Nature And Human Nature

Many creative nonfiction writers find topics of great interest within nature and the out-of-doors. Some writers tell us about the wonders of nature, ecological systems, and life in the wild without drawing any moral message, except, perhaps, that we should preserve nature. Other writers use nature as a jumping-off place to wax philosophical about the nature of humankind. Like most things, neither category is purely one or the other. People writing about the wonders of nature will often briefly digress to make some point about how people could learn something from Mother Nature, but their main message is not philosophical. The more philosophical writers, on the other hand, may also give us much interesting information about nature along with their main messages about the nature of humankind.

You might think, after many years of teaching a class called "Nature Writers," that I would know what nature meant, but I do not. Perhaps this is of little importance. The word comes from the Latin, to be born, which is fundamental enough, and puts it under the heading of abiding mystery. Then we have the essential character of something, like a rock, or a child; plus physical power, according to the dictionary, causing the phenomena of the material world; or for one grand definition, the sum of the surrounding universe. When I hear it said in caustic tones that "Everyone knows man is a part of nature," I have only the vaguest idea what that means either. The last time I heard such a remark, it came from a teacher of philosophy who did not seem to be particularly interested in what is often referred to as "the lower forms of life." There is reason to suspect the assumptions of the human brain when it becomes too elevated from the earth that nurtured it.

John Hay

"The Nature Writer's Dilemma," collected in On Nature

These three excerpts give us three writers' thoughts on meeting up with an exciting part of nature.

The first time I ever saw a bear in the wild, I was on my way back from fishing in a beaver meadow on state land next to the Flathead National Forest, about ten miles from the town of Bigfork, Montana. I was coming around a bend on an overgrown logging road when I saw up ahead a large black animal see me and duck into some thimbleberry bushes. I knew it was a bear. I didn't move and he didn't move for maybe three minutes. There was no likely tree nearby for me to climb. Then the bear hopped out of the bushes, took a look at me over his shoulder, and galloped like crazy down the trail. As he ran, his hind feet seemed to reach higher than his head. He splashed water up and made the rocks clack as he crossed a little creek, and then he went into the brush on the other side with a racket that sounded like a car crashing through there. For some reason, I picked up a rock. I felt the weight of the rock in my head, I smelled the breath from a wild rosebush, I saw the sun on the tops of the mountains, I felt the clothes on my back. I felt like a man—skinny, bipedal, weak, slow, and basically kind of a silly idea. I felt as if I had eyes all over my head. I proceeded, a procession of feelings, down the trail where the bear had run. I saw dark blots on the trail where he had splashed water from the creek. I kept saying, "A bear! I saw a bear!"

Ian Frazier

"Bear News," New Yorker (September 9, 1985)

By June the Elk are in alpine meadows. There are deer where there is browse; and these black-tailed deer love the river bottoms. The bear are numerous. I remember one bright August day when August Slather had the oars, holding the middle of the Bogachief on a long slow drift in flat water as I whipped the river with a fly. As we rounded a bend we saw a large black bear on the next point, a couple hundred yards distant. Augie gave me a knowing look and pointed the boat directly to the animal. The wind was right and, as fortune would have it, the rear end of the bear was pointed our way. He had flipped a big fish from the water and was leisurely engaged in eating it. When the boat was within three feet of the bear, I reached over and gave it a slap on the back, shouting, "What are you doing here?" It was seconds before the message reached the bear's brain. Meanwhile his sympathetic nervous system went into operation. His rear legs stiffened, his back seemed to freeze. Then the danger signal reached consciousness and the animal was off through the dense brush, not once looking behind.

Justice William O. Douglas My Wilderness: The Pacific West

Black bears rarely eat creatures larger than squirrels. They prefer little ones. They eat wasps' nests with the wasps in them. They eat living yellow jackets. When eating honeycombs, they also eat the bees. In 1976, a tagged Pennsylvania bear was caught stealing from a beehive in New Jersey. It was dart-gunned and extradited—home to Pennsylvania. A bear will sit on its butt beside an anthill, bomb the anthill with a whisking paw, then set the paw on the ground and patiently watch while ants swarm over the paw. The bear licks the paw. A bear will eat a snake or a frog. But all these sources of protein do almost nothing to pack that mattress of fat. Fruit and nuts make the fat. Bears eat so many apples sometimes that they throw up the pulp and retain the cider, which ferments in the stomach no less effectively than it would in a pot still. The bears become drunk. By the Deerfield River, in Massachusetts, a dozen years ago, two inebriated bears full of hard cider lurched all over a nearby road, wove about, staggered, lolled, fell, and got up on the hood of a police car. Massachusetts closed its bear season for the duration of the hangover.

John McPhee

"A Textbook Place for Bears," Table of Contents

The following excerpts are from writings about an experience of nature that is less exciting than bear sightings. Its emphasis is on the beauty of the wild and its appeal to our senses. These examples come from a category of books about nature and about human nature— books written by people who have deliberately removed themselves from society to reflect on that society, on nature, and on themselves. Henry David Thoreau may not have been the first writer to take himself outside the workaday world to live for a time confronting nature, reflecting on it, and then reflecting on the nature of humankind, but he's one of the more familiar ones.

For sounds in winter nights, and often in winter days, I heard the forlorn but melodious note of a hooting owl indefinitely far; such a sound as the frozen earth would yield if struck with a suitable plectrum, the very lingua vernacular of Walden Wood, and quite familiar to me at last, though I never saw the bird while it was making it; Hoo hoo hoo, hooer hoo, sounded sonorously, and the first three syllables accented somewhat like how der do; or sometimes hoo hoo only. One night in the beginning of winter, before the pond froze over, about nine o'clock, I was startled by the loud honking of a goose, and, stepping to the door, heard the sound of their wings like a tempest in the woods as they flew low over my house. They passed over the pond toward Fair Haven, seemingly undeterred from settling by my light, their commodore honking all the while with a regular beat.

Henry David Thoreau

Walden

All of us have special places of great beauty. One of my favorites at sunset in the winter is looking across a barren hillside with a rim of birches silhouetted against its color. It has always fascinated me and I have often wished I could paint that delicate tracery against the reddening sky. Another is a high ridge that commands a view of many miles to the east. To see a moonrise there, to watch a certain notch begin to brighten and finally see the golden rim slip above the dark horizon never fails to fill me with awe and wonderment.

In a lifetime of seeing beauty in the wilderness, I always feel a lift of spirit and an afterglow of serenity and content. I also know one must take time and wait for the glimpse of beauty that always comes, and one must see each as though it were his last chance.

Sigurd F. Olson Reflections from the North Country

The Weddell teems with large animals in the austral summer, even in early winter, when the Palmer entered pack ice on its northern perimeter, when we found large numbers of crabeater and Weddell seals, fur seals, and predacious leopard seals; chin-strap, Adelie, and emperor penguins; sei whales, mink whales, and orcas. After the barren vistas of heavily-utilized seas to the north, the Weddell seemed like a refugium. Knowing that whales one had only the vaguest notion of—the Southern bottlenose whale, Arnoux's beaked whale—roamed here along with the largest animal that ever lived, the blue whale, made some of us keenly observant. We studied every patch of open water.

Barry Lopez

"Offshore: A Journey to the Weddell Sea," collected in American Nature Writing 1995

About five miles north of my house in Ames, Iowa, is a state-designated "prairie remnant," a 25-acre piece of land that escaped the plow. In mid-September of a very wet year, the dominant color here is rich green. The five- or six-foot-tall stems of Indian grass are fully headed-out—tan seed heads wave and rustle in the stiff westerly breeze. Other vegetation, mostly partridge pea, with its small yellow flowers and vetch-like leaves, clusters and creeps around the base of the taller grasses, entirely covering the soil beneath. Behind the stand of grass is a grove of trees, a few evergreens and some oaks. A crow sits on the uppermost branch of a dead tree, steadying itself against the breeze.

Jane Smiley "So Shall We Reap," collected in American Nature Writing 1995

The Patagonia Express dropped anchor directly opposite the ice cliffs. I cannot say it was beautiful; it was beyond all that. I stood on the deck in the painfully cold air watching icebergs calve into the still water. The fall blocks boomed in the silence, like blasts of dynamite on some distant planet. It was impossible not to think of Coleridge's vision of ice in The Ancient Mariner ("The ice did split with a thunder fit"); even Norman's eye glittered obligingly.

Some of us strapped on lifejackets and climbed into a Zodiac. The tallest ice cliffs, at least 180 feet high, revealed themselves to be cleft with deeper blue caverns of cold air stretching back into the inner world of the earth. Gulls with black spindly legs landed on ice floes, and under the water I could see spectral outlines of secret things. We motored through the pack-ice along all one-and-a-half miles of the shining glacier. It radiated coldness. A crewman shouted and pointed behind us, and we turned our heads to see a tower of ice the size of a multi-storey carpark plunging into the lagoon, the foundations bouncing upwards with ostentatious languor as the top disappeared.

Sara Wheeler

Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey through Chile

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