Paradise Found

Environmentalists ought to rediscover the art of nature writing

The greatest threat to environmentalists right now may be not insecticides or intransigent oil companies, but indifference. According to a recent Pew Center poll, 15 percent fewer voters deemed “protecting the environment” a top priority than in 2006. Such general apathy frustrates and puzzles adherents of the green movement—all indicators, after all, point to nothing less than impending doom. They thrust forth pamphlets full of statistics (bright red), CO2 graphs (alarmingly inclined), and before-and-after images of Arctic ice caps (now you see ’em, now you don’t).

But this evidence-based approach is only half the solution, for the public will only truly protect the environment if it sees the value of what it is supposed to defend. The language of environmentalism today is often clinical, sterile, and couched in terms of ethical prerogatives against which people either rebel or shoulder with the sense of assuming a heavy burden. Preserving the natural beauty around us, however, should inspire not reluctance, but joy; while retaining the urgency of messages for planetary conservation, we should also impart a sense of the wonders we risk losing. Essential to this approach is a renewed emphasis on nature writing that can bring to bear both the beauty and the transience of our surroundings.

The British writer John Fowles, embracing as he grew older the pleasures of meadow and garden, saw this clearly. “What has to be done,” he said, “is to get this vast and growing army of the indifferent to see nature as a daily pleasure of the civilized life.” He turned his own talents as a writer to this task, allowing his imagination transport back to June evenings spent with “cream-white furbelows, bee-loud and brave against an azure sea of the acacias.”

For the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, even the tinest flower embodied the divine being. His moving defenses of river and plain, forest and countryside drew from a deep spiritual connection to nature. “My God-state,” he wrote, “is sustained by the beauty you behold wheresoever you lift your eyes; a beauty which is Nature in all her forms.”

A thousand further examples could be plucked from the annals of history. Nature writing has a long and rich history, extending from the Greek poets; to Wordsworth, Thoreau, and Muir in the 19th century; to the 1970s renaissance of nature-based works like Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Embedded in all this lyricism is an environmental ethics—descriptions of breathtaking beauty move us to realize why nature should not be destroyed and encourage us to industrialize responsibly.

Today, such writing has largely withered on the branch. Certainly, there is no lack of popular nature books on the market, and most of them do their job well enough, alchemizing dense scientific jargon into prose digestible to the lay reader. The majority of today’s writer-activists, however, are in the mold of journalist Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Pollan lays out the case against modern agribusiness in a very persuasive, prescriptive way. But he still argues solely at the level of the intellect, and reason—as any economist or Exxon exec knows—can just as easily be turned to the defense of one’s own interests.

Reading the elegiac prose of one such as Victorian art critic John Ruskin, conversely, does far more to inspire genuine environmentalism than do blind imperatives to recycle. In his memoirs, Ruskin writes of the pristine Alps, meadows, and lilac trees of his childhood, noting that these were eventually paved through by railroads and left “filthy with cigar ashes” by travelers who “knocked the paling about, roared at the cows, and tore down what branches of blossom they could reach.” Nature writing in cases like this is not mere romanticism, for the emotional link it forges props up the reams of statistical evidence produced by science. Nor is it manipulative, for it encourages our noblest impulses (as appeals to marching penguins and Al Gore don’t, really).

Composed of equal parts science and ethics, the environmental movement must engage in a delicate balancing act. It has succeeded through graphs and PowerPoints in persuading us of the “inconvenient truth” and the duties it entails; our heads are now engaged, but not our hearts. Perhaps the wisest words come from Emerson, whose advice for the lovers of leaf and blossom in his own generation applies equally well for today’s environmentalists: “Things added to things, as statistics, civil history, are inventories. Things used as language are inexhaustibly attractive.”


Jessica A. Sequeira ’11, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.