Thursday, September 30, 2010

`We Look at Nature With New Eyes'

On our morning walks to the bus stop we devote most conversations to what the natural world is offering – spiders, fog, dwindling chlorophyll, rabbits, the smell of apple trees and ozone. As usual, I emphasize connections – why crows tolerate human company, why lichens grow more heavily on dead and dying trees.

Such talk irritates the father of a girl who shares a bus with my ten-year-old. A self-described “nature-lover,” he believes nature is there for us to respect, and knowing too much about it—“dissecting” it, he calls it – disrespects nature. Those are my words but they don’t seriously misrepresent his incoherence. We might call him a Romantic shading into a Mystic (though he’s an atheist). Nature is a sort of idol to be worshipped, not explored or understood, and is best worshipped from a distance (slugs and slime mold are too icky).

On Wednesday, following up on a discussion of crows and ravens, I tried to explain to my neighbor the attraction taxonomy holds. He would have none of it: “Scientists are always trying to ruin nature for us.” I thought of him later when Dave Lull alerted me to a story in the Guardian about biologists editing the list of known flowering plants from one million to about four-hundred thousand. The three-year process consolidates known species and eliminates redundancy, which appeals to my innate tidiness and fondness for precision without inhibiting my love of flowers. The Guardian reporter, Juliette Jowet, writes:

“In one example, researchers calculated that for the six most-used species of Plectranthus, a relative of the basil plant, a researcher would miss 80% of information available if they looked under only the most commonly used name. On another database, they found only 150 of 500 nutritionally important plant species using the names cited in current literature.”

The more I know, the more understanding and enjoyment can grow. Knowledge doesn’t suppress an appetite but whets it. Early in life, Thoreau embodied the Romantic/Scientific distinction my neighbor divvies out among antagonists, but his thinking evolved. By his last decade, much of the grosser Transcendentalist fluff had worn off. He never numbered among the scientists but saw more than most of them. Thoreau’s eyes aspired to hawkish acuity. He read and assimilated On the Origin of Species while remaining a specimen collector for one of Darwin’s chief scientific antagonists, Louis Agassiz. By his final years, Thoreau resolved the false dichotomy between loving nature and respecting science. In his journal for Dec. 4, 1856, he writes:

“My first botany [book], as I remember, was [Jacob] Bigelow’s [Florula Bostoniensis, A Collection of] Plants of Boston and Vicinity, which I began to use about twenty years ago, looking chiefly for the popular names and the short references to the localities of plants . . . I also learned the names of many, but without using any system, and forgot them soon. I was not inclined to pluck flowers; preferred to leave them where they were, liked them best there . . . But from year to year we look at Nature with new eyes. About half a dozen years ago I found myself again attending to plants with more method, looking out the name of each one and remembering it . . . I remember gazing with interest at the swamps about those days and wondering if I could ever attain to such familiarity with plants that I should know the species of every twig and leaf in them, that I should be acquainted with every plant . . . I little thought that in a year or two I should have attained to that knowledge without all that labor.”


William A. Sigler said...

An interesting post. "Where man is not, nature is barren," as William Blake wrote in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Scientists, on the other hand, ruined nature a long time ago, as anyone with eyes can see. Taxonomy is a pleasing enough diversion in our fallen state, but so is trying to expand human consciousness by communing with a tree’s glorious fall colors instead of reducing it to “dwindling chlorophyll” (as if that explained anything).

One of Paul de Man’s contentions was that the Modern was simply an extension of the Romantic, a continuing linear journey into self-consciousness and individuation. We see that in our extreme hesitance to name things, for fear we have violated the essence of some spirit, namely our own. Mark Twain satirized this mindset in his lovely short-story “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” where Eve tries to get closer to Adam by taking “ all the work of naming things off his hands, and this has been a great relief to him,” while Adam blasts her reductive, apparently God-given rationality:

“The naming goes recklessly on, in spite of anything I can do. I had a very good name for the estate, and it was musical and pretty-- GARDEN OF EDEN. Privately, I continue to call it that, but not any longer publicly. The new creature says it is all woods and rocks and scenery, and therefore has no resemblance to a garden. Says it LOOKS like a park, and does not look like anything BUT a park. Consequently, without consulting me, it has been new-named NIAGARA FALLS PARK. This is sufficiently high-handed, it seems to me. And already there is a sign up:
My life is not as happy as it was.”

jeff mauvais said...


Has science made a hash of things, or has man? Science is simply a method for deriving a specific, limited kind of knowledge about the world. Like any other form of knowledge, science can be used constructively or destructively. Can we really blame the invention of the guillotine on Newton's theory of gravitational force? Or should we attribute it to man's uncanny knack for finding new ways to kill members of his own species, a knack whose traces can be found in the archaeological record extending back tens of thousands of years? Science, as a distinctive, codified way of looking at the world, is only 500 years old.

Moreover, scientific knowledge is not the only product of human culture that can be perverted. The Nazis used the inventions of 19th-century German chemists to implement their ghastly schemes, but they also exploited the glories of German romanticism -- art, music, literature, architecture -- to cultivate the nationalistic fervor necessary for their aims.

William A. Sigler said...


Exquisite point about the Nazis--the mud on the German Romantics is not their own. You're right, it's not science itself but the power of science as a weapon in man's hands that has done the bloody deed (along with a healthy dollop of faith in science - usually by non-scientists - to solve any problems). But scientists in particular are not to blame--where would we be without the conscience of a Pythagoras, a Curie, an Einstein? As a recent example nobody is more upset than scientists about how corexit has changed the gulf stream current, nor more concerned about that will affect the delicate balance of nature. And nobody is working harder than scientists to find ways to put the planet through detox.

So many humble apologies there. I also agree with what nature writer Diane Ackerman (another October birth) says:

"People sometimes ask me about all of the science in my work, thinking it odd to mix science and art ... We live in a world where amino acids, viruses, airfoils, and such are common ingredients in our daily sense of Nature. Not to write about Nature in its widest sense, because quasars or corpuscles are not 'the proper realm of poetry,'as a critic once said to me, is not only irresponsible and philistine, it bankrupts the experience of living, it ignores much of life's fascination and variety."

jeff said...


Thanks for the comment on the comment. As I should have expected, your eloquence and bottomless knowledge of literature bring my argument alive far better than I could.

I'm certain that my lifelong loves of poetry and science arise from the same emotional source: the daily need to be dazzled, a need Tony Hiss calls 'wonderlust' in an essay with that title in the most recent issue of The American Scholar.