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Time, Landscape, & the Borders of Nature
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I wouldn't be writing this book if I hadn't spent the first nine years of my childhood in New Milford, Connecticut. Our house sat on about an acre of ground, a plot that was shaped roughly like a right triangle: the hypotenuse was the road, the short leg was a hedge separating our yard from the neighbors', and the remaining side was a wall of trees. Although I haven't been back there for years, I remember those trees as being a mixed coniferous forest, blanketing the ground not with leaves but with needles, their verdure providing an annual green counterpoint to the blazing colors that distant Mount Tom splashed on our northern horizon every autumn. The trees extended for several minutes' worth of childhood tramping away from our yard, and then gave way suddenly to a broad expanse of tall grass, a meadow that marked a zone of transition away from the known and familiar world: the other side of that meadow seemed uncomfortably far from the house to a small child, as did the terra incognita we would enter if we strayed too far to the north or south of the patch of woods that extended straight east from our property line. Limited in extent as it may have been, the world on the other side of the yard's edge was a favorite haunt of my sisters and me, rivaled only by the East Aspetuck River just down the road. Some of my fondest memories of those years are not of specific events or episodes, but of patterns of activity in the wooded and watered landscape, repeated moments of contact and exploration and immersion: digging in a natural outcrop of sand where a rocky ledge broke through the meadow's grassy surface, revisiting a favorite shaggy-barked tree and marveling yet again at the odd and delightful texture of its skin (a texture that demanded that bits of it be pulled off and shredded and smelled), weaving a new route through the trees that I hadn't tried before, pulling apart the jointed snakegrass that grew along the river's edge, kicking off our shoes and wading into the swift shallow river itself on hot summer days. I learned to love that landscape, to the point where it became difficult to imagine my young self away from it: when my father gently broke the news to my sisters and me that we would be moving to Wisconsin, I remember crying hardest not because I would be leaving my friends, but because I would be leaving the woods.
It's probable that I would never have become interested in thinking and writing about the natural world as an adult if I hadn't accomplished the first nine years of my growing up in such close proximity to those woods, just up the hill from that river. In reflecting on his own path through life, the writer and biologist Robert Michael Pyle has noted that "when people connect with nature, it happens somewhere. Almost everyone who cares deeply about the outdoors can identify a particular place where contact occurred," he continues, and that place is usually not one that is storied, monumental, breathtaking, destined for calendar photos and official preservation and vacation visits, but is rather "unspectacular: a vacant lot, a scruffy patch of woods, a weedy field, a stream ... - or a ditch," a reference to the High Line Canal that meandered through the Aurora, Colorado, of Pyle's youth and whose waters continue to nourish his days both personally and professionally: " Without a doubt," he believes, "most of the elements of my life flowed from that canal." Likewise, a thoroughly unremarkable sliver of New England hillside field and forest-Mount Tom's poor cousin, the kind of landscape that the leaf-peepers drive through to get to the worthwhile woods-and a shallow rocky brook with no particular distinguishing marks somehow conspired to narrow my range of choices and preferences, to literally prepare the ground for many of the things I have come as an adult to think and write and care about, to subtly shape my ways of seeing: when I hike through New England forests now I am still shaded in imagination by my old backyard woods, and when I lean on a bridge railing to contemplate a stream I still hear quiet plashy echoes of the East Aspetuck. My life remains in many ways continuous with that time and place, rooted deeply in lands lying just outside a child's
And yet, despite this continuity, the way that I think about and understand those woods today has changed in at least one fundamental respect. When I was a child, in my mind the back edge of our yard was where tamed, domesticated space left off and something wilder, shaggier, more disordered, and more exciting began; in short, the line separating grass and trees represented the border between "culture" and "nature," between a humanized world and a world that was irreducibly nonhuman in its content, origins, and meaning. On our side of the line, my father kept the lawn carefully mowed, I not being old enough to have had that task handed over to me yet; in contrast to the green hulks of trees looming over them, the perpetually beheaded leaves of grass were ordered, made obedient, violently subjected to the will of my father and, behind him, the landscape aesthetic to which the entire family subscribed. While it would never have occurred to me to think of it in these terms at the time-mowing lawns was just something that dads did, and lawns were supposed to be kept short so kids could play on them-in contemplating the juxtaposition of lawn and woods, I can see the justice in Michael Pollan's observation that "a lawn [is] nature under culture's boot ... a totalitarian landscape." The back yard contained a swing set and a sandbox, both of which my sisters and I used energetically; it also sloped from the house up to the woods, providing an excellent sledding run on wintry New England days. To one side of the house, two willow trees had been planted by a previous landowner; their languidly drooping branches and their position near the house surrounded by carefully mowed grass clearly distinguished them in my mind from the bigger, wilder trees amassed nearby. Basically, the entire yard was nothing more than a big playground-a playground with different equipment and ground cover, certainly, but not that different in how I used and thought about it from the one I played on during recess at school. It contained natural objects, to be sure-cloned sheep aside, I'm still pretty sure that only God can make a tree, or a blade of grass for that matter-but it hardly qualified in my mind as "nature."
To find a natural landscape, I merely had to take a few steps up the hill. Stepping across the clean sharp border from lawn to woods, from culture to nature, was a profound and liminal experience, an immediate transition from one world to another, from a sphere clearly controlled and defined by human beings to a world in which I was a visitor, a guest. The forest grew in tangled disorder, nothing like the shorn green surface I could see over my shoulder through gaps in the trees. On the far side of the line, the world was not designed and furnished by and for human beings; instead, you had to fit your movements to its contours. And, being a rather timid child, if I brashly or carelessly wandered too far afield from the parts of the woods I was familiar with I could in short order become utterly terrified, literally "be-wildered" by the thought of being lost in what to me were trackless wastes. The felt quality of time changed in the woods, and not only in the sense that I would frequently have to be called after because I was going to be late for lunch or dinner. Unlike our yard, it seemed not to be a landscape that had any particular point of origin, a time when the house had been built and the willows planted and the lawn seeded, but rather a landscape that had always been there; only recently had a road been cut through it and a triangular house lot rudely wedged into it, modern intrusions into a place where human conceptions of time didn't seem particularly relevant.
Clearly I liked crossing that border, that line in my back yard where time and space changed. Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble have echoed Pyle's observation about how "many naturalists start their journeys on ditchbanks, in empty lots-in any open space just beyond the backyard fence," and have expressed their concern "about how few children now grow up incorporating plants, animals, and places into their sense of home." For me, the woods across the line were very near home, but they were not home themselves, and that was precisely the point; that perceived difference, that contrast vividly contained within a few feet of ground, was what gave them their significance, their excitement. To my way of seeing and thinking, nature was something that was physically separate from me and distant from me, even if that distance wasn't very far. Blazing Mount Tom on the horizon and the woods I saw every day from my bedroom window were conceptually the same thing; even if the backyard forest didn't share Mount Tom's spectacular colors, they were joined through the sense I had that the natural world was exceptional, a diversion from the everyday, a realm of experience that broke you out of the world that humans made and plunged you into a world in which you were subordinate, a world of strange and wonderful things that demanded new ways of thinking and feeling. This was a world that fundamentally had nothing to do with me, while paradoxically having everything to do with the person I became.
Children are consistently among the most perceptive people I know, and I would not trade those early perceptions of mine for anything. I see in my past self what Nabhan sees in his own family when he observes that "a few intimate places mean more to my children, and to others, than all the glorious panoramas I could ever show them," and I learn in retrospective reflection what Nabhan learns from his kids: "wilderness is not some scenic backdrop to gaze at; ... It is where you can play with abandon." Children see the world differently from the way adults see the same world, he concludes, and the nature of immediate childhood experience in the landscape, getting hands dirty and cramming the senses and imagination full, can be a continual source of epiphany. I have seen this in children I have known-an unplanned experience setting their minds on fire. I spent a very instructive afternoon a few years ago with my young friend Donald Hefferon. I was visiting his family in Vermont, and one day he and I and his mother Lynne and his younger brother Alan went for a walk in some woods managed by the Audubon Society. Any walk in the woods makes a day special, and, as children seem to love running on excitedly ahead of big slow adults on such occasions as their parents desperately try to keep up, at one point I found myself lagging slightly behind the little group of Hefferons. A flash of bright orange at the edge of the trail caught my eye, and I squatted down and saw a newt, sitting so still that at first I half-wondered if it was a plastic toy that someone had dropped. Then it moved. I kept it in sight and called for Donald and Alan and Lynne to come back. The boys clustered around the newt; like me, they had never seen such a thing before, and they kept it under close and amazed observation until it scuttled away under the fallen leaves. Seeing this unprecedented iridescent amphibian seemed to change the quality of the day for Donald: he was quick to spot some frogs when the hiking trail passed through a swamp, and when we later came to the bank of a stream he was delighted when I pointed out some small fish to him in a pool. Upon turning away from the pool, he charged up a nearby hillside, intent on discovering if, in his words, "there was more nature up there."
At first Donald's comment amused me. He was completely surrounded by woods and water, but at that moment such commonplace things seemed no longer to qualify as "nature." That word was now reserved for rarer and more stirring sights: a frog kicking its way along under water, a fish skittering away from his shadow, a newt of a color he had never dreamed an animal's skin could be. He could see trees in his back yard; he could see plenty of water every time his parents took him near Lake Champlain. Nature, however, was something exotic, something extraordinary, something you had to travel to and have pointed out to you; while Donald's examples, the newt in particular, were admittedly more eye-catching than my own childhood example of "nature," I would have agreed with him in that "nature" was defined primarily through the contrast it offered to what you generally saw through the windshield, through the kitchen window, or in the company of lots of other people. It wasn't nature unless it suddenly made the world feel a little bit stranger and more wonderful, and unless you went and saw it on its own turf. And then it occurred to me that Donald (and I, for that matter) couldn't have come up with this definition of "nature" on his own, that it would have had to be taught to him somehow. We have to learn that nature is strictly separated from culture, both conceptually and spatially; its exceptional quality has to be explained to us until we believe it. And we do learn, and we do believe: the ways in which many of us structure our self-conscious interactions with the natural world continually reinforce these lessons. We travel far from our homes to visit national parks, strictly demarcated segments of the landscape that are set apart by virtue of their manifest and spectacular natural wonders from the more pedestrian landscapes around them (if they were high-quality nature, they'd be in the park too, right?). We watch televised nature programming that focuses on the lives of exotic animals of the sort that we will never see nibbling on our vegetable gardens. Some of us agonize over right whales and bison, canyons and clear-cuts, in places far from our own urban or suburban neighborhoods. Donald may have been on to something: to find nature, it seems, you have to go out and look for it. Everything else is one big back yard, tamed and mowed and put to human use, on the "lawn" side rather than the "woods" side of the line. If it's not nature, it must be something else; it must be culture.
As I mentioned before, though, I now think in a different way about the world I entered when I used to cross the line into nature. While I do not want to negate or repudiate that earlier way of seeing, or lose what is good in it-my awareness of being a guest in some way, my feeling of having to shape my actions to the land rather than the other way around, and above all my sense of wonder-I do want to qualify it fundamentally. What had appeared to me as a strict, sharp border now strikes me as vague and indistinct, blurred perhaps almost to the point of erasure; to see one side of the line as "nature" and the other side as "culture" is false, unfaithful to the history that the landscape-in New Milford, everywhere in the country-has seen. I'm told that a little learning is a dangerous thing, and I now know that my backyard woods, like just about every other forested landscape in New England, were at least second growth; what looked to me like a timeless green world had actually grown back on land that was once cleared for fuel, building material, or agriculture. It looked the way it did only because of the way that people had used it in the past; far from being exempted from culture and history, the wooded landscape was saturated with culture and history, with past land-use practices and attitudes about appropriate behaviors toward the environment. It is now also clear to me that what I simply thought of as "the woods" was undoubtedly someone's property, carefully surveyed and mapped and accounted for in official documents somewhere. In someone's mind other than mine, it was not a green and deeply known landscape but a spatial and monetary abstraction, a discrete and defined object, a lifeless thing. Also in retrospect, I am surprised by how much I was able to willfully ignore in the process of defining the world beyond the line as "nature," particularly the fact that straight through the middle of the meadow ran a high-voltage power line (which answers the question of who owned at least part of the landscape). One of the powerline towers stood squarely in the middle of the tall grass, but it somehow didn't count in my overall assessment of the landscape, and I managed to mentally erase it from the scene in order not to complicate my feeling of having left the world of culture behind (a process that may have been aided and made more urgent by the fact that I was afraid of the tower and its warning signs, convinced that I'd be instantly incinerated and reduced to a small heap of smoldering ash if I so much as accidentally brushed against it). Similarly, the East Aspetuck River was bordered on one bank by Paper Mill Road, and while the eponymous mill had long since vanished, its dam still spanned the river and its spillway was blocked off each summer by the owners of a nearby camp to create a swimming pond. We noncampers swam there too, but since we were swimming in river water in the middle of woods it felt very different from being at a pool or a public beach. It still counted as nature, as did the river downstream, even though its flow was still at least partially controlled by the relict dam. While I may have felt sure when I was leaving culture and entering nature, the nature that I was entering had people's fingerprints all over it: it had been defined and controlled, shaped and bounded, objectified and manipulated by many, many human beings long before I arrived on the scene. It may have appeared strictly natural on the surface, but the world I entered when I crossed over the border was as much the result of cultural processes as the back yard I left behind me. What I thought was a strict, sharp line now vanishes the closer I look at it.
Excerpted from LANDSCAPE with FIGURES by KENT C. RYDEN Copyright © 2001 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||Big Trees and Back Yards: Time, Landscape, and the Borders of Nature||1|
|2||Landscape with Figures: Land and Tradition in American Nature Writing||43|
|3||Sea Green: Ethics and Environment in New England Coastal Fiction||67|
|4||"A Labyrinth of Errors": Thoreau, Cartography, and The Maine Woods||96|
|5||A Walk in the Woods: Art and Artifact in a New England Forest||135|
|6||Redesigning the River: Nature, Technology, and the Cumberland and Oxford Canal||158|
|7||Natural Landscapes, Cultural Regions; or, What Is Natural about New England?||199|