The New Earth Reader: The Best of Terra Nova, Eds. David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus
“The trick is to tell stories so you’re not the center, so the place is in the center not the place you come from, but the place you will go. The wild, the center of your unease, urges you to move on.” David Rothenberg (231).
For years, Terra Nova set the standard for elegant, incisive, and beautifully written and formatted “nature writing.” Although no longer published as a quarterly journal, its editors continue to issue special book volumes on important issues like energy and wonderfully diffuse topics such as “air” and “water” that encourage rhapsodic and metaphysical speculations on the natural environment. Since its inception the journal has subverted boundaries among different types of writing and has brought together various styles and genres including fiction, poetry, journalism, essays, photography, and art. Some of these diverse perspectives are “political, some deeply “personal”; typically, they shed light on the continuum of natural and social evolution.
As this volume offers the “best of” the journal’s writings, one can expect paradigmatic selections that highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the journal. David Rothenberg begins and ends the book with brief essays summarizing the Terra Nova perspective. Rothenberg articulates a two-fold postmodern epistemological skepticism. First, he claims that the complexity of nature itself always exceeds our possible understanding of its intricate relations and processes, such that “There is more to the world than any of us can ever know” (xi). This stands as a strong counter to the hubris of modern science that sees nature as a collection of facts to be mastered and a process amenable to complete manipulation and control. Second, he refuses clear or easy “answers “ or “solutions” to the planetary environmental crisis unfolding around us on similar grounds that issues are too complex and the possible perspectives on the problems too numerous to untangle unambiguously.
Rothenberg’s approach encourages pluralism and allows a multiplicity of voices to be heard, represented in a cornucopia of styles. The potential problem with such an approach, however, is that it can legitimate the inscrutable at a time when strong visions are needed, positions that are stated as clearly and forcibly as possible. Moreover, the skeptical approach invites indulgence in the metaphysical and the personal when more political and social-oriented responses are needed. Thus, not surprisingly, in a move reminiscent of the Earth First! Line that ecology is “neither Left nor Right,” only “in front,” Rothenberg depoliticizes the project of “nature writing”: “the affinity for nature is not a single point on the left-right political scale; it is a deeper cultural tendency that will not go away” (xi).
The “tendency” here seems to be toward a “deep ecology” approach, an outlook plagued with numerous problems such as diagnosed by Murray Bookchin, Tim Luke, and others. Indeed, with one possible exception, there are no overtly “political” contributions to this anthology, compromised mostly of personal experiences. These can be highly valuable in the insights they yield, but it is also important to draw linkages to the social and political realm of experience if needed changes in the social and natural environments are to made. But The New Earth Reader stubbornly refuses this move to bask in the mysterious and oblique.
The main strength of the book is to showcase how beautiful, poignant, and stirring “nature writing” can be and, in contrast, how execrable and facile academic jargon and theoryspeak is. D.L. Pughe’s selection “From A Philosophy of Clean,” for example, offers a gorgeous paean to everyday life combined with meditations on human alienation from nature and the arbitrariness of hierarchies of all kinds. A wondrous phenomenology of the ordinary from the perspective of a maid, Pughe says more worthwhile things phenomenologically in a few pages that 20th century philosopher Edmund Husserl could do in volumes of turgid prose. The piece has the effect of alerting one to the mundane yet wonderful things in one’s everyday environment and experiences, as it gives some indication of how to live authentically in everyday life, attentive to details, subtleties, and memories.
The more explicitly political end of the spectrum of writing is represented well in Bikram Narayan Nanda and Mohammad Talib’s essay, “Power, Protest, and Factory Fumes.” The authors chronicle the life of an Indian man as he leaves his village life for a job in a modernized sector of his country where he encounters the vicious exploitative practices of capitalism. His journey from one world to the other is embodied in the shift in the meaning of smoke that once symbolized for him food and family but became an icon of the polluting waste products of a social system organized around economic not human values.
Charles Bowden’s “Tuna Country” is a lush and compelling literary reflection on serial killing of young women in Juarez, Mexico that vividly portrays the desperate lives of people trapped in the strip bars, maquiladoras, and colonias of the largest U.S.-Mexico border city complex. The narrator’s experiences of eating, drinking, and searching for a story contrast boldly with the trafficking in people, drugs, and murder he describes in journalistic tones. Marian Kawall Leal Ferreira’s “silver fragments of broken mirrors” is a haunting reflection by an anthropologist on mirrors, their relationship to subjectivity and self-consciousness, and the identity of shaman Sabino and the Kayabi people of Central Brazil. Mirrors are complex symbols of identity and self-consciousness, of sameness and otherness, of trickery and deception, of gazing and surveillance. They embody a Western vision-centered ontology of knowledge through representation; and broken mirrors evoke fragmented subjectivities and meanings.
Rick Bass’s “romania” describes how Nicolae Ceausescu’s loved to hunt bears and other animals in addition to torturing people. Bass’s essay chronicles how he and biologist Peter Weber searched for bears in the forests of Romania, and how Weber was humanist enough to have difficulty admitting what Bass knows to be an important truth: “Bears are intelligent. Bears have feelings” (149). Bass debunks the myth that bears are anti-social creatures, a myth that simplifies their psychological complexity and thereby facilitates the destruction of their habitat and exploitation.
In “Me and Mom and the Bioregion,” Jerry Martien writes poignantly about his mother’s fading mind and his life on a beach house in Chicken Beach, California. The essay is about caring, for people and nature, as the author grounds himself in a bioregionalist perspective that describes daily living in and through one’s natural environment and rootedness to a given locality. Marien tries to redeem the “bioregionalist” term from its appropriation by “the usual reality-starved yuppies and New Agers shopping for an identity” (201). Connected to land, to place, is illuminating: “We are in something much larger than us. It is arrogant to think we will `save’ what we can hardly imagine” (205), suggesting that ecology needs a deep or bioregional component.
Unquestionably, the most dramatic piece of the volume is Val Plumwood’s “Being Prey,” which narrates the author’s near-fatal encounter with a crocodile in 1985. No greater ontological shift can be imagined when the human, which prides itself on being a top predator, becomes prey. Plumwood notes how the media tried to sensationalize an sexualize her story in terms of mythic narrative coded in terms of monsters, rape, and “Crocodile Blondee” tropes, but she struggles to recuperate far more subtle meanings form it. These are rescued in her ruminations about the differences between dualistic Western views of selfhood and death and those of Australian aboriginal cultures that link plants, animals, and humans in a common life force. “Crocodile predation on humans threatens the dualistic vision of human mastery of the planet in which we are predators but can never ourselves be prey. We may daily consume other animals in the billions, but we ourselves cannot be food for worms and certainly not, meat for crocodiles” (88). Plumwood states she is a vegetarian, and explores some senses in which “ethical eating may not always exclude the taking of life” (89). Nevertheless, she condemns “Western society with its factory farming and commodifed relationships to food” (90) and rigid predator (human)/prey (animals) mentality devoid of respect for living beings and processes. Plumwood learned many personal lessons from her encounter, but it reinforced a key philosophical conclusion that deconstructs rigid oppositions that separate humanity from its natural world, elevating us to God-like rational masters of a passive and malleable nature, and force us to see our vulnerability and relatedness to the earth. “Let us hope that it does not take a similar near-death experience to instruct our culture in [this] wisdom” (91).
As Pughe’s essay shows, a similar epiphany can be prompted by more subtle experiences, such as an encounter with a hummingbird. But not every contribution to the “best of Terra Nova” exemplifies such wisdom and insight. Ray Isle’s “Wild Turkey” is the weakest piece in the volume, coming across offensively as a juvenile ranting of an Austin, Texas slacker who’s concept of a good time is getting drunk and trying to stone a turkey (hence the title’s pun). Worse, Gary Nabhan exults in the gratuitous killing and eating of a raven in the disrespectfully titled “If the Raven Should Croak before I Wake.” Similarly, killing insects is part of the theme in John Ferris’ “Parlor Game,” as Ferris describes his capture of an exotic insect as an aesthetic object for his own objectifying gaze. Some pieces, such as John P. O’ Grady’s essay on the fabled robber who allegedly escaped by jumping out of airliner are weak, uninteresting, and misplaced. C. T. Lawrence’s “Light” exemplifies the more literary side of the volume, but ultimately adds little substance to the conversation. Rotherberg’s interviews with screenwriter Ted Perry (author of the famous speech commonly attributed to Chief Seattle), virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, and filmmaker Errol Norris, are interesting, but do not always seems pertinent enough to his topic to seem justified for inclusion in a “best of” anthology.
Rothenberg concludes the book with a lamentation for the vanishing of wild things but, in line with his epistemological position, offers no solutions for this mother of all problems except to enjoin the reader “to make unfamiliar foods of the sand and create a life out of a whole, new empty ecology” (233). If these are meant to be comforting words, they could only aid a privileged class with the time and wherewithal to refashion nature in some meaningful sense. The rest of the world is either trying to survive amidst a “desert” of material lack and pollution, or struggling to come up with more substantive visions of change that offer more social diagnoses and solutions.