Human Nature/Nature Human

One of the few good things to have come out of this pandemic, for people like me who live in far-flung places, is that we can call in for author events and even little workshops in ways that were unheard of in the Before Times. Last week, I Zoomed in for a terrific conversation with Helen Macdonald and Jeff VanderMeer about her new book, Vesper Flights. It was a terrific conversation, especially when you consider that Macdonald was basically calling in from the dead of night in the UK. Toward the end, VanderMeer (whose work I have yet to read but who I love following on Twitter) asked her how she responds to “people who ask why non-human nature even matters…”

At which point, the top of my head came off.

Macdonald was stumped for a moment (it was midnight her time), and kind of waved her hands around, then quoted Robin Wall Kimmerer’s anecdote in Braiding Sweetgrass, where she asks her students if they’d feel differently about the natural world if it loved them back.

Which is not the direction my head, now in flames, was going. I was bouncing in my seat and shouting into the Zoom void that nature matters because we’re all nature. We are nature. Nature is in us. We live IN nature — it’s not something out there.

The more we learn, the more we discover that we’re what Donna Haraway describes as cyborg reality. In The Cyborg Manifesto (1985) she outlines a concept of cyborg that specifically rejects rigid boundaries, especially those separating human from animal and human from machine. In When Species Meet (2007), Haraway takes this point further, noting that:

“Human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates” (When Species Meet, p. 4).

But we all know that discussions of the gut biome are not what we mean by nature writing, a topic I’ve studied for decades now, and one about which I still have so many grumbling muttering ongoing discussions with myself. Often, these discussions take place on my dog walks, which because I’m in Livingston, Montana, usually take place in the Paradise Valley. Which is stupendously beautiful. That’s it up at the top of the post, this afternoon, on said dog walk.

That’s what nature writing is supposed to be about, right? That thing out there. In the American idiom, it’s about Sweeping Vistas and Big Adventures (often male). It’s about that thing we’re trying to save with our writing. Wilderness. The Wild.

Again, in the photo, that’s it — the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area. It starts about halfway up that front range and runs east to about Cody Wyoming. It is huge, and magnificent, and something very much to be fought for and protected.

I’ve lived here since 2002 and have only ever been a couple of miles inside the boundary. I moved to the wilderness and built a domestic life. I live in town. I have a garden. I have pets (couldn’t have the chickens if I lived down valley — too many predators). Himself has a cabin on the lower slope of Emigrant peak, where we share the yard most of the winter with a large herd of elk does and calves. We’ve seen mountain lions and bears and coyotes and foxes and bobcats and birds, and lots and lots of bunnies. There’s a bunny who lives under the pallet where the garbage cans are secured from the winds that blow all winter. That’s “garbage can bunny.” Generations of garbage can bunny have hung out with Himself while he cuts wood, or putters around the place. We love garbage can bunny even if he’s not as thrilling as the very healthy mountain lion we catch on the game camera once or twice a year.

Seems that one of the things we’re all learning in lockdown is how we are, despite all the promises of the techno-future, still nature. The entire globe has been shut down because of a virus, and we’ve all come crashing up against our biological natures. Remember March and April? When we were all sprouting scallions in glasses of water, just to have some contact with the green world? As a way of giving ourselves hope? Nature is both the red tailed hawk who has sailed out of the cottonwood tree to hang, just off the riverside bluff, like a big showoff these past few mornings AND the bacteria that made my yogurt set last week.

Modern nature writing in the US grew out of the great conservation movements of the 1950s and 60s — a movement that brought us the very wilderness area under whose shadow I walk most mornings. That those wilderness areas are still under constant threat from those who would seek to privatize sell them off, log them or mine them them, means that our nature writing here in the US is usually written in a defensive crouch. Is this good for The Wild? Will this leave an opening for enemies of The Wild?

One thing I appreciate in so much nature writing coming out of the UK is that because they don’t write in this shadow, there’s often a lightness, and a vibrancy to it that I think can get lost over here. Writers like Helen Macdonald, Kathleen Jamie, James Rebanks, and even some of their gardening writers like Dan Pearson are doing terrific work exploring the borders of what is nature, and what is human, and what happens when the two meet up.

At one point during the Zoom event, VanderMeer asked a question I heard our late neighbor Jim Harrison ask at UC Davis 25 years ago — what about nature that isn’t scenic? What is its worth? Who is going to save it? What about VanderMeer’s ravines, or all those woodland edges we hung out in on the edge of the condo developments when I was a kid? Perhaps one way to start “saving” the natural world is to begin to think of it as where we live. As something inside and outside of our bodies, as something in our houses and our yards, and yes, also as a sweeping vista to which we travel, when we can travel again, to remind ourselves of the sublime.

But nature doesn’t belong only to the sublime. It belongs also to the local, to the homey, to the scallions in a water glass, the birds at our feeders, the bacteria in our yogurt.