Book Review by Julie Hughes
Constructing Nature: Readings From the American
Edited by Richard Jenseth and Edward E. Lotto. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle
River, NJ (1996). $??.?? pbk. 493 pages.
"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
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
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
- 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"
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