"a Fictitious Reality of Sensory Experience or Instructor of Humanity?"
In J. C. Oates essay suitably titled "Against Nature" she quotes Oscar Wilde "Nature... She is our creation" a mere product of our sensory perception. Oscar Wilde continues "Yesterday evening Mrs. Arundel insisted on my going to the windows and looking at the glorious sky, as she called it. And so I had to look at it... And what was it? It was simply a very second-rate Turner, a Turner of a bad period, with all the painters worst faults exaggerated and over-emphasized" Oates essay is more against the "nature-writers" than nature itself. After quoting Henry David Thoreau "contemplation of death" she says: "Come of it, Henry David. Youve grieved these many years for your elder brother John....you...must know, that youre fated too to die young of consumption..."
In yet another passage as if talking to "nature-writers" "[Nature] [w]hy glamorize it, romanticize it, well yes but we must, were writers, poets, mystics (of a sort) arent we, precisely what else are we to do but glamorize and romanticize and generally exaggerate the significance of anything we focus the white heat of our "creativity" upon...?And why not Nature, since its there, common property, mute, cant talk back".
It is the "nature-writers" creation, what she calls "Nature-as-experience" The author goes even further as to not only discredit "nature-writers" but nature itself. "Nature has no instructions for mankind, except that our poor beleaguered humanist-democratic way of life, our fantasies of the individuals high worth, our sense that the weak, not less than the strong, have a right to survive, are absurd."
She, only, has a valid point from a certain point of view of "nature-writers" that over do the romanticizing of nature for natures sake as in Platonic sort of way. However, almost all of human experiences in learning to survive on this planet is derived from nature. Sure we now ride Japanese cars and live in gray "concrete and steel" condos, but we once lived in caves as bears do, rode on beasts of burden, hunted and grazed as do the animals in nature.
We have come a long way from surviving in the primordial soup and up the chain of evolution to saying that: "Nature has no instructions for mankind". This is an absurd rejection of all human experience of the past 6000 or so years that we have been living on this planet. Perhaps its experiences early in the authors life -what she calls "Nature-in-self" mixed with books -of "Nature-adoration"- that she read that could have led the author to this juncture or state of affairs.
Such an experience, as Oates early in life can have a considerable impact on the mind of an impressionable child:
"Wading, as a small child, in Tonawanda Creek... [c]oming upon a friends dog in a drainage ditch, dead for several days, evidently the poor creature had been shot by a hunter and left to die, bleeding to death, and were stupefied with grief and horror....and we cant resist squatting over him, turning the body over..." or her experience with "...[t]he raccoon, mad with rabies, frothing at the mouth and tearing at his own belly with his teeth, so that his intestines spilled out onto the ground."
is no better than the first.
Add to this the sickness -paroxysmal tachycardia- that the author suffers from and you sort of get a sense why the author is uneasy with nature-writers and their genre. Having been knocked down by "a sudden attack of tachycardia" and having seen and experienced the ugly side of nature -or in the authors terms "Nature-in-self"- she is not content to die a "good death" in "a good place" and "a good time."
Understandably she wants to live, in contrast to Annie Dillards who does not "belong, here where space is curved, the earth is round, were all going to die" in this "wet ball flung across nowhere."
Ms. Dillard had just described mangroves, "the dancers", "the artists of the beautiful" with artistry and wit. She says of the tenacity of the mangroves to survive "not only that they exist at all- smooth-barked, glossy-leafed, thickets of lapped mystery- but that they can and do exist as floating islands, as trees upright and loose, alive and homeless on the water." And not only in rivers but also in "poisonous sea" she continues: "A tree cannot live in salt. Mangrove trees exude salt from their leaves; you cans set it, even on shoreline black mangroves, as a thin white crust. Lick a leaf and your tongue curls and coils; your mouths a heap of salt."
Perhaps the anthropomorphism that so upsets Oates, Dillard attributes to the mangroves "And the mangrove island wonders on, afloat and adrift. It walks teetering and wanton before the wind." and "...the consort of musicians strikes up...[a] mangrove island turns drift to dance...rocking day and night..."
Dillard theme of sojourners continues from mangroves to humans as in "we are all sojourners" to "[t]he planet itself is a sojourner in airless space" back to the theme of the planet as more of "...like an exposed mangrove island beautiful and loose."
Perhaps she wants to say that we are like mangroves adrift lost without "the sort of home for people one would have thought of -although I lack the fancy to imagine another." While Dillards mangroves are "artist" of survival in a "poisonous sea" Quammens "small moral crisis" where the spiders do not survive a "can of Raid".
The anthropocentrism which so upsets the likes of Oates is Quammens main stay in his essay. Quammens laziness leads to murdering "...roughly a hundred black widow spiders..." that were " ...frolicking on my desk." He states that "I hadnt made the necessary decision about dealing with her. [the mother of the hundred black widow spiders] I knew she would have to be either murdered or else captured adroitly in a pickle jar for relocation to the wild, and I didnt especially want to do either."
After an enlightening discussion of the Jain religions "strong teaching" on "Ahimsa" the imperative of "do not harm" and how the "devout Jain wound burn no candles or lights," as to not "[en]danger a moth."
The wearing of "cloth masks" over the mouth and nose "so as not to inhale any gnats" and of not "cutting his hair, on grounds that the lice hiding in there might be gruesomely injured." What Qaummens does is to develop a philosophy of "eye contact with the beast" you are about to murder.
Whereas Oates at the end of her essay, after being invaded by "tiny black ants" she "...one by one...kill[s] them with a forefinger...mashing each against the surface of the table and then dropping it into the waste basket at my side." In Quammens case instead of Oates "waste basket" "the dead and dried mother" goes "into a plastic vial [kept] on an office shelf... to remind me of something or other." While Oates admits that "I can do it [killing of ants] a long time. And that Ive written my poem" because the ants had interrupted her while she was trying to write a poem?
One without a doubt can learn from nature whether through caring for animals as pets, or observing the organization and cooperation of a society of bees. Whether it is the preparation for winter by squirrels or the miracle of birth. One may argue about the platonic beauty of a particular event, but the reality of nature remains whether by experience, real, imagined or by itself.
Whether studying the workings of the human brain can help us build a better computer or studying the flight of birds to build a better airplane. It is the same nature that some see its beauty and some others experience its pain. Humanity can do without looking spiders in the eye, or destroying an ant hill but learning from nature is necessary to our existence.
Learning from the experience of others can save us a great deal of effort. Had it not been for the invention of flight we would be still dependent on ships and the earth would be a larger world still. Still we need not be so dismal in our outlook as to, limit our mind to, think of ourselves as "hurling thorough the vastness of space aimlessly."
This world is all that we have let us make the best of it and if we can be kinder and gentler to the other denizens of this same "wet rock" without jeopardizing our existence let it be so. Nature is both beautiful and deadly, full of wonder-for some and a source of pain for others.