People see the world through the lens of the narrative: everything we encounter eventually takes its place within our personal book of life. When we come across a story that we can easily relate to it becomes a part of who we are and starts shaping our vision. I would argue that among the author's we have read recently, Alice Walker is the one whose story the reader can most sincerely relate to, and this is what makes it so effective and powerful.
If nature writing is about connecting human beings with their natural environment, then this connection has to be accessible for everybody. "A Presentation of Whales" by Barry Lopez is a poignant, unsettling and bewildering account that the reader will not easily forget. Yet, at times, especially when the human savagery and the whales' suffering are described in minute, extremely naturalistic detail, the reader can easily feel too overwhelmed. "This is a one of kind event," the reader might think and leave the unsettling story behind. Janisse Ray is writing about more down-to-earth affairs, and yet, her experience of growing up in a junkyard is unique too in its own right. Walker's story is the narrative that anyone can share. Though at first, lying across a path in a park and talking to trees might seem extremely weird, this is an experiment any reader can conduct. What one needs is only to go outside and imagine that all the natural objects around are alive, have their sorrows and needs, love and hate just like the humans do.
This experiment is bound to change the reader's perspective. Reading Alice Walker's essay is a simple, yet efficient way to change one's life forever.
Nature as a Teacher in the Modern American Environmental Writing
Today environmental writing, or the literature of wilderness, is "a flourishing tract of contemporary American literature," the influence of which has been tremendous (Elder 375). The unconventional and exhilarating success of this type of literature is grounded both on the richness of the subject (with the USA being able to boast some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world) and the talent of the writers. But there is one more reason, which seems to be especially valid today. In the age of postmodern literary games and shallow mass culture cliches, nature writing is a rare type of prose, which offers its readers meaning, purpose and connection. Environmental writing at its best (e.g., the works by Momaday, Silko, Lopez, Walker, Turner, Ray, etc.) is in its very essence a textbook which contains lessons the nature can teach human beings, offered to them by the writers in a light and engaging manner.
Like any good teacher, what nature does first is sharing with us tools for self-assessment. On a very profound and deep level, the reader understands that the way people treat nature and respond to it is definitive of their spiritual, intellectual and emotional potential. Alice Walker begins her short story with an admission: "Some years ago a friend and I walked out into the countryside to listen to what the Earth was saying, and to better hear our own thoughts" (Walker 659). In dialogue with nature, people can better understand who they really are. Walker helps the reader reflect on how human beings treat all the other species with unnecessary hostility seeing them as a danger and forgetting that the ultimate aim of any creature is just living a full-fledged life. "How would you react if you found a snake in your garden? Would you kill it?", Walker seems to be asking. Janisse Ray joins in the conversation with her own case study, which deals with pro-active attitude rather than simply conquering one's fears. Her question is as follows: "Would you help an animal in need, or would you be the idle prankster painting it silver and gold?". The image is a metaphor: while people are trying to turn rare animals into silver and gold, i.e. money, they ignore the most urgent needs of the victims of such commercial activities. N. Scott Momaday is offering his readers to see his writings as a test to help them define if they are able to fully appreciate the beauty of the natural world. Beauty is everywhere around us and it depends only upon our own spiritual level if we are able to see it. "This comprehension of the earth and air," he writes, "is surely a matter of morality, for it brings into account not only man's instinctive reaction to his environment but the full realization of his humanity as well, the achievement of his intellectual and spiritual development as an individual and a race" (Momaday 576). In the same line, in "The Presentation of Whales" Barry Lopez is focusing more on the human reaction to the tragedy of the helpless giants than on the suffering of the animals. Lopez is offering a wide range of types that the reader can identify with: from cynical souvenir hunters to the passionate and kind-hearted enthusiasts who embark on a hopeless mission of trying to save the whales: "...in the days that followed, the worst and the best of human behavior was shown among them," writes Lopez (Lopez 699). Through a wide spectrum of questions, these writers help us use our attitude to nature as a litmus paper which will allow us to define who we are.
After the mirror of nature has shown the readers their reflection, the process of healing is supposed to take place. Nature teaches human beings to heal and become better through showing them the ubiquitous beauty of the world and the ultimate joy that being alive can bring. Appreciation of the beauty of life is the indispensable basis for human interaction with nature. This message can be encountered already in the writings of John Muir. In his autobiography Muir describes the happy days of his childhood: "How our young, wondering eyes reveled in the sunny, breezy glory of the hills and the sky, every particle of us thrilling and tingling with the bees and glad birds and glad streams" (Muir). Muir's literary disciples follow the great writer's example and teach their readers to be amazed by the wonder of being alive - in their diverse and unique ways. Alice Walker discusses with her readers the value of life of every creature including the harmless garden snake that her neighbor kills in an effort to ease her anxiety. Walker realized that the only thing that the snake wanted was to get home and killing it was cruel. But the very realization of the whole absurdity of this unintended cruelty is already a big change. Everything is a human being is the lesson that Walker takes away from her encounters with nature. Just like like Walker, Janisse Ray gives an animal a human face by telling the story of a gopher tortoise whose only wish is to finally get home. Barry Lopez looks at the very sensitive and painful seam-side of this idea, showing the readers the tragic and absurd death of the beautiful ocean giants. In the context of Lopez's story, whales, that might have been stranded on the shore only because they sympathized with their weak and ill relative too much, look more humane than many representatives of the human species. Alice Walker writes, "I grieved that I had apparently learned nothing, as a human being, since the days of Adam and Eve" (Walker 662). This sad realization is, unfortunately, quite applicable to the whole of humanity - with the exception of those rare individuals who are able to learn the lessons of nature. Native Americans are among them. N. Scott Momaday reveals in his book how well the Indians have learned to appreciate the beauty of nature and value the miracle of life. These incredible writers are conveying nature's message: we are all alive, we are connected, we are one.
Amazing authors from Thoreau and Muir to Walker and Momaday have inspired "the modern passion for nature," which "can still draw people together across lines of race, class, and gender" (Worster 8). They have become our guides "to education in environmental aesthetics" (Wattles 56), explaining for us the amazing lessons that nature, the best of teachers, can help us learn.
Elder, John C. "John Muir and the Literature of Wilderness." The Massachusetts Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 1981, pp. 375-386. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25089154.
McKibben, Bill, ed. American Earth. Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Library of America via Penguin, 2008.
Muir, John. The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. The Floating Press, 2012, https://books.google.bg/books?id=-Fcn5qsi2uAC&lpg=PP1&hl=ru&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Wattles, Jeffrey. "John Muir as a Guide to Education in Environmental Aesthetics." The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 47, no. 3, 2013, pp. 56-71. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jaesteduc.47.3.0056.
Worster, Donald. "John Muir and the Modern Passion for Nature." Environmental History, vol. 10, no. 1, 2005, pp. 8-19. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3985830.
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