In my quest for perhaps a wrongly-remembered story about beavers in Yellowstone National Park, I’ve watched several national parks shows, including Ken Burns’ America’s National Parks series. Since we finished that show–worth the watch, by the way–I’ve looked for other, nature-toned documentaries. We saw that Amazon Prime would let us view PBS’s Nature series for free, so we’ve tried settling into the 2012 season. The only time I watch television/movies is when I’m feeding my special needs daughter. Watching narrative takes parade across the electrified cave wall of our flat screen TV helps pass the half hour to hour thrice daily that I’m tethered to one spot while I get food into my daughter.
I haven’t watched Nature for 15 years, in part because I’m up to my neck in nature. Every day I’m at it–the struggles of helping my highly challenged family get through an hour, a day, a night, a week–hopefully, without losing anyone. When I watch TV, I really, really, really prefer something that engages me. Hard to find, me being the narrative maven than I am. We’ve watched maybe 6 episodes of Nature’s 2012 season now, and I’m pushing it to journey on. The overall poor quality of narrative in these episodes stuns me. The constant rhapsodizing on the more spiritually nourishing qualities of wilderness, even as we take in scene after scene of death and violence, is so lopsided that I think it does nature a profound disservice, forcing the behavior of other species into zoos of human thought. Not only does such captivating language do wild nature a disservice, I believe it’s doing human nature wrong.
I was thinking about this problem the other day as I prepared to go into my shoulder stand during yoga. Maybe such rhetorical theatrics are for entertainment purposes, to whip viewers up and keep them watching, hoping for a resolution. Maybe I shouldn’t take it all so seriously. But the popular storyline that civilization and the technological revolution mark an apostasy from true human nature seems to me a real problem of thought, a flamboyant entrenchment of the fallacy of the third cause in a story we’re telling ourselves about ourselves.
I was so wrapped up in the problems of such language that I didn’t realize I’d gone into my shoulder stand and had been in it for several seconds until I noticed my feet up in the air above my head and thought, “Oh, I’m upside down”, and started counting breaths.
If we feel more “alive” in nature, that may bespeak problems of the mind and heart saturating our behavior in every space we occupy rather than prove any bankruptcy inherent to the non-natural world. Why shouldn’t we be able to step into a classroom, a store, a mall; talk to friends; talk to strangers; attend the most soporific church service; discuss over the Interwebs; open a door for a child who’s looking the other way and is about to run into the glass; help at the scene of a car accident; involve ourselves in administrative meetings; offer a hand to somebody who’s fallen on the ice; drive on the highway during rush hour, etc. with the same arousal of senses and depth of feeling we experience when we’re out of city bounds in the natural environment? I’m thinking that if we feel different in nature, in the sense that we feel more wild or alive or however we like to put it, we’re probably shaping nature to our liking in the same ways we story the human environment when we’re in less “natural” settings. That is to say, I think we’re essentially the same people in nature that we are in any other setting.
That’s not to say we don’t have different kinds of experiences in nature from those that occur when we’re in the laundry aisle of a major supermarket wrinkling our noses at the sting of escaped perfumes. I’m here to say that we do. With the exceptions of the twitter of trapped sparrows, the burglarious acts of raccoons and mice, and the ornamental shop cat or two, wild woods and backrocks set us among other creatures more often and more varied than does a grocery’s laundry aisle. If we live or trek somewhere that hasn’t lost its natural edge, we mingle with other species more freely, including the botanical clans. If you’re like me and don’t have time to keep up plants in the house or maintain a large, cultivated, bio-diverse garden outdoors, nature does it for you. Seeing spring flowers and leaf buds on Fremont cottonwoods invigorates the mind. What I mean is that we aren’t any more true to ourselves or to the world presenting itself to our senses out there in the uncivilized world than we are people-watching at the local Maverick.
I’m one of those crazy, obviously in denial people who doesn’t believe this world is fallen. I don’t think it’s falling, either–that technology and civilization is leading us down the industrial path to madness and dehumanization. I think this world is rising. I think human language has become a powerful leavening ingredient–when it isn’t used to fix others in place. Human expression has taken this world in an increasingly enlivening direction at a fast clip since it emerged. It continues to open up frontier after frontier for all of us at many levels of being. I think we’re getting better and better, both on the micro level during a person’s lifetime and on the macro scale as a species.
I’m not arguing that civilization isn’t riddled with problems. I’ll be so bold as to propose that few of those problems are actually new or attributable solely to modern human being. Their roots show in the snowy owl’s behavior as it pillages the local lemming population to feed its hatchlings. They’re in the strategizing of wolves as they weigh the risks of plunging into the frigid waters to seize a deer fleeing them against the drive of their hunger and the quality of the pack’s social bonds. They’re in my cats’ thinking as they kill mice, rabbits, and birds at will and sometimes for sport but fear the fox that hunts them. Even when they feel the terror of the fox’s interest and dash to us for protection, they can’t put their fear of violent death together with what the bird, mouse, or rabbit feels when they are hunted. These problems of empathy and of what Martin Buber called I-It relation are ancient and still with us, though not nearly so profoundly as they were even a few thousands of years ago.
If they were, I might well be dead by now, cast out of the tribe because of my birthmark, assigned the taboo of the evil eye or the devil’s or witch’s mark. I might have been killed as a danger to the tribe. I wouldn’t be married and have had children because of socially isolating beliefs about how my imperfection might put at risk or otherwise weaken society’s genetic momentum. I might have lived a miserable life, bullied, isolated, ostracized. This still happens to some born with birthmarks, and is, in fact, one of the prime selling points medical professionals use to peddle their star on, star off birthmark-removing technologies. Instead, I actually have the choice to keep my birthmark, show myself in public–even teach in a public setting without fear of being stoned to death or socially killed through the use of shaming or other harmful language. Science, curious and compassionate as ever, has disposed of all suspicion that my mark is inheritable.
If our species was still locked into withering stories about why some people are born with disabilities and the usual prescriptions for what should be done to them–including, for instance, automatically killing them–my special needs daughter, born with a profound brain injury, would very likely have fallen to some virulent narrative strain. At least one other family member is unlikely to have survived as long as he has. I’m pretty certain of this because I can still see in society’s behavior toward my land’s end self and my family members shadows and types of those old narrative takes from days of yore–the “sick and weak” narrative, the “you did something to deserve this” narrative, the “bad magic” narrative, the “this costs us too much” narrative. Nowadays, the odds of survival are without doubt more in my family’s favor.
In 2012, PBS bogged down Nature. Alan Alda does a much better job in the series, “The Human Spark”. So it’s still a cauldron of creation, both out there in the wild and here in the farthest reaches of civilization, language giving rise to language, trying to lift to the next level, Old Testatment to New, Standard Social Sciences Model to evolutionary psychology, so on and so forth. It’s a pretty wild world every way you turn. Just not always that kind of wild, the kind some folks seem to think is somehow purer, more engaging, more real. We’re moving beyond that, wording ourselves into better places and higher qualities of relationship, including with other species, with our native environment, and with each other. It might not be happening as quickly as some people think it should, but it is happening.