My Idea of Nature


Fallen Leaf Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1905

by Justin E. H. Smith

For most of my adult life, beginning, really, in the rebellious years of adolescence, I have been against nature. This phrase, against nature, is the standard title for the English translation of J.-K. Huysmans’ splendid 1884 novel, À rebours, but when I use it here, I don’t mean generally perverted or out-of-whack. I mean I have cultivated a consummately urban existence, and have insisted that people who rush off to commune with the great outdoors are wasting their time. Part of this is based in a concern — about whose legitimacy I have not begun to doubt — that modern urbanites who speak of how in tune with nature they are are simply deluding themselves, that they no more succeed in bridging the nature/culture divide when they go off camping for a weekend than I do when I stay home in the city and blog. I’ve often suspected that typically a philosopher’s idea of ‘nature’ consists in little more than a memory of a trip to R.E.I., or the thought of the picture of themselves kayaking that they selected for their department website. I’ve wanted none of that, and so have shut it out entirely.

Have I been wrong to do so? Back East, where I’ve always felt culturally at home but, with respect to nature, utterly against the grain (the other standard title for Huysmans’ novel), I don’t spend much time thinking about this question. The meteorology of the East Coast is schizophrenic and malign; and the wildlife, as Buffon already understood, is degenerate. The closest thing to mountains over there are the final fading bumps of an ancient range. The only animals are pests. Even when it’s not hot it’s too hot. But now I am back in California, where I am from, and the Sierra Nevadas are off in the distance and the weather is right and the light is right. It awakens a sensibility in me that I ordinarily am not aware I have. This awakening feels rather like anamnesis: I am remembering something I’ve always known. I am content to finally fit again with my natural surroundings; but also full of regret, at having so long forgotten, in spite of all the discomfort my straying has caused, that there was need of a fit.

I have been driving nature out with a pitchfork in both possible senses of the wise Terence’s adage: I have been attempting to live my entire life in sterile, steely, airport-like atmospheres, and I have been denying who I am. This denial has often been expressed as a contempt not just for nature, but also for the history of the place I am from. And so it is only just yesterday that, for the first time in my life, I picked up and began to read a book by John Muir: The Mountains of California, of 1894.

Muir is close to the American transcendentalists in spirit, who are in turn cousins of the German Romantic idealists. They are what results when you move Romantic aesthetics into the wide open space of a new continent. Muir does not shy away from describing landscapes as ‘sublime’. Perhaps he used it when he met with Emerson, who was so impressed by Muir’s sensibility as a Naturphilosoph that he offered him a position at Harvard on the spot (the hiring process must have been different back then). Muir’s response? “I never for a moment thought of giving up God’s big show for a mere profship!”

I stopped watching God’s big show years ago, in the hopes of being offered a profship at Harvard, or whatever else I could get. But I know the show; I learned it by heart when my grandfather took me fishing on the lakes in the shadow of Mount Lassen more than 30 years ago. It took Muir to remind me that I know what it’s like to be at those lakes in winter. He was there a century before, and saw:

The play of the lights among the crystal angles of these snow-cliffs, the pearly white of the outswelling bosses, the bergs drifting in front, aglow in the sun and edged with green water, and the deep blue disk of the lake itself extending to your feet, — this forms a picture that enriches all your afterlife, and is never forgotten. But however perfect the season and the day, the cold incompleteness of these young lakes is always keenly felt. We approach them with a kind of mean caution, and steal unconfidingly around their crystal shores, dashed and ill at ease, as if expecting to hear some forbidding voice. But the love-songs of the ouzels and the love-looks of the daisies gradually reassure us, and manifest the warm fountain humanity that pervades the coldest and most solitary of them all.

When Muir says ‘afterlife’ he means the life that comes after the experience, not after death. But these amount to largely the same thing, if that life is spent in the willful unhearing and unseeing of the love-songs and love-looks nature, perceived in a certain mode, is prepared to give.

Muir was famously always itching to be outdoors, in that mode, and the writing was only an after-trace of this primary experience of life. I place him for this reason at one end of a continuum, at whose opposite extreme we find a person I’ve long considered my model and inspiration: Robert Burton, the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton never went anywhere; he spun out hundreds and hundreds of world-duplicating, world-creating pages entirely from within his own head and his own room. In his preface to a recent edition of the Anatomy, William Gass writes admiringly of “the width of the world that can be seen from one college window…; what a love of all can be felt by one who has lived it sitting in a chair.” This is how one must write, I have long thought, but am now beginning to doubt. Clearly, one mustn’t write, anyhow, anywhere in the middle region of the continuum, where for example Thoreau finds himself sticking it out in a cabin not too far from town, just as long as it takes to confer legitimacy on the Walden project. I will excuse Lévi-Strauss’s relatively dabbling approach to his own fieldwork only because he is so wonderfully honest in Tristes Tropiques about how hard a thing it really is, and not for reasons of logistics or distance, to go into the bush.

My friend Ed Rackley is a great writer, and is someone who, unlike me, is very good at experiencing things. He rides motorcycles around Africa, goes ocean kayaking, stuff like that. And he does not do this in order to post pictures of it afterward, either, or even in order to write about it afterward. The opposition I have set up between Muir and Burton, Ed sets up in the somewhat narrower domain of writing about ocean kayaking as between Jon Turk, who “sets the bar for the genre because expedition kayaking and marine exploration are his life,” while “writing is secondary,” and Paul Theroux, “for whom paddling is mere source material.” Coming from my Burtonian perspective I’m still surprised to discover that one might need to do anything at all in order to have source material, but still, when the difference is set up like this one can’t help but agree that Turk triumphs. Without having read Theroux myself, it is nonetheless not hard to guess what is driving him; Turk by contrast remains an enigma.

Ed’s contrast, anyhow, compels me to revisit the one I have set up between Muir and Burton, and to notice something in it that should have been obvious but that escaped my attention until now: Burton spins out worlds from the solitude of his chamber, yes, but these are worlds of melancholy. Burton is hilarious, and prolific, but he is singularly incapable of moving out of that register of thought that the ancient doctors knew to be caused by an excess of black bile. Muir, for his part, writes out of joy. He watches God’s great show because it brings joy, and it is in the joyous register that he writes afterward.

I feel, here in California, that I am ready to share in at least a small measure of this joy. And this feeling, too, is tinged with regret, because I also know that to stick around long enough for it to take effect would seriously compromise my cosmopolitan schedule. For one thing, I am now awaited in Paris, where I have recently accepted a position.

I am quickly learning that it is not nearly as enjoyable as you might imagine to tell people you’re moving to Paris. From the reactions, you would think that life in that city consists in nothing but watching can-can dancers and eating at 3-star Michelin restaurants, without interruption, without end (which would very quickly become my idea of hell). For most Americans the word ‘Paris’ appears to trigger activity in the same region of the brain as ‘Frederick’s of Hollywood’, ‘Emmanuelle’, or ‘Red Shoe Diaries’. I swear to you I’ve heard Americans groan ooh la la when I inform them of my career plans. This can’t go on. I’m going to have to start telling them I’ve taken a position in some place Germanic-sounding and offputting, some place that sounds like no fun at all. Perhaps Rostock.

But whatever I say, and whatever people think, this recent visit to California has me feeling that I am going in the wrong direction, that it is not for me to head to the cities any longer, least of all that city whose very name is synonymous with our idea, however downmarket, of urbanity. I should be heading John Muir’s way, not ‘back to nature’ in general; and not to some new and excellent expression of nature in some far corner of the world, as was the case for Muir the Scot; but to the nature that already shaped my consciousness of the world before I had time to choose, to the nature that saw to it that I had read Muir a priori, so to speak, before even learning how to read, to the oaks and hawks and dry grass and ivy of the Central Valley of California. This is where the truth of pananimism and the glory of God’s big show strike me most vividly, and the mendacity of all my urban groping and clawing comes into the clear. It is not that there is more nature here. I’m not even particularly convinced, as the immigrant Muir seems to have been, that its splendor is any more on display in California than elsewhere. But it is here, in this light and through this distinctive cast of beings, that it reveals itself to me.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website