Thinking Like a Mountain
On Nature Writing
Helen Macdonald. H Is for Hawk. Grove Press, 2015.
Robert Macfarlane. Landmarks. Penguin, 2016.
Robert Moor. On Trails. Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Peter Wohlleben. The Hidden Life of Trees. Greystone, 2016.
Fantasy answers a lack, however imperfectly. And so much is lacking. Every inhabited continent has been denuded of ecosystems and species. Most North American places have shed wolves, elk, moose, brown bears, panthers, bison, and a variety of fish and wild plants, which were all abundant four hundred years ago. Before those species were driven out, there was the slaughter of the mammoth, the ground sloth, the wild horse. The squirrels, rabbits, and sparrows that surround my North Carolina porch are less signs of burgeoning life than survivors of an apocalypse; so are the revenant coyotes that poach chickens and puppies from the neo-hippie farmsteads outside town. Yet in the restored Arts and Crafts cottages that fill my neighborhood, the children’s bedrooms are as totemic as the Chauvet Cave: covered in animal iconography from the farm, the rain forest, the Cretaceous, and the deep sea. Planet Earth, the BBC series narrated by David Attenborough, makes us invisible participants in lives otherwise as remote as those in the Ramayana. We witness migrations, hunts, nestings, and hatchings. Forty years ago, John Berger called the zoo “an epitaph to a relationship” between people and animals. Today those words could be applied to much of middle-class mass culture: it has become a kind of memorial to the nonhuman world, revived in a thousand representations even as it disappears all at once.
Human isolation from nonhuman nature, from Shanghai to Mumbai to Phoenix, goes beyond extermination and segregation. Even what we do encounter outside ourselves lacks the power Hannah Arendt called action: to begin something new, to set events in motion. The scripts of pets are closely edited for safety, hygiene, conformity to stereotype. Industrial agriculture has achieved totalitarian control over the beasts it turns to meals. No predator starts trouble with us.
Alongside global domestication, an opposite and terrifying potential broods. Every new superstorm, contagion, or annual heat record is pregnant with doom, most acutely for the world’s poor, but finally for nearly everyone. For all our deep and accelerating inequalities, life is less dangerous, and the natural world a more stable and fungible backdrop for human activity, than ever before. Yet the whole world also seems poised to come for us like a phalanx of piqued gods who have just switched sides.
For writers, this strange world — tamed to death, feral as a wild hog — has inspired a fascination with nonhuman action, agency, and consciousness. This is true in high academic culture, where literary scholars wax lyrical on the agency of storms and trees, political economists propose that capitalism be seen as both an ecological and a social form, and social theorists outline ethnographies and alliances across species. But as usual the academic trends are just the owl pellets of Minerva. Stronger evidence of a mood is the ambitious, often excellent, sometimes ridiculous writing, from essays and memoirs to popular science, that asks obsessively: What is looking back at us through other species’ eyes? Could we ever escape our own heads and know the viewpoint of a hawk? Is there such a thing as thinking like a mountain?