Nature and the Mind

from: Scott Slovic. "Nature Writing and Environmental Psychology." The Ecocriticism Readers: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, Eds. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1996. 351-370.


Sharon Cameron has suggested that "to write about nature is to write about how the mind sees nature, and sometimes about how the mind sees itself" (44). I believe this statement holds true not only for Henry David Thoreau, to whom Cameron is referring specifically in her book Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau's Journal (1985), but also for many of Thoreau's followers in the tradition of American nature writing. Such writers as Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, and Barry Lopez are not merely, or even primarily, analysts of nature or appreciators of nature -- rather, they are students of the human mind, literary psychologists. And their chief preoccupation, I would argue, is with the psychological phenomenon of "awareness." Thoreau writes in the second chapter of Walden (1854) that "We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake" (90). But in order to achieve heightened attentiveness to our place in the natural world -- attentiveness to our very existence -- we must understand something about the workings of the mind.

<352>Nature writers are constantly probing, traumatizing, thrilling, and soothing their own minds -- and by extension those of their readers -- in quest not only of consciousness itself, but of an understanding of consciousness. Their descriptions of this exalted mental condition tend to be variable and elusive, their terminologies more suggestive than definitive. Thoreau himself (drawing upon classical sources and daily cycles for his imagery) favors the notion of "awakening"; Dillard and Abbey use the word "awareness" to describe this state, though for Dillard such activities as "seeing" and "stalking" are also metaphors for stimulated consciousness; Berry, at least in his major essay "The Long-Legged House" (1969), emphasizes "watchfulness" as a condition of profound alertness; and for Lopez, two complementary modes of "understanding" natural places, the "mathematical" and especially the "particularized" (or experiential), serve as keys to mental elevation.

Both nature and writing (the former being an external presence, the latter a process of verbalizing personal experience) demand and contribute to an author's awareness of self and non-self. By confronting "face to face" the separate realm of nature, by becoming aware of its "otherness," the writer implicitly becomes more deeply aware of his or her own dimensions, limitations of form and understanding, and processes of grappling with the unknown. Many literary naturalists imitate the notebooks of scientific naturalists, the logbooks of explorers, or even the journals of nonscientific travelers in order to entrench themselves in the specific moment of experience. The verbalization of observations and reactions makes one much more acutely aware than would a more passive assimilation of experience. As Annie Dillard bluntly puts it in describing one of her two principal modes of awareness, "Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won't see it" (Pilgrim, 30).

Giles Gunn writes that "Modern man tends to view the encounter with 'otherness' . . . as a mode of access to possibilities of change and development within the self and the self's relation to whatever is experienced as 'other'." We associate "reality," he continues, "with the process by which we respond to [other worlds'] imagined incursions from 'beyond' and then attempt to readjust and redefine ourselves as a consequence" (Interpretation of Otherness, 188). The facile sense of harmony, even identity, with one's surroundings (a condition often ascribed to rhapsodic nature writing) would fail to produce self-awareness of any depth or vividness. . . .

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Document created February 27th 2003