Posted by: floridanature | August 16, 2009

Nature Writing: Figuring Out What’s Really in the White Space

It was warm this morning, even at 7 a.m., and the anoles have already started scuttling about my backyard. They move in quick, time-stop jerks, navigating their world in a series of invisible leaps—almost like an old motion picture that doesn’t have enough frames to communicate the art of uninterrupted, fluid motion.

I think on this some, watch the gambusia peck at the surface of the pond, listen as a cardinal begins her sweet call from somewhere low in the young magnolia with the bright green leaves. The passion flower has put so much energy in its vine that it’s covered almost the entire reed-fence where I first planted it; it now blooms only at the very tips, as if the baroque flowers are trumpeters announcing the arrival of a tiny green army. anole

I sip on a cappuchino with a dash of chocolate and nibble on slices of tangerine, thumbing through “The Book of Naturalists”, an anthology that the great marine scientist William Beebe assembled in 1941. I ran across Beebe’s work several years ago when I was getting ready to go on an oceanographic expedition to the Galapagos Islands for a month. Beebe had been there in the 1920’s, and did some of the first meaningful science underwater using a “hard hat” diving system. A female colleague of his produced some of the very first underwater art by actually actually painting what she saw using special oils that were not soluble in water.

The anthology was one of the first to give me a real context for what this nature writing business is all about. Certainly, if you only read popular literature, you’ll likely be left with the idea that “nature writing” is a modern invention that requires a great deal of hand wringing and self flagellation. While I much admire those who are skilled in observing nature, I am less impressed with the self absorbed way in which this observation is filtered.

Beebe sets us straight, reminding us that Aristotle started it all in 344 B.C. with “Fishing-Frogs, Cuckoos, and Other Things”.  The philosopher watched animals closely, reporting that fish sleep and many animals—including insects—dream. It’s the natural precedent to Billy Bartram who, in his own wonderful mysticism, figured humans are no higher or lower than any other member of the plant and animal kingdom. And, if animals dream, who are we to interrupt their dreams with our own overblown sense of ego ? And, isn’t this what the nature ethicist Aldo Leopold also tells us—that humans exist as an essential weave of ecology, and not separate from it ? To indulge in self absorption requires a very large ego to set ourselves so completely apart from any other living thing. It’s no wonder that otherwise gentle souls transform into authoritarian know-it-all’s, brining us not accounts of nature but accounts of how all of nature swirls about them in an elliptical orbit, words and deeds simply satellites to glorify the ego.

narlst Certainly, mysticism is deeply embedded into nature; Blake knew this, so did Thoreau. And, while he gets little attention from most modern nature writers, so did Marcel Proust, the early 20th century French novelist and essayist. Proust figured it was the artist’s responsibility to confront nature, to figure out its essence, and to translate that to us in art.

Wow, what a riff. Are the anoles and cardinals, and now, the newly-arrived wood thrush, any better because I have pondered all of this?  Or do they become more comfortable because I sit silently, not moving about in lizard-like jerks—absorbing not myself but the moment ?

No one can say for sure. And in fact, if another human were to observe me here at my patio table in my enfenced yard that is quickly going feral, they might even wonder if I am doing very much at all.

And that, all by itself, is part of the writer’s plight: If I were a plumber or physician, my work would be defined by how skillfully I use a wrench, or how well I use instruments and tests to interpret the human condition. ducky

Instead, it is more likely I appear like the anole that moves in time-warping spurts. No one even sees the actual movement; all they know for sure is where the lizard starts and stops. That blur of light in between may be a true dynamic. Or it may simply be white space on a historic map, territory that is too unimaginable to be known.

And, one second ago, I was sitting at my patio table with my cappuchino. And now, here I am, tapping little plastic keys on a strange machine.

All the space in between is a white blur

….with a twist.

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