Book Review by Julie Hughes
Constructing Nature: Readings From the American Experience
Edited by Richard Jenseth & Edward Lotto. Prentice Hall: NJ (1996).
“Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man exhort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection.”
When Emerson wrote these sentences in Nature (1836), Nature seemed still to be unknown and unfettered. While Constructing Nature seeks to prove that the concept of nature is relative to the era in which people are experiencing it, and that each society creates its own unique way of perceiving, enjoying and responding to the natural world, what becomes clear by the end of the book is that the modern world has lost Emerson’s spiritual connection to an over-indulgent agenda of lamentation and despair.
Constructing Nature focuses entirely upon the American experience of nature from the late 15th century to our present modern environmental crisis. Each section comprises selections from nature writers belonging to their respective eras.
The period highlighted in the first chapter – entitled “New World Encounters” – includes passages from Christopher Columbus, Bartolome De Las Casas and John James Audubon through to the early 19th century. Each highlights a common thread. “Again and again,” write the editors, “we see these writers naming, cataloging, ordering what was otherwise an incomprehensible flood of facts and objects.” The nature writing in this period focused primarily upon the newness of the land: you can sense the awe in these writers’ minds upon encountering new lands, people, flora and fauna. Awe, however, didn’t humble the majority of these writers. Instead, it seems to have created a sense of urgency in them, an urgency to collect specimens and slaves. A reader cannot help but blanche when Audubon details which animal he shot, ate or stuffed; or when Columbus repeatedly refers to Native Americans as “savages.” However, in the selection by Bartolome de Las Casas (“the first Catholic priest ordained in the New World and protester against Spanish atrocities,” runs the text), one observes the beginning of a conservation movement. Las Casas ridicules and rages against the Spanish government’s injustices in the New World. The common theme in these accounts is a reverence for the natural world, despite the killing, ordering, renaming, and pillaging that transpired.
The second chapter covers the 19th century and is subtitled, “Nature, Self and Spirit.” Ah, the transcendentalists! The writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson and Hawthorne – thought-provoking, profound and beautiful -žare highlighted, and form the most enjoyable part of the book. Although this was an era of tremendous change for the country, where it moved from an agriculturally-based economy to industrialization, Jenseth and Lotto write: “At the mid-point of the century, people could still conceive of nature as an endless resource to be developed and used in any way that would produce profit. By the end of the century, however, there was a growing sense that we would deplete our natural resources unless we worked to conserve and use wisely what we had left.” The reverence for nature on display in Emerson’s Nature, Thoreau’s Walden and Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” stems not from the newness of the land, but from natural world’s wildness and majesty. These writers, especially Emerson and Whitman, were trying to see themselves in nature and believed that they were somehow connected in the scheme of things. Nature was no longer something to be conquered and overthrown, but something to be accepted and worshipped as sacred.
The third section explores the emergence of a true conservation movement in the early to middle periods of this century. Theodore Roosevelt, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson are excerpted here to illustrate a time when, the editors write, “America’s population had grown from four million to over sixty, and the expansion of industrial and Urban America led to the accompanying loss of open lands and wilderness.” These writers were not concerned with the connection between the spiritual and natural world, but with saving land and wilderness. The writing tends to the technical and preachy and the rapid switch from Emerson and Whitman to Roosevelt and Carson is disconcerting.
By the last sections of the book, a reader is certain of what to expect. “Constructing Nature In Words,” contains passages from, among others, Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey and Annie Dillard. In these, we see a return to the beautiful nature writing prevalent in the 19th century. Throughout, however, is woven a new strain of environmental conservation. The last chapter of the work, “Response to the Environmental Crisis,” considers the work of Al Gore, Carolyn Merchant (author of The Death of Nature), anti-environmentalist P. J. O’Rourke and cultural historian Michael Pollan. It becomes apparent that present society no longer stops to ponder the beauty in nature. Instead, nature has become something that must be saved, conserved and preserved. Once again, humans are desperately trying to control the natural world. Gone are sentiments expressed Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau, who cherished nature by enjoying and celebrating it.
Constructing Nature provides evidence that each period in U.S. history has had its own version of nature’s meaning, and its own way of expressing rapture. But, as Emerson’s words suggest, in our construction of Nature we may miss out on the very enjoyment of the universal, which people of all ages who have come to the American continent have discovered. Upon finishing the book, the reader comes upon another truth: each individual, defines nature for him- or herself. And while certain factors indisputably affect these definitions, nature is still something kept close to the soul. When I see a bear or a deer in the wild, I acquire a memory which forever changes me – something that will haunt and guide my life in ways I may not yet comprehend. A hunter might see the animal as a prize, a trophy to be hung in a game room. Does that make me a superior being with more compassion and depth? I don’t think so. I think it just makes me different from the hunter. And perhaps what results from this difference – too many theories about what should or should not be done – is ecological disaster. While the environmental catastrophes prevalent in 1996 must be addressed, perhaps a better way would be to stop constructing nature and start enjoying it.
Constructing Nature is in essence a college textbook, complete with question/answer exercises at the end of each excerpt. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed by the general public. In addition to the passages from renowned nature writers and poets, the book contains entries from authorities in, and critics of, the environmental movement. The book would fair well as a requirement for all colleges. Never an avid fan of the excerpted passage, I found myself buying the entire works of a few of the authors to achieve a more comprehensive understanding. And if college students do the same – becoming so entranced by the selections from Emerson or Carson that they invest in a copy of Nature or Silent Spring – then the editors have completed their task. If not, at least students will gain some understanding of the history of nature writing. I would be proud to shelve Constructing Nature next to my copies of Emerson and Thoreau. It’s a perfect text to refer to for a quote, to end an argument, or just to pick up during the crisp and windy fall days.
Visions and Revisions
From Constructing Nature
Who can listen unmoved to the sweet love tales of our robins, told from tree to tree? Or to the shrill cat birds? The astonishing art which all birds display in the construction of their nests, ill provided as we may suppose them with proper tools, their neatness, their convenience, always makes me ashamed of the slovenliness of our houses; their love to their dame, their incessant careful attention, and the peculiar songs they address to her while she tediously incubates their eggs, remind me of my duty could I ever forget it. Their affection to their helpless little ones, is a lively precept; and in short, the whole economy of what we proudly call the brute creation, is admirable in every circumstance.
– J. Hector St. John De Crévecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer
In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, – no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed in by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulates through me; I am part or particle of God.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
Now the stillness was complete. The watchers on the rim, eating their suppers from tin plates, heard the croon of a mourning dove far down the wash. They heard the hoot of an owl, the cries of little birds retiring to sleep in the dusty cottonwoods. The great golden light of the setting sun streamed across the sky, glowing upon the clouds and the mountains. Almost all the country within their view was roadless, uninhabited, a wilderness. They meant to keep it that way. They sure meant to try. Keep it like it was.
– Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang
The weasel was stunned into stillness as he was emerging from beneath an enormous shaggy wild rose bush four feet away. I was stunned into stillness twisted backward on the tree trunk. Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key. Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest…. If you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders. But we don’t. We keep our skulls.
– Annie Dillard, “Living Like Weasels”
Sometimes I wonder if the fans of the eco-Armageddon even want the world’s problems to get better. Improved methods of toxic-chemical incineration, stack scrubbers for fossil fuel power plants, and sensible solid waste management schemes lack melodramatic appeal. There’s nothing apocalyptic about gasohol. And it’s hard to picture a Byronic hero sorting his beer bottles by color at the recycling center. The beliefs of some environmentalists seem to have little to do with the welfare of the globe and its inhabitants and a lot to do with the parlor primitivism of the Romantic Movement.
– P.J. O’Rourke, “The Greenhouse Effect”