Copyright 1999 by Tad Beckman, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA 91711
While discussing Henry David Thoreau's Walden and Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, we attempted to address an important challenge -- Is the close observation and description of nature merely an idle thing for people in today's world? It could be suggested that nature writing and the close enjoyment of natural environments is merely "recreational" and not intellectually, economically, or politically worthy of our efforts. Perhaps this activity has "spiritual value" or gives us a "sense of peace." But does it really have anything to do with the way we live in the world today? It seems to me that this question is central to the whole course of study and that we need to be able to answer it convincingly and in some detail.
In my view, there can be no doubt to the correct answer. The close observation and description of nature is no idle thing. It is an act of world-making, or founding one's world view. Since behavior is determined by the ways in which one sees the world (reality), it is the groundwork of one's behavior. It is this act in which we find both Thoreau and Leopold engaged. Thoreau himself comments on its significance in the essay, "Where I Lived and What I lived For." By closely observing, but especially by describing (by using language) we establish our lives within the whole natural world. We express our desire and commitment to live within that world.
Now, perhaps this sounds trivial and trite in today's world, but it is no trivial commitment for a citizen of today. Modern human life is set so firmly within a human-built world and dwells so thoroughly on human issues only that it is normal for us all to grow up and live out our lives within that narrow realm of human self-interests. To expand one's world and to become inclusive of the whole natural world as the "place" of one's existence requires significant change and, indeed, education. Just learning to see and hear is difficult; but learning the language of nature requires work. It is no trivial task.
None of this quite answers the challenge, above, though. Perhaps an inclusive view of nature is difficult and non-trivial, but it still might be construed as an idle fancy. How can we say that it is important? Why is the expansion of our world view to a nature-inclusive view a matter of importance. Answering this challenge, I can only say that nature is our home place. Thus, life as our culture is trying to live it, within its human-centered self-satisfied "world" is life dragged out into an alien environment. Humans are natural creatures and they can be correctly observed and understood only within the natural world. They need the whole context! In this sense, we go, like Thoreau, to observe nature in order to observe ourselves in the truest sense. This is not only non-trivial; it is also indispensible. Humans must learn to see themselves truthfully.
It is too easy for us to say, "Oh, I see nature in that way, all the time." After all, many of us watch nature programs on The Learning Channel. That is why nature writing is such an important criterion. It is learning to use language in the description and the celebration of nature that completes our world journey. Language, as Jim Cheney has written, is performative. When I name a bird that I watch fly onto a nearby perch, I perform an act of placing the bird in this world that we both inhabit. Seeing it is one thing; but following through in language is much more. Language creates the ceremonial world that now contacts and embraces both of us. Our relationship is appreciated. It is said within this, too, that we both share life. Looking at nature and describing it is a continual act of recognizing and celebrating the fact that we all share a common thing --- life.
The one who challenges nature writers is correct; we do not find this celebration of life as an agenda item in the human-built culture of our economic and political life today. In that culture, what we are talking about here is trivial and trite. But the goal of that culture is to keep us outside of our human selves, located firmly within its agendas and serving its purposes. That culture does not want to acknowledge another world, a natural world. To do that would be allowing human liberation, for that would present people with a true picture of who they are and offer them a station that is not dominated by the established political/economic agenda of today. This is no idle thing; it is a powerful political issue, in fact. The established culture does not really want its citizens to live in any world but the specific one that it provides, that it has defined, and that it controls to its advantage. When we read Thoreau's Walden closely, we see this same cultural tension even one hundred and fifty years ago. Thoreau was well aware of the fact that his life at Walden Pond was a liberating counter-cultural experience.