THE USES OF NATURE
by Nathaniel Popkin
by Antonio Moresco, translated by Richard Dixon
Archipelago Books, 153 pages
by Edward O. Wilson
Liveright, 212 pages
Twilight, the sky bruises. The land is pink. Last summer’s bergamot, gone stiff, like coral, perforates the field. Underfoot, the earth is plush. I say to Peter, as we walk in step, “If there was a house here, we could sit on the porch and watch our grandchildren play Civil War.” This is a perverse notion, meant to tickle. The land insists.
In the 1960s government planners drew up plans to dam the Delaware River and flood this valley to ensure a clean water supply for Philadelphia and New York City. They named the project the Tocks Island Dam, and envisioned a large recreation area all around it, “Central Park for Megalopolis.” They drew in spaces for 50,000 cars.
Peter has spent years studying the liberal-minded projects, like the Tocks Island Dam, that shaped the northeast corridor in the decades after World War II. We’ve come to the area to stay at a stone house my wife’s family owns a few miles from the valley where we’re walking, so that he can advance an article on another post-War dream, Adirondacks Park in New York, and I can revise a novel. Our walk is a reward for a day of writing.
We crest the hill like soldiers. Beyond the dormant bergamot and the false onion and the goldenrod: a fence, mostly plumb, and the buildings of a ruined farm, retreating. Razor grass tall as a scarecrow slices through the crackled windows of the farmhand’s house. Below the steep pitch of the roof, white paint dances off the clapboard, flickers to the ground. There is no door.
The house is empty but for its structural mass, filling the space between two trees. The grass here, brown in early winter and wet, props up a newspaper page, as if holding it aloft from the moldering earth. Who has left it, and when were they here? The paper is as clean and readable as the day it was printed, June 23, 1992. Or, as it says on the top margin: Mardi 23 Juin 1992. The paper, published in Paris, is La Figaro. The ruined farm, with its stone main house built in 1822, is in Walpack, New Jersey. Its owners abandoned it in the when the U.S. government condemned farms along the Delaware River to build the Tocks Island Dam.
We can’t comprehend the appearance of the newspaper, from another place and another time. The paper has barely yellowed. I photograph it, but leave it in place, as if it’s a sacred object. 1992 puts in mind Bill Clinton and I start humming “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” No one else is here.
The magic of discovery presses against the melancholy of the ruins. We are like a pair of naturalists who’ve discovered a lost link in the evolutionary chain, a last survivor of a species thought extinct. Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, in his new book, Half-Earth, calls this the “Lord God moment.” We find a wooden trunk with “A.H. Whetstone” and her address thick-inked by a nineteenth century hand, a plastic portable church organ keyboard in the springhouse, a carpet of rust growing on a Zenith turntable tangled in the weeds outside. Water rushes through the handsome stone channel of the spring. The farmers must have dammed the creek to build the channel. When it was finished, they let the water loose, yet no longer wild. Now, it escapes unseen into the valley.
Large dams are one reason that rivers and creeks are the most fragile of ecosystems, according to Wilson in Half-Earth. On July 19, 1992, twenty-six days after the Le Figaro at my feet was put out the U.S. Congress formally revoked plans to build the Tocks Island Dam. Some 62,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land along the Delaware River (and the river itself) were saved—and to the consternation of the farmers and families who had lived there for generations, and whose land was condemned, the area would remain a park, though not for active recreation as originally envisioned, under federal government control.
The people mostly gone from the valley , nature has surged ahead, digesting the roadways and wells, outhouses and barns and bridges and campgrounds. Macadam slides loose under Joe Pye weed and false olive trees and thistle. Over the years, drawn to this in-between state, I have seen azure birds here and the citrine tropical goldfinch and eagle pairs, and black bears and turtles, and I have walked through creeks thick with pollen and fragrant of stamen, pulsing with “blind and relentless torsion.”
I quote from the Italian writer Antonio Moresco, whose 2013 novel Lucina has been translated into English by Richard Dixon and brought out in the U.S. this month as Distant Light. I read the novel, which takes place in an abandoned Italian mountain village, after my walk with Peter through the ruins of the Shoemaker farm. Distant Light is a meditation on the in-between state of existence, of death present in the living and the living in death. Like several other works released this spring, including Wilson’s Half-Earth, and the novels Hill, by Jean Giono, and Everything I Found on the Beach, by the brilliant young Welsh writer Cynan Jones, Distant Light, with its alluring, otherworldly metaphor, helps us reflect on the place of nature in our lives.
Wilson leads the reader into his classic work of naturalist philosophy, Biophilia, published in 1984, by describing the experience of entering a forest in Surinam, as if, like Moresco’s unnamed narrator-protagonist, drawn to light, into another world. “In a twist my mind came free and I was aware of the hard workings of the natural world beyond the periphery of ordinary attention,” he writes,
where passions lose their meaning and history is in another dimension, without people, and great events pass without record or judgment. I was a transient of no consequence in this familiar yet deeply alien world that I had come to love.
Since that 1960s field study, the entomologist has spent nearly six more decades immersed in nature. He sees human history as inextricably connected to the much longer biological history of the earth and yet he’s conscious of man’s latent power. As a practical matter, it’s just better if—aside from field biologists like himself—we stay away, let nature be nature, at least for the world’s most sensitive biospheres. Moresco, from an opposite tact (his narrator’s life is fading), imagines flora and fauna taking back the planet after humans “have disappeared from the face of this little planet lost in the galaxies.” Giono, whose startling novels immersed in the pre-modern world of rural Provence are just now reaching contemporary English readers, imagines his peasant characters in constant dialogue with unpredictable nature, which even in the most benign circumstance is close at hand. A similar claustrophobia inhabits the fog gray Wales that Jones has created in Everything I Found at the Beach and his earlier The Dig, where to survive people must get their hands dirty. In Jones’s Wales, nature exploited for man is profit for some, subsistence, or worse, for most others.
All three of these novels are economical, entrancing, and penetrating, but none is as meditative as Distant Light. Here, Moresco’s narrator has taken residence in an otherwise vacant village, the stone houses overwhelmed by “savage undergrowth,”
and these thousands and thousands of plant forms that grasp and fight each other, thousands and thousands of rootlets and thousands of other forms urged on by their chemical turgidity, still formless, which then erupt like armies from the ground with their naked bodies still devoid of bark, devise their first mechanisms for respiration and metabolism with the air and start to climb upward in a furious and mute tangle of forms born from seeds carried by the wind or by other missiles that proliferate in the rotting stomach of the world and begin their struggle to move upward, toward the light.
The houses in a village like this one, for I imagine in reading this hypnotic novel the hand sewn paeselli of the Alps, with their gravel lanes and rough-chiseled roof slates, and ghost-like people (a man, back-turned, with a cane), nestle into terraces as if edging back to the womb.
Death and dormancy are integral to the living earth, Moresco says with a landscape of metaphor. In winter, bats sleep in the morning inside the ruins of a house, other animals claw inside the earth for warmth, and the trees strip bare. “There’s no longer any distinction between the living and the dead.”
Moresco’s attentive prose is like a lens focusing and retracting, focusing and retracting on subjects at work in this verdant limbo: a badger trying to cross to the other side of the road, a dog that follows at a careful distance, a boy obsessively attentive to domestic chores who seems to live in past and present, a vine that starts growing in the air, “and then sprouts forth as tiny plant structures seeking life and seeking death.” Moresco wishes to account for the in-between of the abandoned village, dead as we would think of it, alive with nature’s tendrils.
I draw on an image of a particular village, maybe Puys or maybe Castello in the Val Varaita near France, immortalized in a family photo album from 2009, where nature is reclaiming what man has given up. This mythic process may be what E.O. Wilson imagines when he argues, in Half-Earth, that to save the earth, man should head in retreat.
Wilson is the leading expert on ants. Over the years he has brought to light 450 new species of them. He won a Pulitzer Prize, in 1991, for The Ants, which describes their intricate societies, and brought out a novel, in 2010, called Anthill, and this deep emersion gives him extraordinary authority on matters of nature. Life on earth, to Wilson, isn’t “blind,” as Moresco’s narrator sees it, but filled with purpose and reason; complexity isn’t chaos, even in the deep ocean biosphere, even among microbes.
All organisms exist together, he explains in Half-Earth’s translucent prose, in the biosphere: “all the plants, animals, algae, fungi, and microbes alive as you read this sentence.” Each is protected by the whole. But human beings are eviscerating that shield. The dominant narrative regarding nature, then, isn’t the Alpine surge that unsettles Moresco’s protagonist but its opposite, people overwhelming the very nature that sustains human life. Humans, “the most destructive species in the history of life,” have raised extinction rates 100 to 1,000 percent. “What will happen if, in addition to the species already extinguished by human activity,” Wilson asks,
say, 10 percent of those remaining are taken away? Or 50 percent? Or 90 percent? As more and more species vanish or drop to near extinction, the rate of extinction of the survivors accelerates…As extinction mounts, biodiversity reaches a tipping point at which the ecosystem collapses.
Wilson is a discursive writer; as he reveals discoveries of nature, he reflects on the scientist’s role in the discovery, and its meaning. This consciousness separates his writing from standard science, edging it at times toward dogma, at times toward poetry. In Half-Earth, Wilson asserts dogma and the book is a kind of manifesto. To make his argument, aside from drawing on deep lessons from a lifetime of study of the natural world, he sets up an opposing theory perpetrated by so-called “Anthropocene enthusiasts,” who believe that humans, now the earth’s dominant force, should accept that nature is dead and use what’s left for our benefit.
Wilson hates this philosophy because it’s disingenuous, so manifestly anthropocentric that it discounts the billions of years of natural history in favor of the tiny era of man. Across several chapters he eviscerates the provincialism of Anthropocene theorists, whose worldview is dry, practical, and technical and who imagine everything on earth as a commodity. Forget nature’s fierce power, forget its wonder and mystery.
That dry world—though in the Welsh landscape exceedingly wet—is the terra cognita of Cynan Jones’s novel, which centers on two men, Hold and Grzegorz, whose lives creep toward each other like the hungry roots of neighboring trees. To make a living, Hold traps fish and shellfish and kills game; Grzegorz, along with other exiled Poles, labors in a massive slaughterhouse, blood drying under his fingernails. Jones strips his prose to the heartbeat minimum. Its plaintive nudity is like the sea itself, so present in this novel, “like some broken metronome for the earth.” Inside the slaughterhouse, where 25,000 sheep go to perish each week, bedraggled men like Grzegorz stand over the animals as they are killed by electric shock. “The first metal plate rose up onto the animal’s nose and it seemed to sit down and crumple, as if it had chosen to rest for a while. Then the second plate came up onto the animal’s chest and the cow shook for a few seconds then went still,” writes Jones.
It was the strange, detached process of the electricity that Grzegorz could not get used to, the passivity of the whole thing. Then the side door of the pen slid up and the animal fell on its side and rolled out onto the counter in front of him.
Having realized that running the family farm in Poland is a dead-end, Grzegorz has brought his wife and son to Wales, and now, as the novel begins, they have another boy. “We want more now,” he says, “we can’t be happy living the old way any more.” Abandoning the old way means distance from nature and distance means commodification.
Jones seems preternaturally aware of the relentless power of the quiet urge, like Grzegorz’s, particularly as it gestates inside the gut of a man. A similar insistent peck strikes at Hold, too, who declares to himself a responsibility for Cara, the wife of his late best friend, Danny, and their son Jake. He will be their savior.
Grzegorz and Hold’s desires aren’t extravagant. These are decent, humble, flawed men, who understand nature’s power: To live with nature you must control it lest it destroy you. And yet to reach their modest goals they must give full obeisance to the Anthropocene viewpoint, amoral in its willingness to throw life away. Grzegorz will be punished, and his life undone, for bringing home scrap meat.
Anthropocene theorists, at least in Wilson’s view, would say that nature itself is fundamentally amoral; it throws away what it doesn’t need. We need not hand-wring over it. You either eat or get eaten. Nature’s power is arbitrary, anyway. You better take what you can.
I want to leave Jones’s artfully devised plot here with the simple observation that commodification is dangerous indeed. If a cow can be zapped with a flick of a switch, why not a man?
The day after our walk to the abandoned Shoemaker farm, Peter and I set out for the Woods Road, a gravel and dirt path strung between our house and the wide valley that almost became a dam. Snow dusts the trail and the hemlock branches as if put there by Wes Anderson’s prop team. The sun is a distant amber light at the end.
The temperature has dropped, but there is no wind. I make up stories about the South of France, terre Provence, where Jean Giono immortalized a now-vanished people (villages like the one in Distant Light left to crumble), and Peter says I have a vivid imagination. We walk, oblivious to the cold. The amber light fades. I have a photo of this moment, with the trees on either side of the trail reaching up like the arms of magic dancers moving in time with a silent drum.
The life of Antonio Moresco’s protagonist, like the fading light in front of us, begins to dim toward the end of his novel. “I spent a long time looking,” he says, “as soon as it was dark, to see if I could still spot the little light. But I couldn’t see anything. I can’t see anything, only the soft gleam of the snow illuminated by the celestial vault that covers everything in the deepest darkness.”
The next photo on my phone gazes above the tree line and there is the moon, brighter than the sun, a new, secondary light. Yet we’re unused to the woods at night. We tense up wishing we understood the rhythms. On the cusp of a life-changing discovery, Cynan Jones’s character Hold stands at the edge of the Celtic Sea. “Just from the sound he knew how the breakers would look, moving up from the fluid sea as if great boastful shoulders were beneath them, then crushing down,” Jones writes.
It was like a wrestler throwing someone. It was as if Hold acknowledged those thuds somewhere inside him, like acknowledging a stronger man.
Once, after we’ve turned around on the Woods Road back toward home, there is a yelp. But we are hopeless with animal sounds. We wait for another yelp, but it doesn’t come. The moonlight finds our faces and finds the branches. We want to feel in sync with nature. We want to feed from its power and its mystery.
Born in 1895, in the Haute Provence village of Manosque, Jean Giono wrote some fifty books, mostly novels that derive their power from the mystical, yet entirely sentient, place of nature in Provençal life. “We made a meal of grass and night,” he writes in his distinctive voice, merging the human and the earthly, in The Serpent of Stars, a novel put out last year in new English translation. Hill, originally published in 1929, was his first novel. In this passage, in Paul Eprile’s fine translation, Giono seems to speak to Jones and, indeed, Moresco:
In a single leap the sun clears the crest of the horizon. It enters the sky like a wrestler, atop its undulating arms of fire.
The rising sun brings with it, on its shoulders, a raging wildfire that forces the villagers of this fictional Manosque to confront their relationship to the earth. The most assertive villager is Alexandre Jaume. The fire, he tells the other men of the village, is “going to jump on our backs from someplace we’re not expecting, and, right away, we’ll have to put our best front forward and get our arms moving. Who’ll win? We will.”
To win means maintaining the familiar accord with nature: “trees, plants, animals—from the grasshopper, to the wild boar—and it’s all part of this truly solid world.” To lose means being forced to acknowledge another way, the necessity of modernity, a distancing from the natural world. The next seventy pages move with Jaume and the others’ empirical terror and Giono’s soft whisper, a man wet lipped, a pipe dangling. The fire is like a decisive battle. We live with the consequences.
In his introduction to Hill, the cultural ecologist David Abram, director of the Alliance for Wild Ethics, notes that “Giono’s insights into the consequences of a way of life that elevates itself above the rest of nature, and his insights regarding the contours of a truly ecological culture, hold vital clues for our contemporary situation.” Like E.O. Wilson, Giono sees redemption not from mastery of the world, but rather in respect and instinctual love. Giono—all of these writers—show us the way. “The scents of honeysuckle and gorse waft through in big waves,” he writes. “…what good does it do to worry about what the earth is getting up to? She does whatever she wants. She’s old enough to mind her own business, and she goes about it at her own pace.”
The next morning, Peter is already up and working when I grind the coffee and gaze out the large plate glass window to the lake and the hill beyond. Overnight has brought the first deep cold of the winter and the thermometer reads near zero; the window frames a cross section of earth and sky: white, gray, silver, navy, slate, coffee brown, gray-brown, evergreen, and blue. All the colors are mute. Silence infects the morning. The sun will be a while crawling around the hill.
A paper for a scholarly journal, such as the one Peter is writing, demands clarity of argument. The author must lay things out in no uncertain terms: this is what I will show and how I will show it, based on evidence. Peter’s intellect sees complications and contradictions in human endeavor; in the creation of Adirondacks Park, as in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, questions of private property rights and public sector ambition collide almost endlessly across families, municipal councils, and state agencies, people grappling with their own intensely personal visions of nature. Peter moves chunks of text in order to refine his lines of argument.
I feed the giant stone hearth thick logs from the stack. In four days I too have refined my text. An editor who I had asked to read the manuscript insisted I rework sections of dialogue that sounded too pat. “People don’t really sound like that,” she had said and I dug deep inside myself in search of authentic voice. Now, tugging at logs frozen together in the outside stack, I recognize a season of uncertainty is coming: submissions then silence and resignation. The woodsmoke from the hearth tries to tell us that all things are right, even as we recognize our limitations as humans and the consequences of burning such inefficient, unclean fuel.
Cleaver fiction review editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of three books, including the 2013 novel Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and senior writer of “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” an Emmy award-winning documentary series. His essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and Fanzine.
Photo credits: Nathaniel Popkin