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NONFICTION: A Natural Inclination

Steve Nicholls, Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery (University of Chicago Press, 2009)

James William Gibson, A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature (Metropolitan Books, 2009)

Early 20th century environmentalist Aldo Leopold once wrote: “A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the community; and the community includes the soil, waters, fauna and flora, as well as the people.” This strikes me as an admirably inclusive statement of principles, and one that usefully elevates the natural world to the plane we believe humans inhabit—the necessary first step toward just environmental action. Steve Nicholls, a director of nature documentaries, quotes Leopold’s remark near the end of Paradise Found, a book that ranges across five centuries of North America’s ecological history and narrates a striking diminishment of earlier natural abundance. In doing so, Nicholls offers copious evidence that even today our society is far from embracing as members of our “community” all of the earth’s living organisms. Yet, in recent decades, the sense of connection to the natural environment felt by figures like Leopold has swelled into what sociologist James William Gibson labels a “culture of enchantment” that is potentially broad, deep, and socially transformative. Successfully reorienting American society’s relationship to the environment—thereby restoring its precarious biological equilibrium—will likely depend on our ability to bring together the modes of thinking documented in these two books.

Paradise Found is built upon the charming descriptions of teeming waters, verdant shorelines, dense forests, and broad grassy plains recorded by awestruck Europeans from the 15th through the 19th centuries. One early explorer of the Carolinas discovered nature’s bounty worked both for and against him: “We saw plenty of Turkies, but perch’d upon such lofty Oaks, that our Guns would not kill them, tho’ we shot very often, and our Guns were very good.” Across the continent in 1786, French naval officer Jean François de Galaup’s boat was encircled by whales: “One cannot put into words … their familiarity; they blew constantly, within half a pistol shot of our frigates, and filled the air with a great stench.” Nicholls arranges hundreds of such items geographically, moving from the North Atlantic’s tributaries down the east coast to the Caribbean, across to the Pacific, and then east into the country’s interior. This achieves his goal of illustrating the sheer natural abundance of North America at the time of European discovery. “Inevitably such a picture raises two related questions,” Nicholls writes in his introduction. “Why was it like this, and why isn’t it now?”

In narrating how we got from historic abundance to today’s troublesome environmental prospects, Nicholls attempts to account carefully for the reasons behind what is largely an account of accelerating decline. He emphasizes the complexity of the evolving relationships between man and nature: American Indians, for example, are shown by historical reports and recent archeological investigations to have had varied impacts upon the landscape. Far from the popular idea of them “leaving no trace,” native populations at times enacted changes as dramatic as those that would later result from European interventions into the “natural” world. Indeed, complexity is the keyword underpinning much of Nicholls’s enterprise, and his book’s most important lesson is that humankind’s inability to understand the environment’s intricacies should lead to both a respect for it and a precautionary approach to interacting with it.

Nicholls’s wonderment at nature’s grandeur—even after centuries of environmental mismanagement—nicely counterbalances the scientific arguments he explicates and testifies to the persistence of the historical awe he cites. His expression of profound delight would also be recognizable to James William Gibson as an instance of the “culture of enchantment,” his term for changes sweeping through contemporary life with the ultimate goal of reinvesting nature with a sense of spirit. Gibson’s book is arranged in sections that assess the roots of this culture and its contemporary manifestations; problems intrinsic to it and external attacks upon it; and its future prospects. Gibson is a stronger synthesizer of information than a theorist, and A Reenchanted World is best when he summarizes, for example, the recent rise of “creation theology,” the history of the eco-warrior movement, or the attacks upon environmentalism led by right-leaning fundamentalist Christians during the last two decades.

The book is much weaker when Gibson marshals the words of sociologist and philosopher forebears (Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen, Mircea Eliade) as theoretical ballast for stories lifted from the science and human-interest pages of his local newspaper. It can be easy to cynically discount these tales of “a new and striking kind of yearning…in the ways ordinary people felt and talked about nature” as New Age hokum. In an early chapter chronicling certain people’s deep affinity for animals, Gibson writes: “In New Hampshire, a middle-aged, dyslexic gunsmith and naturalist named Benjamin Kilham decided in the spring of 1993 that he was ready for a new stage of life: motherhood.” In a small way, Kilham’s subsequent adoption of black bears may have contributed to awareness about the bears’ plight. But the mawkishness of his story—and the single-minded zeal of many other fringe figures Gibson profiles—makes it an unlikely candidate to spark comprehensive changes in thinking about our relationship to the natural world. Indeed, a lack of a scale is one of this book’s problems—rarely does Gibson explain how widespread are the sentiments and movements he describes.

Gibson suggests that the “quest for connection [with nature] indicates a fundamental rejection of the most basic premises of modern thought and society.” It is easy to agree that in order to survive, many such premises must be fundamentally reconsidered. Yet it seems that in order to find a way around many people’s demoralization concerning the environment, the lifestyles and outlooks chronicled in Gibson’s study, rooted deeply in emotions and a sense of spirit, must somehow be blended with the urbane, empirically–minded reasonable-ness exuded by Steve Nicholls’s book. We are a nation, as historian Garry Wills has recently observed in the context of American religion, polarized between head and heart. Using both in concert to address the grave environmental problems we face will not be an easy task.


Brian Sholis


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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