hUnter S. Thompson once said that to get to the truth, especially about something terrible, you have to “become subjective.” He was talking about his archenemy Richard Nixon, but it also applies to the horrific damage we are doing to our planet. Newspaper articles, charity reports, and activist speeches abound – all serious and objective, but somehow they fail to grasp the true meaning of what is lost in the natural world.
Perhaps that’s why novelists who write about environmental issues are such a compelling subgenre – they can’t help but allow the self to seep into their story. Arundhati Roy talks about the horrific impact of mega dam projects In India, Jonathan Safran Foer’s heartbreaking description of pregnant pigs in concrete sheds in eat animalsor Bruce Chatwin’s lyrics about the Australian outback in Song lines: Each does more to expand our environmental awareness than a thousand disjointed – but well-intentioned – research papers.
The last novelist to write about nature is Annie Proulxwho in Finn, spore & swamp It draws our attention to the largely unpopular wetlands that are being destroyed all over the world. Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson wrote that chopping down the rainforest to make money is like burning a priceless Renaissance painting to cook a meal. Proulx wants us to see wetland loss in the same way – and to appreciate the beauty in these often swampy and smelly places. Boy, do you succeed. The prose is just brilliant, bringing to life hitherto overlooked habitats as “primordial density of dark marsh waters and clumping algae,” where “black arms of sunken forests protrude from the water.”
Proulx has a particularly close affinity with people who live – or used to live – in the marshy hinterland between land and sea and who have a “deep identification” with the plants and animals around them. Born in rural Connecticut in 1935, she has a sense of what it was like to have that kind of tight connection to the environment: “It took root in a childhood when recognizing a sassafras bush by its gauntlet-shaped leaves was the feeling of finding a friend at the edge of the woods. “. Unfortunately in our urban age, very few children get that kind of prolonged contact with nature. She is particularly adept at describing the tides of estuarine waters that define these changing and unpredictable places, shaped by “continuous and deep currents of infinite change.”
Of course, Proulx has an outgrowth when it comes to writing about water. Her brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning novel Shipping News he is It is located largely on the coast of Newfoundland Ocean flows are almost a feature in themselves, ‘inducing growth, change, and coupling’. And in her memoirs of sorts, bird cloudit is the waters of the rivers that wash away the “large fluffy white carcasses” of swans released by ignorant hunters – another symbol of our broken relationship with nature.
Probably the most moving section in Finn, spore & swamp It is a picture of English venezes, largely destroyed from the 16th century onwards. Proulx evokes lost landscapes, teeming with eels, sturgeon, beavers, water rats, osprey and cranes and populated by unhappy people “rolling through the rain canopies, gazing at the multi-layered horizon, at the netting waves that hit the edge of the earth in storms.” But for all her grief over the destruction of our wetlands and what she calls the “atrocity of the present,” perhaps the most interesting thing about the book is her refusal to engage in the usual political debate between left and right.
Instead, Proulx makes a more difficult and troubling argument: that we are all, in our own way, complicit in the ecological depredation taking place around us. She doesn’t blame Donald Trump or Joe Biden—meat them with the Judeo-Christian belief that creation is made for humans, which means we can use the world as we wish: “The attitude of looking only to nature as something that can be exploited—without cooperative thanksgiving or appeasement sacrifices—is ingrained in Western cultures. “. It is this instrumental view of nature that means wetlands are happily drained to make land for agriculture, releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. (Proulx reveals the paradox that the destruction of our historic wetlands may be accelerating global warming, which in turn causes the waters to rise, thus creating more wetlands.)
Perhaps most important of all, the book targets the modern concept of ‘progress’ and ‘the arrogant idea that ‘now’, the time in which we live, trumps all previous times. Prolix discusses radical humility in the face of complex ecosystems that we cannot begin to understand, let alone replicate. Her view, a view shared by philosophers such as Karl Popper and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is that the web of life in which we are involved is too broad and too complex to be technocraticly “managed”.
Will we notice? Alas, I’m not so confident, and neither does Proluxe seem to be either of them: “The waters tremble at our insolence and it seems we will not change.”