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?
The best-seller lists and magazines are full of intimations that we humans are not so distinct, or so isolated, as we might have thought. Some are literary stunts, throwaway symptoms of the moment. In Being a Beast, Charles Foster lies in and around makeshift burrows, chilly streams, and smelly backyards trying to imagine, in bodily fashion, how it might feel to live as a badger, otter, or fox. He crawls on his belly, contemplates the terroir of worms, and diligently picks ticks from his son (or rather “cub,” and sometime companion). Being a Beast disarmingly admits that Foster doesn’t, and can’t, have much idea what beasthood might be like. Another transspecies tinkerer, Thomas Thwaites, won an arts award from the Wellcome Trust to build a quadruped exoskeleton and hang out with goats, chewing grass and spitting it into an external rumen bag to make up for his inability to digest as a goat would. The resulting book, GoatMan, inadvertently makes the case against arts awards, though it does contain some pretty pictures of Thwaites crossing the Alps on his artificial legs.
We are too insurmountably human to know how cultural, how intentional, how meaningful, the nonhuman world might be.Tweet
Other books try to bring animals closer intellectually. In a survey for a popular audience, the primatologist Frans de Waal asks, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, while the science writer Jennifer Ackerman praises The Genius of Birds in a book that asks, but cannot answer, questions such as whether bowerbirds have an aesthetic sense. Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, both marine biologists, give drier and more scientific evidence for something we might call The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, including killer-whale food taboos, innovation and variation in whale song, and parental instruction in simple tool use. In these surveys, there are some genuinely uncanny moments. In Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, the ecologist Carl Safina describes how elephants tenderly handle the bones of their deceased, a practice in which it is all but impossible not to recognize a shared experience. (You can watch them do it on YouTube, and maybe you should.) Mostly, though, the epistemic walls remain. We are too insurmountably human to know how cultural, how intentional, how meaningful, the nonhuman world might be.
Only “hard” science is excused from accounting for its fantasies. The German forester Peter Wohlleben, in the best-selling The Hidden Life of Trees, begins from empirical surprises. Trees exchange nutrients through their root systems, keeping neighbors alive through stress and illness, and sometimes sustaining the bare stump and roots of a tree that was cut down a century ago or more. They send chemical alerts through roots and air when pests attack. Some of the emergency chemicals spur neighboring trees to release protective repellents, and others attract predators that consume the pests. Both nutrient exchange and chemical signals get a great boost from fungus that lives amid the roots of a forest and conveys nutrients and information as if it were a blended circulatory and nervous system.
Cultural attention to trees often focuses on extraordinary and symbolic individuals: English churchyard yews vastly older than the churches and linked speculatively to pre-Christian rites; the Royal Oak at Boscobel House, in Shropshire, in whose branches the future Charles II hid from Roundheads after his defeat at the battle of Worcester in 1651; or the six-hundred-year-old oak in Bernards, New Jersey, where local tales have it that George Washington rested during the Revolutionary War. Attachment to the trees of gods and rulers is a residue of the idea that all creation is arranged in chains of hierarchy, with every natural realm having its lord, and every lord recognizing the lords of other realms, as human rulers did across their kingdoms.
Wohlleben’s emphasis on interdependence and mutual aid is part of a recent tendency to recast nature in an egalitarian fashion — as cooperative, nonindividualist, and, often enough, hybrid and queer, in contrast to the oaks of generals and kings. Nature does answer faithfully to the imaginative imperatives and limitations of its observers, so it was inevitable that after centuries of viewing forests as kingdoms, then as factories (and, along the way, as cathedrals for Romantic sentiment), the 21st century would discover a networked information system under the leaves and humus, what Wohlleben calls, with an impressive lack of embarrassment, a “wood wide web.” But where he is really unchecked is in his inferences from events to behavior, from pattern to consciousness. The subtitle of the English translation of The Hidden Life of Trees is What They Feel, How They Communicate. Wohlleben tells us that trees have “experience,” that some “true friends” check their growth out of self-restraint (these are also the trees that keep their friends’ roots alive for centuries after logging), and that when plants respond to a vibration at 220 hertz, “the grasses [are] registering this frequency, so it makes sense to say they ‘heard’ it.”
Individuals nested within networked communities: soon we are in David Brooks land, watching a replay of the iconic marshmallow experiment in childhood self-control. We learn that when an opening emerges in the forest canopy, greedy trees put out new buds to slurp up the low-falling sunlight, while others, more patient, keep their focus on long-term growth. The greedy trees often fall sick from opportunistic infections, and anyway their short-term sun fix disappears when the canopy regrows. Wohlleben promises, “When you take your next walk in the forest, you can check for yourself to see that such behavior really is an individual choice and, therefore, a question of character. . . . All [the trees] have the same temptation to do something stupid like growing new branches on their trunks, but only a few give in.” In case you haven’t noticed that these trees have the same problems as junkies and layabouts, Wohlleben calls them “street kids” who “stuff themselves with sugary treats because they can photosynthesize as much as they like in full sun”; but without “a mother’s tender care” and “strict discipline,” without “punishing light deprivation if you don’t grow up really straight,” isolated trees wind up like “doped-up body builders,” with “paunches attesting to an orgy of solar indulgence.” It’s hard to read the politics here. Christian Democratic or neoliberal? Either way, forest ecology has become a moral economy of the woods.
Measured as proof of consciousness and culture outside our own, these are not far from fairy tales. But from evolutionary psychology to behavioral economics to Wohlleben’s petit bourgeois panpsychism, speculative science is the parlor-game social theory and metaphysics of the age — and of the civilization. Many years after the heyday of social Darwinism and phrenology, you can still find an audience for an insight about how some bit of selfishness was adaptive on the savannah, or how a self-defeating quirk is part of a pattern that makes humans “predictably irrational.” Or you can give a TED Talk on how nature is like the internet, which is like consciousness, so we are not alone.
Literary imagination at least owes some account of its fantasies, which is one reason to sound it for political interest. The past few years have been rich in the prose that, even in the Anthropocene, we persist in calling “nature writing.” Let three works exemplify the ways this writing explores the boundaries between human minds and the rest of the world. Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk memorializes a bloodletting collaboration and a fierce, if one-way, psychic bond with a hunting goshawk. Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks documents the traces left in language by those whose attachments to natural places have been intense. And Robert Moor’s On Trails tracks how patterns of movement make a landscape, and how the landscape, once shaped, dictates ways of moving across it. All these writers have lived exclusively in times of ecological crisis; Macdonald, who is the oldest of the three, was born in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day. Theirs is nature writing in the age of slow, irreversible change, in which any celebration of a creature or a place carries the prospect of turning to elegy.
All three are earnest — self-aware, but never jokey or condescending. This is trickier than it sounds. In writing about nature, the potential for sentimentality weighs so heavily, and the danger of projecting onto some slope or animal face is so obvious, that the usual trick is to shake off sentimentality with a raft of faux-hearty jokes about the whole conceit. Look at me, the well-meaning asshole who is about to walk the Appalachian Trail, or drive a wagon across the Great Plains, or whatever. I’m just like you! Even eminent writers are at pains to avoid being spotted communing with a rock. John McPhee, who spent a book trekking with the former Sierra Club executive director David Brower (it’s called Encounters with the Archdruid) and has intricately recorded American geology, topography, and river-system engineering over thousands of pages, maintains an ironic temperature too cool to let animism bloom. The druids are always at arm’s length.
Here is Macdonald in H Is for Hawk, hunting rabbits with her huge, fierce bird:
Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all. . . . I felt the curt lift of autumn breeze over the hill’s round brow, and the need to tack left, to fall over the leeward slope to where the rabbits were. I crept and walked and ran. I crouched. I looked. The world gathered about me. It made absolute sense. But the only things I knew were hawkish things, and the lines that drew me across the landscape were the lines that drew the hawk: hunger, desire, fascination, the need to find and fly and kill.
These sentences hold together only by balancing abstraction (“human,” “absolute sense”) with concrete detail (the slope, the rabbits) and images of motion that might come back to either Macdonald’s body or the hawk’s: the “curt lift” of the breeze, which sounds as if it is under wings, but which a walker would also feel; the rush “to fall over the leeward slope,” a feeling a runner might know, but which more exactly fits a raptor following a glide line, then pulling in its wings to drop.
Macdonald can make credible this passage, which treads the brink of mysticism, because she thoroughly succeeds in describing what comes before and after: her grief and bewilderment at the sudden death of her beloved father, a photojournalist. Macdonald, who became obsessed with hawking as a girl, responds by buying and taking into her home the wildest and most challenging of hunting hawks. She also responds, understandably, by going a bit mad. We get glimpses, dignified by obliquity, of a desperate affair, pained drinking, and a panicky retreat from work and ordinary social engagements, adding up to the sense of a mind under unbearable pressure. Even on the heath, knowing only “hawkish things,” Macdonald makes sure an alert reader wonders whether she is healing or losing her mind. She precisely renders the feeling of collaboration with the hawk, of entering into another way of being. With that feeling, Macdonald invites a question: has she opened her mind to other ways of being or collapsed it to a nearly unconscious point?
Macdonald amplifies the reasons for self-doubt by interspersing her own story with meditations on the life of T. H. White, best remembered as the author of The Sword in the Stone, a 1938 retelling of the Arthurian legend that Walt Disney translated into Technicolor in 1963. In a lesser-known work, The Goshawk (published in 1951 but written in the mid-1930s), White recorded his own miserable failure to train an especially savage hunting bird. White was a tormented homosexual (the creepily clinical word seems to fit the social world in which he had to live out his sexuality), an alcoholic snob who half loathed the affectations he cultivated, and a self-described sadist who could not get rid of his pleasure in causing pain. Almost inevitably, a bird that killed as it breathed became a substitute self. Sadism meant nothing for a hawk whose fast-moving reflexes might kill before a miserable late-Edwardian superego could stir. White’s failed bid to merge with an alter ego beyond good and evil confirmed his imprisonment in his own psyche.
Macdonald breaks with White’s quest and forgoes his mysticism. “I had thought for a long while that I was the hawk — one of those sulky goshawks able to vanish into another world, sitting high in the winter trees. But I was not the hawk, no matter how much I pared myself away, no matter how many times I lost myself in blood and leaves and fields.” She realizes that she wanted to follow the hawk into whatever world it occupies in the hope of finding her father there and bringing him home. Instead, she goes out and gets smashed with some of her father’s work friends, makes new friends of her own, and decides warm kitchens among the living are not such desolate places as they had seemed. For her, White’s experience marks a path better not taken.
White is a discomforting alter ego for reasons beyond his own chronic discomfort: in Macdonald’s telling he was incipiently fascistic, a Nietzschean aesthete who hated modernity and found relief, if not redemption, in violence. Those who love (certain parts of) nature are often making a point of preferring it to (certain kinds of) human beings. The problem is not only literary. Macdonald describes an encounter with a retired couple who join her in admiring a valley full of deer, then remark how good it is to see “a real bit of Old England still left, despite all these immigrants coming in.” She does not reply, but is miserable afterward. The meaning of landscapes is always someone’s meaning in particular.
Confronted with all of this, Macdonald tries to shake off the complicities of her own identification with the terrain: “I wish that we would not fight for landscapes that remind us of who we think we are. I wish we would fight, instead, for landscapes buzzing and glowing with life in all its variousness.” The alternative that Macdonald wishes for is, of course, not an escape from political-cultural projection onto landscape, but another approach to that same practice — really, the only one a 21st-century cosmopolitan is likely to feel comfortable embracing. The energy that binds Macdonald to her goshawk and its hunts has all the wrong affinities. But it is the key that fits the lock.
In Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane proposes that what we cannot say, we cannot see, and so new words are needed to recast the experience of nature. The world is disenchanted, he says (name-checking Max Weber), and we have learned to regard it as a standing reserve of resources (Heidegger). Our sense of what lies outside ourselves has been blunted by “capital, apathy, and urbanization” — enemies likely to draw a range of friends, from cultural Marxists to Little Englanders to those who would like to see a bit more effort, please. But behind this scholarly sketch, Macfarlane’s work is testament to a pretheoretical obsession with unfamiliar ways of encountering places. We disenchanted and distracted (post)moderns describe terrain, he complains, in terms of “large, generic units” such as “field,” “hill,” “valley,” and “wood.” The way to appreciate places is through a precision that would speak not of “heather,” but of the many colors a heathery slope might hold, and the sources of those colors: blueberries that shine green and scarlet as well as blue; sage-green bog myrtle, golden tormentil, blue milkworts, spaghnum mosses that run to yellow, green, and pink.
Many people who have lived intimately with landscapes have had words for nuances of form, texture, and use. Macfarlane’s purpose in Landmarks is to gather these words as proof of how precisely it is possible to name a place, and so, perforce, to know it. The Scots Gaelic of the Isle of Lewis contains more than twenty words for “eminences and precipices, depending on the sharpness of the summit and the aspects of the slope.” There are many Gaelic words for peat, specifying whether it has been cut, how dark and heavy it is, and the form in which it has been stacked — and there is a word, maoim, for “a place on the moor where there has been peat movement in the past.” The words, that is, describe all phases and aspects of a work cycle in which the land is constantly remade, changing its name like a noun going through successive declensions. There are words for the mixture of fine sand and mud left in meadowland where a flood has receded (warp, Northamptonshire); a steep, slippery place where the loose earth has been washed away by weather (skruid, Shetland); and an opening between hills through which a distant object is visible (glaab, also Shetland). Roke is fog that rises in the evenings from water meadows in East Anglia, na luin is Gaelic for fast-moving heat haze on a moor, and summer geese are the wisps of steam that rise from a North Yorkshire moor when hot sunshine comes fast behind a rain.
Macfarlane’s writing, here and in earlier works such as The Old Ways (2012), is an enthusiast’s record of encounters with people who immerse themselves in specific landscapes, living with the names and distinctions that delight him. Some of his informants sail boats by the stars. Others are old farmers who have spent their lives within twenty miles of one piece of land, or writers whose work documents decades spent walking a small region. His quarry is an animistic sense that Barry Lopez once identified in “the moment when the thing — the hill, the tarn . . . ceases to be a thing, and becomes something that knows we are there.”
Given that ambition, Landmarks, which Macfarlane calls a “counter-desecration phrasebook,” can be disappointingly thin as a lexicon. Too many of the terms are simply dialect or Gaelic for some generic form, such as “slope,” “hilltop,” “stream,” or “tuft of grass.” The effect is less pointing out how many things there are to see than cataloguing how many names there are for the same thing.
Robert Moor’s On Trails shows that it takes much more than a lexicon to translate words into seeing. On Trails stitches together the fossil tracks of Ediacarans, soft-bodied “mouthless and anus-less” creatures that went extinct some 540 million years ago; the trail making of caterpillars, ants, and the zebras and elephants of the African savannah; the Cherokee trail network of the southeastern United States; and Moor’s own hikes on the Appalachian Trail, one the full Georgia-to-Maine route, the other a drop-in walk with a Cherokee scholar and hiker.
Moor’s recurring idea is that a trail is a kind of externalized memory. Trails make concrete a body of dispersed knowledge about how to cross a ridge or swamp, where to find water or food, or how to meet your people in an unfamiliar place. (The costs of acquiring the knowledge can be high: sheep making trails in new terrain often drown or suffer other instructive mishaps, which their followers then avoid, leaving prudent bends in the trail.) Like grammar, a trail gives animals access to one another and shared access to the world outside their heads. Trails embody priorities and constraints: Cherokee trails, for instance, stuck to ridgelines, avoiding the peaks that modern hikers seek out for the views and sense of triumph. The Cherokee associated peaks with dangerous spirits. Mostly, though, their ridge trails fit, recorded, and guided their everyday activity.
Forms of life, in other words, must first be ordinary to support the genuinely fantastic.
Forms of life, in other words, must first be ordinary to support the genuinely fantastic.Tweet
Regular users of a trail, like users of a grammar, are unlikely to find it astonishing. Cherokee trails crossed land whose shape figured in their creation myths; these trails also stitched together all the Cherokee settlements of the Southeast, like the Roman roads for a pedestrian nation. Walking them might conjure the story of a monster whose dying battle formed a series of peaks, even while the point of the walk might be trade, diplomacy, or just a visit.
Forms of life, in other words, must first be ordinary to support the genuinely fantastic. A simple sense of wonder is often partly exoticism, the pleasure of confusing incomprehension with appreciation. Our nursery-room bestiaries are such pleasing epitaphs for the natural world because they willfully blend animals with cartoons; Planet Earth conforms the life cycles of beasts to the timeline of an evening’s entertainment, their behavior to our aesthetics. Admiration confirms our distance from them.
Moor, who shows little of the quester’s compulsion toward something beyond himself (and so sometimes manages to give others more room just to be), writes most vividly about other species and about preindustrial, place-based cultures. All he can say for most people today is that choosing a career is like choosing a trail, and walking a trail is like making sense of the world, and so trails are universal. This is fair, but less satisfactory than the rest of the book because, really, making a career change, or stopping for a cup of coffee at a familiar airport kiosk on your way to a Lyft ride, feels nothing like the slightly magical trails he describes elsewhere, whose contiguity hints at a unity in the world itself. If it did, those other kinds of trails would hold less fascination for us.
All these writers end up not quite claiming the link to the nonhuman world that draws them to their subjects in the first place. The power to get really outside oneself is always somewhere else — in peasant communities, in Gaelic, in literary madness. For me, at least, these displacements and hesitations are disappointing, although I can’t say that they are mistaken.
I wanted them to be onto something, something not just in their own heads. If it is true that the appetite for getting outside ourselves arises from eagerness, sense of lack, and terror of the world’s denuding, then it might be an incipient source of radicalism. I suspect the wish for this to be true is especially acute for those who grew up in the age when neoliberal hegemony coexisted with ecological crisis. The way we learned to criticize capitalism was in the acknowledgment that, although praised as inexorable and insurmountable and mostly benign, it was also destroying the world.
“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” That remark, usually attributed to Fredric Jameson, has become the rare theory-head dictum to escape Theory Land. Taken strictly, the aphorism doesn’t seem so incisive. The difficulty of imagining the end of capitalism turns out to be partly a function of effort, and there have been some generative attempts, notably Peter Frase’s Four Futures. If you are serious about imagining the end of capitalism, then you need to be a good deal more careful and probing about what you take “capitalism” to be than its defenders generally are.
Likewise, it turns out, with the world formerly known as natural. It isn’t just how much of the science of disaster is statistically ornate speculation, such as the complex climate models that deniers are always invoking in the cause of doubt — as if simplicity were a sign of truth in these things! It’s how little we know of what would disappear at the end of the world. What are all the colors in a heath, all the phases of peat? How many kinds of consciousness are there, and what would it mean for our own consciousness to have some sense — however crude, however make-believe — of what departs when another is extinguished? In a sense, their extinction from the world would only ratify their absence from our minds. Their ontological opacity to us becomes an all-too-real death sentence.
Nature writing — for lack of a better term — has often been shaky at best on politics, but that does not make it politically irrelevant. At least since Thoreau proposed to take the measure of his life with a surveyor’s compass and an accountant’s ledger, it has been partly an ethics: an effort to note the kinds of harm one is involved in, the things one depends on, and the pleasures and responsibilities that might arise from understanding both. Nature writing taps at the surface of the world, listening to catch the answering timbre of what may only be our own echo, to know the consistency of what is there and guess at its perspective, should it have one. “Walden,” Thoreau asked, bafflingly and beautifully, of his pond, “is it you?”
The world has had many endings, in extinctions, ecological simplifications, and other catastrophes that people have hardly registered. The pace is quickening. An epoch of slow crisis, when the boundary between life and not-life continues to blur, will have many more endings, and those endings taken together better describe our situation than the one big ending of cinematic apocalypse. Much of what will disappear we have failed to understand, or neglected even to try to understand. Imagining the end of the world and imagining its ongoing life are now parts of the same everyday business.