Sunday, March 28, 2010

`Nature is Not Cleanly'

On a two-mile hike with Cub Scouts along the western shore of Lake Sammamish, in a woodland dominated by cedars, ferns and a lush upholstery of moss, the conversation of the adults was consumed with real estate costs and one woman’s troubles with her GPS device, interrupted only by reminders to the boys that they “Think green!” I tried to focus the scouts on a game of “Nature Bingo,” which my son and I won by finding a conifer, a worm, “a new green leaf,” a bud, a caterpillar and “some rubbish” (two crushed beer cans). All of this was preceded by a pep talk by another adult urging the boys to “Love Mother Nature!” and “Stop and smell the roses!”

I thought about Nathaniel Hawthorne and his legacy of abstract nature worship. Much of what Hawthorne knew about the natural world he gleaned from Shelley and when he chose to pay attention, the conversation of his sometime neighbor, Henry Thoreau. He seems to have seen little with his eyes. There’s the vagueness and generality of boilerplate Romanticism about his observations. One reads them not to learn something about the world but about Hawthorne. Of course, the same is true of Thoreau’s early journals and much of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Consider this passage from Hawthorne’s “Buds and Bird-voices,” collected in Mosses From an Old Manse (1846):

“One of the first things that strikes the attention when the white sheet of winter is withdrawn is the neglect and disarray that lay hidden beneath it. Nature is not cleanly according to our prejudices. The beauty of preceding years, now transformed to brown and blighted deformity, obstructs the brightening loveliness of the present hour.”

I like the second sentence: “Nature is not cleanly according to our prejudices.” True enough, nature is messy but efficient. All that “brown and blighted deformity” is an essential component of the nitrogen cycle: Death fuels life. The closest Hawthorne comes to recognizing this follows later in the paragraph, but the thought feels inherited and conventional:

“How invariable throughout all the forms of life do we find these intermingled memorials of death! On the soil of thought and in the garden of the heart, as well as in the sensual world, lie withered leaves—the ideas and feelings that we have done with.”

I pick on Hawthorne only because I reread some of his Mosses this week, on impulse, and the lushness of the mosses in the woods reminded me of his book. I could as easily criticize the know-nothing nature effusions of Emerson (who, in We Are Doomed, John Derbyshire characterizes as “a key progenitor of modern smiley-face liberalism”). My companions on the scout hike are good people but sometimes in their company I feel as though I have entered a church in which the faithful worship a deity they neither understand nor believe in.


William A. Sigler said...

A good post -- jarring in its juxtapositions. I'm reminded of what Prof. Lazar Ziff, on the first day of his (interestingly enough) Hawthorne Emerson class said. Our "modern" notion of nature, he lectured, is to try to salve our alienation from it by creating for it forms of worship, thereby "saving" it with us. (I would add that some of that spirit informs the English Romantics from Blake on, aghast at the prospects for human progress). The American Transcendentalists, however, lived in a world where nature was the ever-present beast, the enemy of what is human and civilized and forward-thinking about this new country. How can a tree, he posited, have any meaning unless it was placed next to the new church? It's interesting to read your Hawthorne quotes in this light: he is trying to find the human, more particularly the Hawthornian moral conflict, in something as "simple" as the change of seasons.

"Death is the mother of beauty" as Stevens wrote, glossing Keats. The first photographs of slaughtered buffalo in Yellowstone in the late 19th century brought to American consciousness the notion of nature's exhaustibility -- something alien to earlier generations. It could be argued that that moment put a veil between eternally struggling man and nature. But I would argue that nothing much has changed -- what we mourn in nature is our own human arrogance passing into "brown and blighted deformity" without any sense of transcendence. The deity we worship, as in my experience we seem to do in any church, has to be appropriately remote and inexplicable for us to be able to "relate."

R. T. said...

Perhaps I can suggest another way of reading Hawthorne's observations of (reactions to) Nature (which I capitalize in deference to his affinity with Romanticism): think of Hawthorne as one uncomfortable with the claims upon his own psyche that he felt from his Puritian ancestors, his Calvinist New England, and his understanding of the irony of a Garden of Eden (the site of the Original Sin); so, whenever Hawthorne invokes Nature, he does so through a sense of estrangement and anxiety because of his determination to work out the role of an individual's finite lifetime within Nature and under God.