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Exploring The Meaning Of Nature Is Quite A Head Trip

By Gregory McNamee

Terra Nova: Nature & Culture, Vol. 4, edited by David Rothenberg (MIT Press). Quarterly Journal, $9.

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  WHAT IS NATURE? A philosopher of a certain bent, contrasting nature with culture, its classically paired opposite, might answer that nature is the realm of being that happens independently of human consciousness, the realm in which trees falling in the forest make a mighty crash whether we are there to hear them or not. Another might reasonably reply that because we are animals, creatures of nature, consciousness and nature are inseparable. And still another, inclined to urban values in the manner of, say, Roland Barthes, might opine that nature is what lies under the concrete outside our car doors.

David Rothenberg, a professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, offers no ready definitions of nature. However, he has some interesting ideas of how to approach it--ideas that he airs in Terra Nova, a relatively new quarterly journal of which he is the editor. "Everything that connects humanity to the world that surrounds us brings the mind closer to nature," Rothenberg writes in the inaugural issue. "Connections between humanity and nature are far more diverse, mysterious, and confusing than most ecological writing has been willing to admit."

Rothenberg is right: Nature writing, as it is practiced in this country, tends to equate nature with the wild; and to contrast it with another classically paired opposite--namely, that matrix of human mores, institutions, and artifacts we call civilization. In that view, the ice on Walden Pond is nature, while the ice in John Cheever's cocktail glass is not. It may be one and the same ice, as any Zen master will gladly point out, but no matter: The one belongs in Audubon, the other in The New Yorker.

Rothenberg's aim, it seems, is to soften the distinctions between wild nature and culture, between what the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called "the raw and the cooked." The contributors to his journal are happy to oblige him. In the just-published fourth issue, for instance, sculptor Barnet Schecter writes charmingly of community gardens as places that "defy Western literary conventions and cultural myths about the opposition of the country and the city," suggesting that those gardens constitute a third space that partakes of both. And in the third issue, the eminent translator and literary scholar Roger Shattuck gently observes, "Nature includes us, and we share it imperfectly with one another through perception, action, memory, language, love, and wonder." Nature, in short, is everything in our world, from the Intel chip to the intelligence of evolution.

The well-illustrated quarterly has found a niche, to borrow a metaphor from ecology, in a field heavily populated by more narrowly specialized journals. It stands somewhere between Orion on the literary front, Environmental Ethics on the academic, and the sadly departed Wilderness on the political. Its editorial board is made up of university professors in fields like philosophy and literature, but also of working writers like Terry Tempest Williams, who's lately brought so much personal vigor to the nature essay; and Eliot Weinberger, the New York-based translator of Octavio Paz and a fine essayist in his own right.

Terra Nova's content is similarly centrifugal, offering poems, essays, memoirs, and scholarly articles that wouldn't easily find a home in more conventional outlets. (Among these contributions are two by Tucsonans: essays by Gary Paul Nabhan and Charles Bowden.) Of the many outstanding pieces in the first year's issues, I especially liked Australian philosopher Val Plumwood's thoughtful memoir of being attacked by a crocodile; David Rothenberg's meditation on the ubiquity of nature in the world of multimedia (he points to the ongoing storytelling project at http://www.xs4all.nl/~estory as an example); poet Margaret Young's reminiscence of a not especially appealing meal with long-lost family; and television producer Ted Perry's account of how his free adaptation of a free translation of a Native American text became Chief Seattle's famous speech on the sanctity of the Earth--an inauthentic, but still oft-quoted, touchstone of environmental thought.

Were it in my power to do so, I would also award a special prize for ambition to Jan Zwicky's long essay, spread out over two issues, on the poetics of fellow Canadian writer Robert Bringhurst--an essay that sails off into a learned examination of pre-Socratic environmental ethics, among many other topics. "The ability to think lyrically," Zwicky writes in a fine epigrammatic turn, "is a precondition for sound ecological thought." Hers is a richly lyrical piece indeed.

Cheerfully diverse, full of new voices and new approaches to nature and culture, Terra Nova promises to become an influential journal of contemporary environmental writing. It may even help us define just what we mean by those slippery terms.

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