What I Had Lost Was a Country

Nature and landscape are palimpsests of history and social violence more than they are alternatives to them. They show back to the observer the durability and definiteness of the world people have made so far, as well as its fragility.

To re-encounter nature would be a way of getting another angle of vision on the same social facts, the same greedy and unequal humanity.

Photograph by David Lindbo.

The following essay is a revised version of a talk, “The Politics of Nature in a Time of Political Fear,” delivered by Jedediah Purdy at the Environment Forum at Harvard University’s Mahindra Center on December 8, 2016.

The American political calendar creates a hiatus between elections and their consequences. The nearly two months from early November until January 20 is a sort of penitentiary, in the old sense: a time of confinement in which to consider what we have done, or, depending on your standpoint, what has befallen us. That season, now closing, has been especially bewildering this year. This is mostly because of the catastrophe of November 8, but it is also because I allowed myself a certain kind of magical thinking in the summer and fall. Although I would have said that I knew better, I halfway accepted the assurance that what in fact happened in the presidential election was impossible because it was unimaginable. Now that it has happened, I, at least, am often shaken by the question: What else is possible? Not just theoretically possible, but maybe on its way to happening, that I have not really imagined? What else have I failed to understand about this place?

In that state of mind, I stumbled across a passage of Henry Thoreau’s from 1854.

“I have lived for the last month . . . with the sense of having suffered a vast and indefinite loss. I did not know at first what ailed me. At last it occurred to me that what I had lost was a country.”

Thoreau was responding to Massachusetts’s enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act to return Anthony Burns to a slaveholder from Virginia. Despite the distance in time and setting, the phrase seemed to hand back to me my own disorientation.

I had a few days off, and although I had meant to work at the sleepless pace that kept me feeling purposeful nearly three weeks past the election, I was suddenly too sick to move. (Other adults with careers, responsibilities, children, described similar illnesses, sooner after the vote: days of crying, throwing up, not getting out of bed.) I started reading Thoreau’s Journal from the time of that essay (which he called “Slavery in Massachusetts”).

June 17, 1854: “Another remarkably hazy day; our view is confined, the horizon near, no mountains; as you look off only four or five miles, you see a succession of dark wooded ridges and vales filled with mist.” That summer, to observe nature was to observe opacity and obscurity, in which it was hard to see and hard to think.

Often, in the second and third weeks of November, I too trusted only the days when the sun did not come out at all; just enough light seeped through the clouds to make the streetlamps go dark. Bright days felt deceiving. They even reminded me of a bright, perfect morning in September fifteen years ago. When I admitted this crazy-seeming thought, more than one person told me I was not alone in it.

Thoreau continues, “I walk toward one of our ponds; but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk . . . My thoughts are murder to the state.” Where the same passage appears in the Journal, he adds, “I endeavor in vain to observe nature.”

He was describing a mind under pressure, flattened and interrupted by outrage, lies that became law, laws that became facts, and facts that, uncontested, became the truth. This man, Anthony Burns, the law said was a slave, and he was going back to Mr. Suttle in Virginia as the Constitution required. Losing a country meant, for Thoreau, seeing these lies become facts, knowing they were made in his name and that he was part of the political power that made them.

Losing a country might mean losing whatever accommodation you had made with the country, losing your way of living with it. The country has not receded far away, but grown overwhelmingly close, occupying your head in the most disruptive and intolerable ways.

A country lost in this fashion may never have been more than a pleasing illusion, a gauze of selective ignorance or indifference. To use a phrase that is facile but also necessary, Thoreau is complaining about losing the privilege of ignoring slavery most of the time while also disapproving of it. And to be able to make this complaint, to report on your new and unsettling experience of citizenship, is also a part of privilege. Anthony Burns, whose reflections in the Boston courthouse are not recorded, knew a great deal about the United States, and he had no country to lose.

But like most left-liberals who show up for die-ins and Black Lives Matter vigils and Moral Mondays mass arrests, I am much more Thoreau. I did not believe that this country, with its extremes of wealth, poverty, and insecurity, its racial resentments and racial terror, was “already great” in Hillary Clinton’s would-be reassuring sense. But I did have a country to lose.

We may be at the beginning of four years of vigils, civil disobedience, encryption, surveillance, and the tiring reassertion, every day, of basic facts against lies that are almost official. That is one of the better scenarios.

Trumpism depends on the kinds of mental disruptions that Thoreau describes. It locks the attentive citizen into the unrelenting present of the President-elect’s all-hours social-media feed, like the oracular communiqués of a deranged minor god. Well-meaning Facebook friends urge us to watch the cabinet appointments and ethics breaches behind the tweets, but it is never satisfying to say, as they do, that the tweets are a distraction, a smokescreen. They are a mode of governance, a minor form of official entertainment and a soft, plausibly deniable mode of state terror. Ignoring them feels—to me, anyway, and maybe I am wrong—irresponsible; but following along presses you out of the moment, bending your mind toward some terrible future that may never come or may already be here. Is this the beginning? Is this how it starts?

So, although events are already filling up this hiatus, cabinet appointments filling in the blank spaces where speculation has been frantically sketching disasters, there may be something to learn from this time of bewilderment. The term “self-care” is as compromised as any other, even balanced as it is between preparation for radical action and productivity-enhancing company-sponsored mindfulness sessions; but it does name the work of surviving in a newly disorienting landscape.

There must be as many ways of caring for the self as there are human temperaments or forms of life. I kept on with Thoreau for his version: asking whether attention to nature could be part of a repertoire of dissent and resistance, and a way to cultivate the freedom of mind that these need.

Thoreau took solitude as well as social life with utter seriousness because he believed both were at once necessary and impossible. Alone, you were in the company of received ideas, condescending self-judgment, anxiety that you were not doing your part; in company, you were alone in your strange mind—and everyone’s mind is strange—throwing words like stones into the pools of other people’s minds, disturbing their smooth surfaces. No wonder he wanted words that had life in them. No wonder he said the great miracle would be to see through another’s eyes for a moment. He repeated that drama of recognition with his pond, imagining himself asking of the deep pool, “Walden, is it you?”

I have been hungry, too, for naïve responses to nature, as I have been for naïve political lucidity. These days, when I see a flock of birds in synchrony, I feel as if a dimension of awareness has opened that is not occupied territory. I feel this other site of consciousness, this fast-banking incipient intelligence, is a rip in the curtain drawn between the world and me.

Thoreau’s responses to nature are not naïve, but they do not reject what is alive and instructive in the naïve response. We might find, in the next four years, that we need to recapture the living kernel in those ideas that seem to be clichéd husks. In my world of academic lawyers, only schemers even pretend to believe that the Constitution simply means what it says, or that we could stand to live by it if it did. But it will soon be time to defend constitutional limits on the President’s power, or limits on the power of the police, as if they were divine commandments (as if there were divine commandments). I come to this as a constitutional lawyer, and also as a teacher. The artificiality of facts is one of the main things the humanities, and the law, have to teach our students, but it is time to defend facts against lies, categorically and with utter clarity. This is a return, at the center of a mostly necessary labyrinth of equivocation and qualification, to something non-negotiable.

One of the central slogans of the 2016 election was that, while you can choose your own opinions in politics, you cannot choose your own facts. This turns out not to be true. In politics, you can propose your own selective version of the facts and, if you win, set to work imposing your chosen facts on everyone else. That is the remaking of lies into law into facts that overpowered Thoreau’s attention in the spring of 1854. It is why the misinformation in the President-elect’s tweets—for instance, the lie that millions of people voted illegally for his opponent—is not laughable and does not weaken him. Each political lie is a bid to remake reality, whether by “justifying” voter disenfranchisement or by building up the suspicion that some people’s votes do not really count because they are not the real Americans.

It was a “maimed and imperfect nature” that he was “conversant with,” Thoreau wrote in his Journal, and the insight in that phrase makes his claim to converse with nature credible. Walking to the ponds, as he put it, was never a return to something pristine. It was, like politics, a way of joining in with a record of damage, and of conceits and fantasies turned to material facts. Consider any American landscape: the Midwest, a surveyor’s grid of corn and soybeans; the deep South, a plane first cleared for planting by gangs of enslaved people who were marched across the land from the old colonies in a mobilization that resembled war; the Appalachian coalfields, whose severe slopes, narrow ridges, and valleys are being transformed by mountaintop removal into a broken, spongy, uneven average of their former selves. Even places made for respite, parks and wilderness areas that advertise “natural beauty,” are legally enshrined geographic testimony to a painterly ideal of American paradise. So to re-encounter nature, after losing your way in your own country, would never be an escape from history or social life into a greenwood idyll. It would be a way of getting another angle of vision on the same social facts, the same greedy and unequal humanity. Although the phrase comes from Marx rather than Thoreau, it would mean seeing in a landscape the non-human body of the species, in which the history of economic and political life is written as vividly as in laws. That is not comforting, but it is clarifying, and one beginning to re-orientation.

Nature and landscape are palimpsests of history and social violence more than they are alternatives to them. They show back to the observer the durability and definiteness of the world people have made so far, as well as its fragility. In my mind, at least, thinking in response to terrain, as Thoreau always tried to do—and sometimes found, in the grip of politics, that he could not—can also support a kind of political clarity, an alternative to the hopeless way in which the world runs away from us but still will not let us go. It can propose a vantage point.

I realized some time ago that this is what I was after in a recurring dream of landscapes. In these dreams, I start walking up a wooded slope, and—departing from the low terrain of the Carolina Piedmont where I live—the slope rises and rises, through the loblolly pine into steep pastures, which level out into high meadows, then rise again to crests of stone. Sometimes there’s no stone, and the meadows are the top, sloping along a broad ridgeline, or there may be just a couple hundred vertical feet of pasture, tufted with a mix of beech and red oak.

Only waking destroys my new geography. My sense that the dream showed something real is strong enough that I have looked up topographic maps, just to see whether the hills are there. Their place on the local terrain is definite enough that I squint at precisely the loose, fat topo curves of the gently varying Piedmont precisely where the black lines ought to draw together to mark the steep rise that I dreamed.

These dreams might seem to belong to the genre of the hidden room. In hidden-room dreams, a familiar house, maybe a childhood home or college dorm, opens up at the back, or through the attic to reveal new spaces: grand parlors, ballrooms, greenhouses, formal lawns, interior pools. The idea that strange worlds wait behind a quotidian portal strikes me as one of the basic intuitions of magical thinking. The portal is C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe, Madeleine L’Engle’s tesseract, the Tardis, and, of course, Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.

Maybe the hidden room is right, but I have been thinking of my landscape dreams a little differently. I think now that the wish these dreams express is for a way to get above a terrain without leaving it, to merge many small horizons into one image. These dreams sketch a geography of thinking, a way of seeing a place whole without being overcome by it.

Of course my dream landscape is not the only geography of thinking. It is the one that you might carry if you had grown up where I did, in a very specific Appalachian landscape. From anyplace that people lived, you could escape on foot to a higher spot: every settled place contained its own upward exits. It was, really, not one landscape, but two, a pattern of valleys (“hollows”) with its counterpart in a second pattern of ridges. The pair of terrains were joined by steep, mainly wooded hillsides. Knowing the valleys did not mean you knew the ridges. A slight misstep setting off from a high place could land you in the wrong hollow, with the wrong people, miles by road from where you meant to be. The two landscapes had complementary logics, and moving between them took caution and attention.

It is a landscape that would give its dissidents an upward path to escape on foot, at least for a while, and lend its critics a commanding view. It is not a safe or certain landscape, and moving across can always exact the price of confusion, the likelihood of still walking the wrong way at dusk. It strikes me as an attempt to reconstitute a kind of thinking that recent events have threatened to rip away in the perennial distraction and suffocating suspicion, speculation, and opacity of Trump Time.

Piedmont, is it you?

This is a deliberately personal way of talking about paths out of, or through, the dark wood where some of us woke up on November 9 and have been wandering since. But it is not a new or unusual thought that ways of relating to the natural world would be connected with ways of navigating politics, and that the link might be especially important in times of bafflement and fear.

In 1727, an unusually hot summer in Boston was followed by an earthquake that Cotton Mather described as “a horrid rumbling like the sound of many coaches together, driving on the paved stones with a most awful trembling of the earth.” Thomas Prince, the Harvard-trained minister of Boston’s Old South Church, told his parishioners:

[W]hen [God] has a mind to show it, he can easily and in a moment . . . affright the hardiest creature. He can put all nature, even the great and inanimate parts of the world into such a commotion, as to make us see in a most sensible manner, the terrifying actings of his powerful presence, and excite the highest and most awful reverence of him. He can make the heavy and dull earth to tremble . . . as if it were moved with the fear of its present destruction.

Thomas Prince’s God had the tactics of a terrorist, or a midnight tweeter with both a nation-state and vigilantes behind him, dealing out spectacular reminders that no place was safe. In England, too, in that century and the one before it, monarchists and so-called “natural theologians” replayed the ancient argument that fear was spontaneous proof of divine authority. Even atheists were scared of thunder and lightning, argued Henry More, the Restorationist philosopher, and this showed that all rebellions against established power were fragile and juvenile vanity. Nature underwrote authority, and fear was her imprimatur.

There was another ancient tradition, associated with the philosopher Epicurus and the Epicurean poet-philosopher Lucretius, whose thought was recovered and widely circulated in the 15th and 16th centuries. This tradition was radical and therapeutic: it aimed to get at the root of the fear that Thomas Prince and Henry More celebrated, and to disentangle it from the metaphysics of thunderstorms and the political theory of earthquakes. Fear and anxiety were rational and inescapable in a dangerous world, argued Epicureans. Those who took essential hints from Lucretius were as diverse as the grim logician Thomas Hobbes and the sensual essayist Michel de Montaigne.

The errors of fear, according to the Epicureans, included imagining that earthquakes and diseases had a moral or taught a lesson; imagining that power and hierarchy were somehow natural and ordained; believing in theological principles that obliged you to kill or torture another person; believing in a bright boundary between civilized people and barbarians, us and the others, that would justify you in ignoring their suffering, or even license you to enjoy it. When you began to interpret the world this way—or, more likely, allow ideologues and theologians and rulers to interpret it for you in these ways—you felt your fear assuaged by a spurious order. But really you were in a greater danger than you knew, and you had become more dangerous to others, too.

Hobbes believed the solution was a relentless disenchantment of nature. We could free ourselves from deranging fear by seeing the world as matter in motion, nothing more. Montaigne, who was earthier and made pleasure a central theme of his writing, argued instead that it was possible for a kind of humane and egalitarian affection to flow between people and the non-human world. He wrote about what he called “a general duty of humanity,” that attached “not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants . . . There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.” For him, this was a disposition of feeling and imagination, a cultivated openness to the multiplicity of one’s own emotion and experience, of non-human life, and of human character and action. “The most barbarous malady of all,” he wrote, “is to despise one’s own being,” and it was people who did, who could not control their own fear and disgust, who went seeking barbarians to torture and animals to slaughter, and became barbarians themselves.

At the moment, the same political forces that are trying to convince us that we face barbarians at the national borders, barbarians who have infiltrated the country as refugees, and barbarians in a global war of civilizations between so-called Judeo-Christian capitalism and Islamic fascism and in saying all of this, I am just gently paraphrasing the President-elect and his chief White House strategist in their utterances on the public record—are also trying to convince us that we have nothing to fear from climate change. Here, the historical sides have switched. It is liberal rationalists who tell a story about the moral and political meaning of the weather, and it is the hierarchical and nationalist conservatives who deploy the little knives of skepticism. Myron Ebell, the professional climate-change denier who is running the transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, is our future in this way: if climate politics and policy fail, it will not be because of one massive and candid refusal, but by a thousand little skeptical cuts, convenient equivocations, and rationalizable delays.

The Trumpists have figured out that, in a post-natural world, the fact of being on one planet, sharing one atmosphere, does not mean we are in this together. Catastrophe will be so manageable for the wealthy that it will not even feel like catastrophe. The world in 2100 will not be more dangerous for them than the world of middle-class Americans in 1950, or Gilded Age plutocrats in 1890. They will be fine, and so will most of their grandchildren, and that is enough for them. Or, it seems probable that they will be fine, and that seems a good enough bet. As long as enough voters identify with them, it will be true, for all relevant purposes, that you can build a wall high enough to keep out climate change.

In this political moment, where everything seems to turn into a story about a global war of civilizations (which is the core of Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s worldview), or a demand for a wall or an exclusion policy to end our anxiety and reestablish a sense of control, some humanities scholars with an ecological turn of mind would like to make alliances with a nature that seems to refute all of this: a nature that does not know borders or even species boundaries, where our biological identities are possible only because of aliens within us, the bacteria and portmanteau cells that form our so-called selves; a nature that is everywhere hybrid, queer, and unlike itself. Some of them tie this picture of nature to an aesthetics and ethics of precarity: surrendering control, relaxing presuppositions about who one is, being always open to surprise, from within or from without. Against myths like nation, let alone race, we can cultivate “transient assemblages” of affinity.

To its advocates, this is a radically democratic and anti-capitalist way of thinking. I am pretty sure that it is only notionally anti-capitalist, and that Silicon Valley consultants would love to explain how an ethics of precarity makes an insecure gig economy sound like a spiritual practice, and how transient assemblages show that labor unions and long-term employment are anachronisms. In any case, it is quite inadequate as a democratic way of thinking. It is inadequate because it does not take seriously what Thoreau insisted upon: that democratic community is utterly real, as real as dirt, because we are trapped in it, because the facts we majoritarian bandits choose become the facts we live with every day, because after you lose a country you continue to wake up in it every morning.

Thoreau’s own conclusion, in his essay on “Slavery in Massachusetts,” was a hopeful one: he came across a water lily in the swamp, and its sweet smell became a symbol of a higher moral possibility.

Here I leave Thoreau, because he no longer seems the best guide to the value of his own thought. Thoreau’s nature, at his most radical moments, is not a simple comfort, and also not a mirror, let alone an escape into beauty amidst the mud. His nature tugs and jostles him to new vantage points. He looked to mountains because “their mere distance” was a kind of encouragement: an opened view in space could open the mind. He let his mind float down a stream and thought it was like seeing the earth from a distance, coming unmoored from the thudding impact that reminds you with every step of just where you are. In Walden, he wrote, “We are not wholly involved in Nature: I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it.” This nature is part of one technique for opening a compressed and desperate mind that the world’s events are occupying like a hostile force.

The Thoreau I come to feels the accumulated violence of the country in his body. This is the Thoreau who wrote, defending John Brown’s anti-slavery insurrection, “We preserve the so-called peace of our country by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman . . . Look at the jail! Look at the gallows! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army.” He denounced anyone who hoped to see change come from “quiet diffusion of the sentiments of humanity,” answering, “As if the sentiments of humanity were ever found unaccompanied by deeds.”

He lays claim to citizenship, not just as a privilege to be confessed, not just as an ideological trick to be unmasked, but as his biggest problem, something utterly real from which he could not separate himself, and for which he was owed no redress—a landscape that he needed to find complex ways to inhabit, understand, and try to change from within.

If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.

Related Articles

December 17, 2016
Why Hack?
March 24, 2016

Like Perot, who he resembles temperamentally, Sanders is wagering that he can win a rigged game.

December 6, 2010

President Obama, elected on grandiose promises of transparency, has brought more prosecutions against leaks than all the previous…

December 3, 2012
Threat Level

More by this Author

Issue 19 Real Estate
The Accidental Neoliberal
December 5, 2014
Teenage Riot