By Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA
“As far as I can tell, this is mankind’s most honest cognitive project,” writes Nobel-prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk in her book Flights. Her subject is Wikipedia. She continues, “It is frank about the fact that all the information we have about the world comes straight out of our own heads.”
Sometimes she doubts the project: “After all, what it has can only be what we can put into words — what we have words for. And in that sense, it wouldn’t be able to hold everything at all.”
Tokarczuk’s sentiment echoed while reading Visualizing Nature: Essays on Truth, Spirit, and Philosophy, a svelte tome edited by Stuart Kestenbaum. The 21 authors included in the book also understand the limits of what can be put into words, particularly given the subject at hand. Bringing expertise as entomologist, landscape architect, farmer, and more, they variously contemplate themes within Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature to yield essays that consider topics such as climate change, racism, and the imprint of childhood landscapes on a psyche. Across the essays, there remains one constant: the authors’ moving human attempts to articulate the natural world knowingly can only go so far. But perhaps that is the point.
At the book’s beginning, Emerson is quoted: “Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word…I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.” In Kestenbaum’s view, the writers included in Visualizing Nature “continue to learn and speak this same language.” It is likely an infinite striving, and one that can never be fully articulated in our own dialects.
The essays touch on what each author experiences by nature, or in nature, a word defined in the last essay by Rachel Carson, as “the part of the world that man did not make.” Topics concern the intersection of the personal and the natural world: nature as balm, nature as escape, nature as ancestral connection. They probe nature as joy and mystery, as provocateur of sorrow, as prompt for action.
It’s a subject matter that could easily veer saccharine, though most essays do not. Rather than letting romanticized nature obscure daily realities, as nature writing can easily do, many authors use nature to address them. Journalist Juan Michael Porter II writes of the freedom he finds in nature, a freedom absent from New York City, which is hampered by “strictures of decorum and race.” Even if nature’s “invitation to breathe freely…is constantly challenged by those who refuse to see me beyond the fear that they project onto Black men,” he remains grateful. Nature, after all, doesn’t take sides. “Nature cannot protect me,” Porter writes, “but nor will it deny me my divine right to its bounty.”
Others write about the transformative powers of nature. Thomas Woltz, FASLA, owner of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, likens the evolution of friendships to the fluid, aqueous geographic contexts that he finds himself in, both in work and life.
Maulian Dana, the Tribal Ambassador for the Penobscot Nation in Maine, writes about her first time sitting in a sweat lodge, an experience of rebirth for tribal members like herself. “The sweat lodge taught me how to be a mother because it brought me face-to-face with parts of myself that needed to learn and suffer in order to be worthy and closer to my mother, the earth.”
Many authors discuss observation of nature. Whatever shortcomings our language may have in face of the natural world, it’s also a form of observation that gives us agency: “The specificity of such [nature] language empowers more detailed seeing of particulars in the dense wild,” notes writer Kim Stafford. She mourns the loss of words like nectar and kingfisher from the dictionary to make room for attachment and bullet point. She points to the language of Hawaii, which employs not merely rain and drizzle and downpour, but words for “fine light rain, bitter rain of grief, rainbow-hued rain, light-moving rain, and lunar rainbow.” For Stafford, language becomes a way to “make peace” with the earth, and to restore “our buoyancy daily.”
The essays themselves might facilitate that. They are short, a few pages each, and the book makes for a tranquil read despite its myriad serious topics. Words may have limits, but that should serve most saliently to move the reader from the page to the outdoors, reminding us of nature’s power over us and the responsibility we have to it. As Carson entreats, “Go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before.”