian complacency with which we habitually view the natural world and ourselves. Thomas’ separation is figurative ­ he is the scientist who seeks a vantage point outside science, relying on unscientific speculations and analogies to try to convey an essentially holistic conception of nature.

Except for Thomas, these writers are ambivalent about the physical and biological sciences. None of them makes a virtue of scientific ignorance, or denounces the scientific method, but they have reservations about the applications of science and its ability to comprehend the mysterious linkages and distances between the inner world of the observer and the outer world that is observed. All, including Thomas, draw upon unscientific modes of thought and expression ­ for example, primitive myth, religion, music, and literature ­ to correct the generalizing and objectifying detachment that is both the method and the result of scientific investigation. In part, this is because all of them have a sense that we cannot absolutely suspend our moral and human wholeness when we regard the non-human world. None of them would echo Emerson’s assertion about nature’s being made to serve human purposes; all have seen too much of the destruction that human purposes, augmented by our formidable power over nature, have produced. A consciousness of the darkness of human history is never too far away from their consideration of natural history. Fowles perhaps speaks for all in finding our relation to the natural not only mysterious and restorative, but urgent: “only fools think our attitude to our fellow man is a thing distinct from our attitude to our fellow man is a thing distinct from our attitude to ‘lesser’ life on this planet.” And he might have added that our attitudes toward ourselves are similarly indistinguishable from our attitudes toward the non-human world.

The Tree by John Fowles

John Fowles was born in suburban London in 1926, and he evokes that world at the beginning of The Tree. Its orderly streets, the severely pruned and shaped apple trees in the back garden, were, to Fowles, expressions of his fathers world ­ both regimented and lovingly tended, cultivated, sheltered, tidy, and free from surprise. Fowles’ reaction to that world is expressed by his own house in Dorset, with its “exceedingly unkempt, unmanaged, and unmanageable garden,” where he is less pleased to find fruit than to discover “two tawny owlets fresh out of the nest, sitting on a sycamore branch like a pair of badly knitted Christmas stockings and ogling down at this intruder into their garden.” But he continues to grow a few of his father’s favorites ­ the James Grieve apple and the cordon pear.

The movement away from his father’s world began during the Second World War, when Fowles family went to Devonshire to escape the bombing of London. In both the country itself, and the vestiges of a much older, more nearly medieval, social order that survived in the lives and consciousness of its inhabitants, Fowles found what were to be places of refuge and inspiration for himself, both as a man and a writer. He went on to Oxford after the war, studied romance languages, taught for a time on the Greek island of Spetsai, and eventually took a job at Ashbridge College, near London. His first novel, The Collector (1963), was both a commercial and an artistic success, and Fowles, much to his father’s dismay, gave up teaching to become a full time novelist. His career has been unique in American or British literary history of this century ­ it has combined daring and significant technical innovation with great popular appeal. Three of the novels ­ The CollectorThe Magus (1965), and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) ­ have been made into movies; a fourth, Daniel Martin (1977), mixes autobiographical material from his boyhood days in Devonshire with a disenchanted view of Hollywood as the writer experiences it.

Throughout his career, Fowles has maintained that the central source of his work lies in his experience of the natural, “an experience whose deepest value lies in the fact that it cannot be described by any art.” To an American, this relationship has a distinctly European feel: the natural does not evoke an American longing for virginal wilderness but for the deep past, the antiquity that shaped the first narratives of European civilization. Thus Fowles found on the Greek island of Spetsai uncanny silences in the pine forest, “like an eternal blank page waiting on a not or a word. They gave the curious sense of timelessness or of incipient myth.” The settings of his fiction whether the fictitious Greek island of The Magus or the Breton forest of The Ebony Tower ­ are haunted by this same quality of incipient myth, or of the chivalric romances in which Fowles sees both the influence and the expression of the tangled, dark forests of medieval Europe. In The Tree (1979), he calls upon the mythic figure of the Green Man to symbolize a state of consciousness which he finds inseparably linked, on the one hand, to the external reality of the forest, and, on the other, to human creativity. The Green Man is that part of ourselves not yet alienated from nature by any need to exploit it. In many ways, this self, which we all possess, is subversive, anarchic, and anti-intellectual, but Fowles sees it as vital. It accepts those parts of nature and human nature that appear to have no conceivable utility, and that indeed excite our hostility or fear by their indifference to humanity. “Richard Jeffries coined a word for it: the ultra-humanity of all that is not man ­ not with us or against us but outside and beyond us, truly alien. It may sound paradoxical, but we shall not cease to be alienated ­ by our knowledge, by our greed, by our vanity ­ from nature until we grant it its unconscious alienation from us.”

The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas

Before The Lives of a Cell appeared in 1974, Lewis Thomas was known chiefly as a brilliant biomedical research scientist. He had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1961, and to the National Academy of Sciences in 1972. In a career of four decades, Thomas had published more than two hundred papers, many of them seminal, dealing with pathology, immunology, and infectious disease. He had hated medical programs at Johns Hopkins, Tulane, the University of Minnesota, New York University, and Yale, and had received honorary degrees from Yale and the University of Rochester. By 1974, he was president and chief executive officer at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, while simultaneously serving on the medical staffs at Cornell Medical School and at Rockefeller University.

His career in medicine began early ­ his father was a doctor, and Thomas, accompanying him on his rounds, found the work engrossing and exciting. He went to Princeton already determined to study medicine, took his B.S. there, went to medical school at Harvard, and was beginning to establish himself in the world of biomedical research before his thirtieth birthday. In all of this he seems the exemplar of the modern physician: someone of an enormous, undistracted energy, who entered upon his vocation as a young man and never wavered in the pursuit of it.

But at Princeton he had also begun reading modernist poetry ­ particularly Pound and Eliot ­ and writing poetry of his own, and he has continued to practice this avocation, in a quiet and modest way, throughout his career. In 1970, he was asked to give a paper at a conference on the general subject of inflammation, a field in which he had not recently worked. His overview of the subject, “Immunopathology and Inflammation,” came to the attention of the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, who was so impressed that he asked Thomas to contribute a monthly essay on a general medical topic, not to exceed 2,000 words. Thomas accepted, with some initial diffidence, and so began his second career, as an essayist. It has been followed by The Medusa and the Snail (1979) and Late Night Thoughts on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983), and by the autobiographical The Youngest Science (1983).

The Lives of a Cell reflects the poet working in what Thomas might consider a symbiotic relationship with the scientist. If the data of the essays is largely (although by no means exclusively) drawn from his observation of and participation in the world of biomedical research, their organization and proofs are based on the analogies, hunches, and instincts of the poet. Typically, Thomas achieves his effects by suggesting sudden, unexpected linkages that break down the boundaries between human and non-human life, or between the exotic world of microorganisms and the ordinary world we perceive with our senses. Thus in “Social Talk”, language becomes to human beings what the hive is to the bee or the anthill to the ant: our biologically specific endeavor, which we engage “communally, compulsively, and automatically…if we were to be separated from it our minds would die, as surely as bees lost from the hive.” And thus the study of cells suggests to him that if we are members of a larger colony, we are also thoroughly colonized ourselves: “a good case can be made for our non- existence as entities.” The individual cell, itself “an ecosystem more complex than Jamaica Bay” is for Thomas as good a model as any to use in trying to imagine the earth. The earth is too big, too complex to be thought of as a single organism: “it is most like a single cell.” His writing is permeated by a cheerful sense of connection, symmetry, and vast complexity. So highly civilized an activity as scientific research itself has, he notes, an “essential wilderness;” it appears as “random and agitated as…bees in a disturbed part of the hive,” and yet from it “there suddenly emerges, with the purity of a slow phrase of music, a single new piece of truth about nature.” Unexpectedly, this most disciplined and meticulous of scientific observers recommends an almost Emersonian faith in the goodness of nature, and in its capacity to reveal and reflect our own essential purposes and qualities as a species.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

Born in Pittsburgh in 1945, Annie Doak graduated from Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1967 and received her master’s degree the following year. She married R. H. Dillard, a poet and novelist teaching at Hollins, and it was her experience of living in the countryside near Roanoke that produced the remarkable and widely acclaimed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). She had previously published a book of poems, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, and was virtually unknown; nevertheless, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won her the Pulitzer Prize and immediate recognition as an utterly distinct presence in American literature. Her subsequent career conforms to no particular precedent. She has taught poetry and creative writing at Western Washington State University and at Wesleyan University, and has continued to produce books that, taken together, constitute a kind of spiritual autobiography. The pilgrimage covers a remarkable internal and external terrain: her experiences as a reader (Living by Fiction, 1982) and a writer (Encounters with Chinese Writers, 1984); her continued wrestling with the problem of suffering and the idea of God (Holy the Firm, 1977); her relentless investigation of her own life (An American Childhood, 1987); and her private relation to the non-human world (Teaching a Stone to Talk, 1982).

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the singular pattern of Dillard’s career invite at least a cautious and provisional comparison with Walden and Thoreau. The points of similarity lie in the passionate and exact curiosity about the natural world, the tendency to seek in the details and incidents of an afternoon’s walk the clues to a life’s direction, the wide and eclectic reading, particularly in the sacred texts of antiquity, and the uncompromising tone of unapologetic idiosyncrasy. Dillard’s description of herself sounds like something Thoreau could have subscribed to: “a poet and a walker with a background in theology and a penchant for quirky facts.”

But the “quirky facts” that Dillard accumulates ­ she is a writer who works from vast files of index cards ­ tend to be far more unsettling than those unearthed by Thoreau. The non- human world is the creation of God, but there are things drastically wrong inside it. It outrages all our sense of logic, purpose, and coherence; it seems to offer marriages of heaven and hell, illuminations and bewilderments on every side. The life histories of insects alone suggest an imbecilic fecundity and indifference, a deity who is a “manic-depressive with unlimited capital.” Beauty and death are always linked; neither has much to do with our conceptions of sanity. Dillard’s response is by turns exultant, dismayed, and wry. Perhaps, she observes, the problem is not with the natural world but with the expectations that human beings bring to it ­ our horror at death, pain, and waste. “We are freaks, the world is fine, and let us all have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state. We can leave the library then, go back to the creek lobotomized, and live on its banks untroubled as any muskrat or reed. You first.”

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek superficially follows a familiar form: it begins in January and goes through the cycle of the months. But the book itself isn’t bound and ordered by the logic of chronology. Its design is complexly thematic and strangely elusive, intuitive rather than schematic. Like Walden, it seeks to embody the processes it describes. The effect is of a book that directly translates into language the simultaneous sense of randomness and design, of dazzling illumination and tangled perplexity that characterizes our experience of the natural. Her vision of the world is cohesive but never, it seems, coercive.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey was born in 1927, on a Pennsylvania farmstead; he went west, received his education at the University of New Mexico (B.A. 1951; M.A. 1956), and began laying claim to his own country, the arid and inhospitable outback of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and in particular, Utah. His relation to this vast territory is fierce, possessive, and urgent, and informs almost every sentence he writes. He lists his politics as “agrarian-anarchist” and his religious affiliation as Piute. But perhaps the identity or image with which he is most clearly associated comes out of the legendary history of the American west ­ he is cowboy, prospector, mountain man, and drifter; he is the dedicated scofflaw and the idealistic renegade. At his least impressive, his work is an updating, with strong environmental overtones, of stereotypically western attitudes, postures, and sentimentalities. His early novel, The Brave Cowboy (1958) lent itself very readily to adaptation by Hollywood, with Kirk Douglas in the role of the cowboy. The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) is the gleeful account of a group of environmental terrorists and desperadoes; the protagonist combines the tactics of Billy the Kid with the ethos of the Sierra Club, using cunning, secrecy, and dynamite against the great adversaries ­ the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, and assorted corporate villains.

More than anything Abbey has written, Desert Solitaire (1968) locates and celebrates the special quality of the terrain that inspires him. The book grew out of the years he spent as a part- time employee of the National Park Service, as ranger and fire-lookout in the Southwest, and especially in the Arches National Monument, near Moab, Utah. Like everything he has written, the book has its share of anger and the self-simplifying pose of the heroic maverick, but it is primarily a meditation on the American desert. Abbey particularly seeks to define and instill an aesthetic, one which would enable us to perceive the desert as an image of particular sublimity, comparable in power and range to the sublimity that we have long recognized in oceans and mountains, but radically different from either in its qualities. “A landscape untouched by the human mind,” the desert uniquely challenges us to extend our imaginative sympathy, to recognize that something is indispensably beautiful and life-affirming not despite, but because of, the fact that it is vastly inhuman, possessing “no meaning but its own existence.” Its paradoxes are manifold, and they present strenuous challenges to the writer and the man: “I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree,” a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a non- human world and yet somehow survives intact, individual, separate.”

That Desert Solitaire does not entirely sustain this exalted tone or single-mindedly pursue this austere intention may not be a serious inconsistency. It is full of a kind of anarchic joy and élan, even in the midst of its bleakest assessments of government follies and corporate malpractice, and this seems to illustrate a truth: “life nowhere appears so brave, so bright, so full of oracle and miracle as in the desert.”

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez resembles Abbey in that he grew up in the east and left it emphatically behind him to seek the illuminations of an immense and remote landscape. He was born in Port Chester, New York, in 1946, received his B.A. from Notre Dame in 1966, and an M.A.T. from the University of Oregon. He has published three collections of short stories (River Notes: The Dance of Herons [1979]; Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven[1980]; and Winter Count [1981], but is best known for Giving Birth to the Thunder, Sleeping with his Daughter: Coyote Builds North America (1981); Of Wolves and Men (1979); and Arctic Dreams (1986). In Lopez as in Fowles, there exists a powerful and mutually enriching relation between the narrative imagination and the experience of the natural world. His fiction is characterized by an almost magical evocation of place; his nonfiction insists, in a variety of ways, that the methodologies of the trained observer are not enough, that there must also be metaphor and analogy, “that parallelism we finally call narrative.”

Arctic Dreams seems to mark, at least until the next book, a culmination. Lopez’s interest in Native American myth (Giving Birth to the Thunder) and his powerful sense of the literal and symbolic lives of animals (Of Wolves and Men) both find expression in Arctic Dreams. He is a careful observer, and his research is systematic and extensive, but his final purpose pertains to the inward consciousness. Like Fowles, Lopez discovers in the object of his observation suggestions about the deepest and most elusive aspects of human subjectivity. In the early chapters, he provides a world of fascinating information about animals that, for most of us, live at the very periphery of our recognition ­ the must-ox, the polar bear, the narwhal. But, more crucially, he takes us into the imaginations of a people for whom these animals are both practical facts and incarnations of the spirit. Myth and natural history are not sharply divided for the Eskimo; hunting is both a matter of survival and a religious observance.

The central chapters ­ “Migration,” “Ice and Light,” and “The Country of the Mind” ­ are richly meditative. They suggest the ways in which the Arctic redefines our temporal and spatial sense, and the ways in which its vastness and severity bring home, even to a “civilized” humanity, the potency of a particular place and of the natural order as it expresses itself in that place. In his complexly detailed account of an environment considered weird and desolate by the first Europeans to encounter it, Lopez does supremely well what Abbey, Dillard, and Thoreau also do: he makes one distinctive and unfamiliar place a revelation of human potentialities and human longings. The Eskimo hunter can stand as the realization of one of the most pervasive nostalgias of civilization: “To hunt means to have the land around you like clothing. To engage in a wordless dialogue with it, one so absorbing you cease to talk to your human companions. It means to release yourself from rational images of what something ‘means’ and to be concerned only with what it ‘is’.”

Lopez’s own quest is to gain a full and inalienable sense of the land, a sense that can, perhaps, only be achieved by writing about it. He tries to bring to bear upon the land both the codified knowledge of western civilization and the intuitive knowledge that our civilization tends to dismiss: “When I stood I though I glimpsed my own desire. The landscape and the animals were like something found at the end of a dream. The edges of the real landscape became one with the edges of something I had dreamed. But what I had dreamed was only a pattern, some beautiful pattern of light. The continuous work of the imagination, I though, to bring what is actual together with what is dreamed is an expression of human evolution.”

Further Reading

Note: The classic works are certainly Emerson (especially the essay “Nature”) and Thoreau (Walden, but also Cape Cod and The Maine Woods and, among the essays, “Wild Apples”). This list is a personal selection, and is necessarily incomplete.

Landscape with Figures, by Richard Jefferies
A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold
Coming into the Country, by John McPhee
People of the Deer and Never Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowat

The Outermost House, by Henry Beston
Common Ground, by Robert Finch
The Rum and Spirit of Survival, by John Hay
Walking the Dead Diamond River, by Edward Hoagland
First Person Rural, by Noel Perrin
One Man’s Meat, by E. B. White

“Entering Nature: Contemporary Views of the Human Self in the Natural World” was developed by Franklin Burroughs, Associate Professor of English, Bowdoin College.

The development, design, and production of this material were made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Copyright © 1988 Maine Library Association


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