Archive | November 2013

Nature Writing and Understanding

Espeletia hartwegiana, a Frailejon "tree".

A daisy that grows as tall as a tree. I was delighted to see this description when I read “High Above Sea Level, Evolutionary Hot Spots” by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times.

The plant, called Frailejón, though in the same family as daisies, doesn’t look like our common flower. It is a quite fantastic form of life in a unique ecosystem called the Páramos, grasslands at high altitudes in the Andes. Zimmer writes about how much scientists are learning about evolution in the unusual conditions of these mountain highlands. This reminded me of Rachel Carson’s belief, which I wrote about in my last post (Nature Writing’s Role in Conservation), that natural history is an important way of understanding the world.

Our world is full of distinctive areas that have been carved out over millions of years by the processes of geology, hydrology, atmosphere and climate, and biological evolution. We have so much to learn in all of them–but not only from scientific investigations.

We are of this earth and all of its places contain our story along with that of the earth itself and all its living beings. Those stories are vital to us in knowing who we are, how we have lived and how we may live in the future, and our relationship with our home, the earth. There are meanings to be found in the far-flung reaches of the earth, as well as right next door to us.

Observing the animals and plants, we learn how they combine with the physical earth to create the history of life and all its possibilities–our possibilities as humans as well as of all our fellow creatures. These are the possibilities that fire our imaginations and give our lives the forms from which we draw meaning and purpose. And these imaginative forms are where our art and literature and philosophy ultimately originate.

Learning from these earth places is a collective enterprise of humanity. We all know our own spaces but we cannot visit all corners of the globe. Remote landscapes like the Páramos most of us will never see.

This is where nature writing comes in. It can vividly transport us to these lands we otherwise would not know. In fact, in his article, Carl Zimmer calls upon an early nature writer, the European explorer Alexander von Humboldt to introduce us to the Páramos. Von Humboldt, part explorer, part traveler, part scientist, part imperialist, climbed to the Páramos over 200 years ago. His written descriptions of the nature he observed there inspired interest in these high mountain grasslands that still reverberates today.

I looked up the passage from von Humboldt that Zimmer briefly quotes and found myself experiencing the Páramos, seeing the Frailejón and the other plants that von Humboldt cataloged, feeling the dampness in the misty air, seeing the Andean Condor soar overhead:

We were sometimes so enveloped in mist, that we could not, without difficulty, find our way. At this height there is no path, and we were obliged to climb with our hands, when our feet failed us, on the steep and slippery acclivity. A vein filled with porcelain-clay attracted our attention. It is of snowy whiteness, and no doubt the remains of a decomposed feldspar.

…Every time that the clouds surrounded us, the thermometer sunk as low as 12 degrees; with a serene sky it rose to 21 degrees. These observations were made in the shade. But it is difficult, on such rapid declivities, covered with a dry, shining, yellow turf, to avoid the effects of radiant heat. We were at nine hundred and forty toises of elevation; and yet at the same height, towards the east, we perceived in a ravine, not merely a few solitary palm-trees, but a whole grove. It was the palma real; probably a species of the genus Oreodoxa. This group of palms, at so considerable an elevation, formed a striking contrast with the willows scattered on the depth of the more temperate valley of Caracas. We here discovered plants of European forms, situated below those of the torrid zone.

After proceeding for the space of four hours across the savannahs, we entered a little wood composed of shrubs and small trees, called el Pejual; doubtless from the great abundance here of the pejoa, a plant with very odoriferous leaves. The steepness of the mountain became less considerable and we felt an indescribable pleasure in examing the plants of this region.

Nowhere, perhaps can be found collected together, in so small a space, productions so beautiful, and so remarkable in regard to the geography of plants. At the height of a thousand toises, the lofty savannahs of the hills terminate in a zone of shrubs which, by their appearance, their tortuous branches, their stiff leaves, and the magnitude and beauty of their purple flowers, remind us of what is called, in the Cordilleras of the Andes, the vegetation of the paramos and the punas. We there find the family of the alpine rhododendrons, the thibaudias, the andromedas, the vacciniums, and those befarias with resinous leaves…”

–Vicki Linton

Photo credit: Dick Culbert at Flickr Creative Commons

Text of Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narratives of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America can be found at Google books.

Nature Writing’s Role in Conservation

In my previous post, Empathy for Eels, I wrote about how I was inspired to be concerned about eel conservation by the nature writing of Rachel Carson. This got me thinking. How much of a role does nature writing play in creating sympathy for conservation efforts?

As a genre, nature writing is only vaguely defined. Thoreau and Muir are usually pointed to as early exemplars. More recent nature writing seems to blend into environmental writing and science writing.

I like to think of nature, science, and environmental writing as three different things.  Rachel Carson’s work provides a good basis for differentiating the three genres. As I see it, three of Rachel Carson’s four books exemplify each category.

Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, is descriptive. It follows the lives of various sea creatures. It is informed by science but it is not about science. Rather than tell of the gathering of information, the studies and their results that is the stuff of science, it quite lyrically describes the processes of nature and its life forms as if observed from what is essentially an imagined perspective: an amalgamation of all the human vantage points from which knowledge of various creatures and habitats has been accumulated. This is a classic style of nature writing.

Carson’s second book, The Sea Around Us, I classify as science writing. In it, she describes the scientific understanding of the oceans. She details how scientists have studied the oceans, the questions they have explored, and the knowledge they have gained.

Silent Spring is the most famous of Carson’s books and is often credited with helping to spark the environmental movement. It belongs to and perhaps helped to create the third type: environmental writing. Silent Spring’s purpose was to sound an alarm about a threat to nature—that of indiscriminate use of pesticides. Environmental writing seeks to awaken concern about the environmental threats humanity faces and encourage action.

Obviously environmental writing plays a critical role in creating concern for conservation. However, it also, through its bleak warnings, may lead to what I wrote about in an earlier blog post: ecophobia. Ecophobia may occur as a reaction to environmental warnings, especially very dire ones which cry out that humanity is destroying the planet. People may turn away from this literature and from nature activities generally if they find themselves constantly facing messages that border on hopelessness.

To me, this is where nature writing as distinct from environmental writing has an important role to play. Of course, in the 21st Century few people write about nature without bringing in some environmental warnings. But nature writing—descriptive writings about living creatures and natural processes, including human experiences of them—can excite people to appreciate nature. As with Carson’s magical tale of the eels’ migration, at its best nature writing can evoke empathy in its readers that may awaken when one hears of environmental threats to particular creatures or landscapes.

Of course, many books combine aspects of science, nature, and environmental writing. I find myself particularly fascinated by the writing that is primarily descriptive. Recently I went to the library to get a book called Salar the Salmon by Henry Williamson. Williamson was one of Rachel Carson’s favorite nature writers. He was an Englishman who lived on the seacoast and wrote about its life forms in the early 20th Century.

Williamson’s style clearly inspired Carson when she wrote Under the Sea Wind. She gave names to her creatures as Williamson did and followed them through their life cycles much as he did. Williamson named his salmon Salar and described its journey from sea to river, detailing encounters with myriad other creatures along the way. Although this genre is considered non-fiction it is largely a work of imagination, inspired by many actual observations.

And it is extremely vivid. Here Williamson writes about seals:

“She hunted usually with Jarrk the bull-seal, and when not hungry they played together for hours, hunting one another around bases of rocks and chasing each other’s tails as they swished in bubbled circles that set long ribbons of weed waving and curling and little green crabs scuttling for shelter.”

Williamson’s writing contains a bit more anthropomorphism than Carson’s, still it feels as though it truly takes one into the waters with the sea creatures. The reader feels she has been somewhere she can otherwise not go and has an understanding of life and of natural processes she could not gain without such writing.

Understanding–this may be as important as empathy in creating support for nature conservation. Rachel Carson’s biographer Linda Lear says that Carson’s goal in her writing was to “promote natural history as a way of understanding the world.” For instance, Carson wrote of the need for seashore conservation “to insure that we ourselves and generations to follow, may know what the shore is like, may read the meaning and message of this strip between land and sea.” There is so much knowledge of the world to be found in natural processes and the lives of non-human creatures.

Carson wrote of

“…a new sense of perspective on human problems. When we contemplate the immense age of earth and sea, when we get into the frame of mind where we can speak easily of ‘millions’ or ‘billions’ of years, and when we remember the short time that human life has existed on earth, we begin to see that some of the worries and tribulations that concern us are very minor. We also gain some sense of confidence that the changes and the evolution of new ways of life, are natural and on the whole desirable.”

Understanding may promote sympathy for conservation efforts. At the same time, it is surely one of the reasons for conservation of nature.

How rich is our world when we share it with creatures like the eel, the salmon, and the seal. When a writer provides us with descriptions of the life of a fish or a bird, how much more we come to know about what is real and what is possible on this blue-green earth. What brilliant insights into life we gain from observing and reading about the life of a forest, a desert, or the sea.

I think we need eels. We need salmon. We need mountain forests, river estuaries, deep sea trenches and all of their living creatures. When we learn of them we learn of ourselves, of life, of nature. When we “read the meaning,” as Carson put it, we gain an understanding we would not otherwise have of existence itself.

 –Vicki Linton