It’s a phrase that fascinated using only three words. “Ecology without nature.” It’s the title of a book by Timothy Morton, and refers to the romantic notion of nature that infuses much of our ecological thinking. It’s nature as it appeared before the fall, before the apple was bitten by reality. Not nature as it was formed in the crucible of Darwin’s natural selection, but rather as the dream of a machine spinning along in perfect balance. Human beings, somehow standing on the outside, have upset that balance.
I’m reminded of poet Robert Haas’s story about Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. Haas was organizing a benefit for some nature organization. He wanted Milosz to read and tried to play on what he thought was Milosz’s love of nature. Milosz starred blankly. “Nature? Nature terrifies me.” Confused Haas reels off a list of sunsets, forests, sparkling rivers, night skies and rolling hills. Milosz nodded. “Ah…you mean beauty. There’s a huge difference.”
For Morton, ecology must be thought through a democracy of objects. Humans, fish, plastic bags, trees, snow tires and bongos all live and work within the same flat ontology. At every scale, we’re all in this together, human being isn’t privileged, rather it is one being among many. Gary Snyder comes at the question from another direction. He engages in what he calls the practice of the wild. The poet tells us how nature calls nature:
“It would appear that the common conception of evolution is that of competing species running a sort of race through time on planet earth, all on the same running field, some dropping out, some flagging, some victoriously in front. If the background and foreground are reversed, and we look at it from the side of the ‘conditions’ and their creative possibilities, we can see these multitudes of interactions through hundreds of other eyes. We could say a food brings a form into existence. Huckleberries and salmon call for bears, the clouds of plankton of the North Pacific call for salmon, and salmon call for seals and thus orcas. The Sperm Whale is sucked into existence by the pulsing, fluctuating pastures of squid, and the open niches of the Galapagos Islands sucked a diversity of bird forms and function out of one line of finch.”
Sometimes it takes a while before we can hear a poet speak. This may be the decade that we hear Gary Snyder.
Ripples on the Surface
by Gary Snyder
“Ripples on the surface of the water—
were silver salmon passing under—different
from the ripples caused by breezes”
A scudding plume on the wave—
a humpback whale is
breaking out in air up
—Nature not a book, but a performance, a
high old culture
scraped out, rubbed out, and used, again—
the braided channels of the rivers
hidden under fields of grass—
The vast wild
the house, alone
The little house in the wild,
the wild in the house
Both together, one big empty house.