Tag Archives: Nature

Nuclear Patoralism: Alina Bronskys “Baba Dunja’s Last Love”

One of the earliest television news pieces I can recall watching is Steve Kroft’s visit to the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant for a 60 Minutes segment in 1989. A few clips are available here. The piece was possibly the first entry in a larger corpus of media documenting the ruination of the region’s former human settlements. I remember being struck by the strange beauty of the images in the broadcast: the depopulated stretches of landscapes leading up to the site, the empty streets of the city, and strange forms in the building itself, particularly the so-called “Elephant’s Foot.”

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the explosion. The expansion of the internet in the de9783462048025cades since has meant that one need not wait on Steve Kroft to do another Chernobyl follow-up in order to see how far Pripyat has succumbed to the forces of nature. Late 20th and early 21st media have allegedly already reduced the melancholy intellectual pastime of contemplating ruins to “ruin porn,” and ruins in the exclusion zone might well constitute their own sub-genre. The catastrophe would seem to have marked the area’s exit from history – the 60 Minutes piece is now behind a paywall, but I recall Steve Kroft observing that the area had survived crusaders, Ottomans, and Nazis, but not the radiation from reactor number four.

But one of the paradoxes of the exclusion zone is that even while it appears as a fading after-image of mid 1980s Soviet life, it occupies an outsized place as an object of cultural fascination. This is one of the surprising contradictions at play in Alina Bronsky’s latest novel Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe. Baba Dunja, the text’s first-person narrator, belongs to the community of people who evacuated the area around the Chernobyl plant after the explosion, only to return to their former homeland. With mortality looming anyway, Baba Dunja figures it would be better to accept the radiation that is everywhere in her homeland than to die in a shared apartment in an anonymous high rise in an alien city.

The community seems to be living out a kind of pastoral idyll. The text’s treatment of the pastoral motif is signaled by the image of a rooster, which marks the chapter breaks after the opening scene involving the death of the neighbor’s annoying rooster. The returnees maintain gardens and have developed networks of mutual support. To access the world beyond, Baba Dunja walks out of the exclusion zone to a lonely bus stop and rides into town to check her postbox. But radiation is an interesting phenomenon. In the moment of exposure it is not something that is immediately sensible; we cannot see or taste it in the moment of exposure, and we only know it through the effects it sooner or later will have on our bodies. It has an invisible presence, but that invisible presence structures life in the exclusion zone. For instance, whenever Baba Dunja’s hears of the birth of a new child, her question is whether the child is healthy. Behind the grandmotherly tone is an obvious fear of the effects of the ecological reality on the body. Because the exclusion zone is relatively depopulated, it is tempting to see it through the lens of a kind of environmental fantasy, a place where nature is “coming back” in spite of ecological catastrophe. But beneath the seemingly idyllic life in the zone lurk the signs of environmental dysfunction. Baba Dunja was visited by a biologist studying spiders, we learn. It seems that the spider population in the zone has exploded because there are now too few birds to keep them in check.

The biologist, it turns out, is also a sign that the exclusion zone is not as removed from world affairs as one might assume. Baba Dunja, for instance, has been featured in news coverage of the returnees living in the exclusion zone. The novel’s major conflict develops when a man brings his daughter into the community after his wife leaves him. Baba Dunja confronts him over the endangerment of the child, the confrontation escalates, the man attempts to strangle her, and Baba Dunja is rescued by a neighbor who slays the man. The murder is taken up by the authorities, and Baba Dunja goes to trial.

The novel is a compelling read because of the kinds of contradictions that structure life in the zone, as the story portrays it, such as the fact of making a life in and on a poisonous landscape, or the condition of being both removed and the center of media attention. As I read it I thought about the ambiguity of the language we use to talk about radiation in general. “Strahlen,” from which we get the language of “Strahlung” (radiation) and “verstrahlt” (irradiated) has both positive and negative connotations. While the English “radiation” is connected to “radiance,” there seems to me to be more distance between the two forms in English than there is in German. The ambiguity to the term “strahlen” is nicely captured in Horkheimer and Adorno’s famous line from Dialektik der Aufklarung that “die vollends aufgeklarte Erde strahlt im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils.” The “verstrahlte” landscape in Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe literalizes the radiant disaster of progress.

Author Construction and Literary Misfires: Theodor Fontane’s “Ellernklipp”

Over the past year the publisher DTV has been issuing new paperback editions of Theodor Fontane’s novels and stories. Not every canonical author brought forth one masterpiece after another (e.g. Goethe’s Herrmann und Dorothea), but these works are oellernklipp-9783423144193ften relegated to the pages of expensive historical-critical editions and seldom, if ever, appear in bookstores with attractive re-designed covers. DTV’s reissue of Ellernklipp (itself based on the still indispensable Hanser critical edition) is one such “lesser” work that has recently hit bookstore shelves. Ellernklipp was one of the last of the narrative works that I had to cross off my list, and so I recently got myself a copy and read it over the “free” time of break.

Ellernklipp (1881) is supposed to be one of Fontane’s “failed” works. The synopsis of the current edition tries to sell the text as a criminal story, underscoring the themes of love, jealousy, and the novel’s dramatic setting, even as the afterword points to these as artistic demerits from the realm of trivial literature. Set in Germany’s Harz mountains, the story is about the forester Baltzer Bocholt. Bocholt is a widower who lives with his son. At the beginning of the novel he adopts the recently orphaned girl Hilde; as she grows both Baltzer and his son Martin develop romantic feelings for her. Father and son come to blows on the rock face Ellernklipp, Bocholt knocks Martin off the cliff to his death, and with his son out of the way Bocholt marries Hilde. Three years after the murder she has borne him a sickly child. In his guilt, Bocholt imagines that everybody suspects him of the disappearance of his son. At the novel’s climax, he returns to Ellernklipp with a shooting party. The setting reminds him of the night of the murder, he thinks he hears his son’s ghost, and he commits suicide on Ellernklipp.

Knowing that this novel is often regarded as a weaker Fontane novel, I read it trying to pin down what makes this novel a misfire relative to his more celebrated works, especially his debut novel Vor dem Sturm of three years prior (1878). My hypothesis is that the “weaker” stories suffer from the manner in which Fontane has been constructed as an author. In general it seems to me that the texts that seem to have the need to justify their existence in print – Ellernklipp, Grete Minde, Unterm Birnbaum – are also the stories where Fontane is less the social realist, the author of the “tyrannical social something” that we hear about in Effi Briest. Not coincidentally, I would suspect, those texts, as well as Quitt, are also the texts where Fontane devotes more direct attention to the representation of nature, and Fontane’s nature representation  has been poorly received during much of the history of Fontane criticism. In a canonical study of Fontane, for instance, Peter Demetz argues that Fontane is interested in social norms, not organic nature, and where he focuses on organic nature, he does so against his own talent (1964 : 121). A frequent complaint in first wave ecocriticism is goes that professional literary criticism reduces the presence of nature to so much semiosis, or dismisses the artistic value of nature in literature altogether. It could be that this line of Fontane criticism is where this complaint sticks.

On the other hand, reading the novel I had to admit to myself that the way nature enters into this novel strikes me as a valid grounds for the negative assessment of the texts. In his 1872 essay on historical novelist Willibald Alexis, Fontane famously argued that landscape description only has value in a text when it enhances the mood of the story (HFA III/1 : 456), and Ellernklipp struck me as a rather blunt application of that principle. The mountain and cliff setting seems like a shortcut to inflating the drama of the story, and the physical world gets mined for some painfully obvious symbolism. The murder occurs, for instance, under a blood moon. The lack of subtlety in the nature motif here also weighs down on other “weaker” Fontane texts, such as Quitt and arguably Unterm Birnbaum (although I would not readily admit it). The haunting of Ellernklipp after Martin’s murder is a bit more interesting. The ghost story adds an element of the uncanny, and it is interesting to consider how trauma attaches itself to a place. But then, there is nothing unfamiliar in any of this, either. Politically the novel seems closer to the conservative Fontane then, say, the socially critical Fontane. The novel is strongly inflected by a Prussian Protestantism to the extent that the logic of retribution is sealed with the title of the final chapter, “Ewig und unwandelbar ist das Gesetz” (“Eternal and Immutable is the Law”)

And no discussion of the novel could, or should, evade the incest motif. Both father and son are both interested in the adopted child, leaving Hilde sexually exposed in a family that she joined not of her own volition. Last month Rebecca Solnit published an essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” in which she discusses what it means to identify with characters in literature. On the one hand when I teach literature, especially to beginning students, we work on separating our reactions to the characters from our assessment of the text. This distancing act is necessary for literary criticism, but there’s also a certain absurdity to it. It means mounting a rear-guard against ones own biases, even though it may be those biases that move us to write about a text in the first place. But when does such a distanced stance flatten out the more disturbing elements of the story? As I read Hilde’s story I was strongly reminded of Ottilie from Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften. The title itself comes from a notion in chemistry, “elective affinities,” and asks us to read the text not as a story with people in a fictional reality, but as a kind of literary Gedankenexperiment in which a principle of chemistry is applied to human figures. It is that, but, as Solnit would point out, it’s also a novel in which a man dumps his wife for his niece. Lolita, Wahlverwandtschaften, and Ellernklipp are all fictional works about pretend people, as I remind my students, but it is the fact that they are more than “just” stories that make them worth studying.

Teaching Storm’s “The Rider on the White Horse”

41siL+8ITpL In my German culture survey course I recently had the opportunity to teach a unit on Theodor Storm’s novella The Rider on the White Horse. My motivation for including this unit was to give the students the opportunity to explore the relation between the text as an artistic artifact and its historical context. This is important work for students in general, but especially for the students who are drawn into this particular survey course. The students at my current institution are all affiliated in one way or another with the American military community here in Germany. They are motivated by a desire to become better acquainted with their host country, and many arrive with intellectual commitments leaning more towards the political history component of the course. Since the course is more cultural history, what is at stake in looking at cultural documents (literature, films, works of art, all of which we cover) is to work through with the students the historical and political stakes of aesthetic objects.

Theodor Storm’s The Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter in German) is a very handy text for discussing the relation between the seemingly abstract (say, realism as epistemology) and the text’s “concrete” material historical context. The story is a frame narrative about the construction of a dike in Friesland, the main character, Hauke Haien, is an autodidact in geometry who overcomes the barriers imposed by a quasi-feudalistic order to realize the Promethean project of wresting arable land out of the sea. The novella is also a ghost story, as the project claims Haien’s life and he haunts the dike as a kind of revenant.

I paired the novella with excerpts from David Blackbourn’s The Conquest of Nature, an environmental history of hydrological engineering in Germany. Blackbourn’s thesis is that projects like dam building, river straightening, etc. were a crucial condition for the process of state formation in Germany from the eighteenth century to the present. Putting the novel within the context of environmental history not only speaks to student interest, but opens up possibilities for making the theoretical issues that undergird the story clear to students encountering those concepts for the first time. The relegation of the fantastic to nature and the sea, which Hauke seeks to overcome through his engineering prowess, for instance, opens up the possibility for a Frankfurt school reading of the domination of nature. The building of the dike is also connected to social transformations: whereas before Hauke the position of Dikemaster seemed to be concerned primarily with the preservation of the available land, Hauke Haien’s dike turns out to be a good investment, producing surplus value to those members of the community who invest capital in his undertaking. The week prior to reading Storm, we had didacticized The Communist Manifesto in class. While the unit on Marx was connected to the political constellations of the pre-March period, it provided a useful framework for understanding how environmental transformation was connected to the shifting class dynamics of the novella.

The politics of the project within the novella are also useful fodder for discussion. In the story, opposition to the dike comes from community members who are reluctant to have to pay additional taxes in order to support the dike. Obviously the question of taxation in order to pay for infrastructure is a familiar problem to students; I like to refer it back to Blackbourn’s basic thesis of the connection between environmental transformation and the state.

The Rider on the White Horse is also valuable from a medial standpoint. The conceit of the frame narrative is that the story is contained within the pages of a nineteenth century family journal. The medial context is also a key element to the novella’s claim to reality, as the family journal culture of the late nineteenth century had its own strategies for creating a kind of reality effect, strategies based on the innovations of print technology that made a mass media possible in the first place. Of course these were also the journals in which texts like Storm’s first appeared. The Rider on the White Horse was printed in the journal Deutsche Rundschau in 1888. The fact that such journals have been digitized means that students can easily get a better picture of the context in which the novella’s first readers would have originally encountered the story. I could have brought in Deutsche Rundschau, but instead I showed the students an edition of the journal Über Land und Meer, which is more visually interesting and makes for a better case study in medial realism.

A final word on translation: the text has been translated variously as The Rider on the White Horse and The Dikemaster. I use James Wright’s translation, which has been reprinted in the New York Review of Books classics series. Unfortunately there’s no way to render the low German dialect that Storm transcribes in the novella into English. The language politics comes through in other ways, but less so, and for the purposes of my course that’s too bad, as that would be another avenue of exploration in connecting the work of art to the more generalized interests that bring the students into the class. But this version beautifully captures both the interesting pacing of the novella and Storm’s marvelous descriptions of the sea, which has a presence in the story familiar to any fan of Moby-Dick.

Chemical Decadence: Pfisters Mühle on Stage in Stuttgart

In a 2012 interview on NPR religion scholar Elaine Pagels suggested that the enduring appeal of the Book of Revelation is that it provides a language that has been useful to movements of all sorts of political stripes since the early Christian era. “[P]eople who longed for justice have always felt that the book speaks to us now and we are now on the cusp of that great change,” she observes to Terry Gross. In appropriating the rhetoric of apocalypse, more recent environmentalist camps are in that sense only the most recent iteration of a longer tradition. In tactical terms, apocalyptic rhetoric can be a double-edged sword, as when those parties with a vested interest in the ecosocial status quo attempt to portray their adversaries as so many Chicken Littles. But as I sat in the Stuttgart State Theater recently watching their stage adaptation of Pfisters Mühle, I was reminded of the particular pleasure that can be taken when the material of Revelation is effectively deployed.

The stage version follows the plot and conventions of Raabe’s novel: Ebert Pfister and his bride Emmy are on a honeymoon at the Pfister family mill in the weeks before its destruction to make way for a new factory. Ebert sets about writing his “Sommerferienheft,” recounting how the factory Krickerode opened up upstream, how the hydrogen sulfide killed off the fish in the stream and released a stench that drove everyone away and ruined the mill. The play develops the humor of its source material: in a novel concerned also with the status of the image in the era of its mechanical reproducibility, the characters gather before a nineteenth century camera mounted upon a selfie stick. On the other hand, the humor is layered on top of the play also explores the commonplace that the memory as narrated in the text itself is somehow dangerous. When we arrive at the description of the degraded stream for instance, the dead fish rise up from the stage to haunt the characters in the present.

Everyone is a partisan in the world, as a line from the story reminds us, and Pfister’s Mill is in many ways an exploration of how nature ultimately loses out to the various ideological commitments of everyone in the years after German unification. Adam Asche, the natural scientist who helps the Betram Pfister in his court case against Krickerode in spite of his stated wish to pollute every river, stream, and bubbling spring in Germany, is in this sense different from the other characters only in his openness about his own partisan loyalties.

The play imagines modernity as an era of chemical decadence – decadence being, of course, a close relative of apocalypse. At one point Adam Asche falls into a vat of his own toxic brew. It overtakes his body and he breaks out dancing to Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” which is, I might add, a well chosen anthem for this particular story. Lippoldes, meanwhile, the novel’s living anachronism, dances down the throat of the enormous industrial drainage pipe that is the play’s main set piece.

Out of principle I find comparing adaptations to their source material to be like comparing apples and oranges, but all the same the stage adaptation gives the “where do all the pictures go?” speech to Ebert. The speech is core to the novel’s thinking about art and aesthetics in an era when nature is yoked into the process of industrial production. But the melancholy discomfort that comes with going to an art exhibition in modernity is not Ebert’s, it’s Emmy’s. Ebert dismisses it, and then later appropriates it, but what strikes me about Emmy is that she makes some very incisive observations about how urban and industrial modernity affects our perception of the world. Interestingly, it is a circumstance that has often been either missed in the reception history or has received very little comment.

Finally, the production makes a bizarre choice that I’ve never encountered before in theater. After over two hours we had something like a forty minute intermission to allow for a set change for a kind of tableau vivant. When the intermission began without a curtain, I was actually very confused. Was the play over? In the end it seemed a very ham-fisted solution to the medium’s technical limitation.

Nature Works for Chobani

A cup of Chobani yogurt I recently consumed yielded this little object of contemplation.

"Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid."

“Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid.”

What strikes me about Chobani’s claim that “”Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid” is that it performs a triple denial of the product’s own origins:

1.) “Mother Nature” plasters over the real labor of production and distribution that is as much a part of the production as the “natural” growth of strawberries and bananas or bovine lactation.

2.) Who is the “we” who make the cups and the lid? The cycle of production, distribution, consumption, and waste is populated by more people not on Chobani’s payroll. What’s more “Nature” bookends that very cycle.

3.) The lid tells a story of ingredients and containers. Chobani handles the former, “Mother Nature” the latter. When and from whom do we get the actual yogurt?

Then there is the worn-out gendering of Nature as female, both in the “Mother Nature” commonplace and, more amusingly, in that “she” produces the ingredients for a milk-based product. Then there is the fact that yogurt itself is gendered female (at least up until recently).

This may be a a lot of pontification for an object that is now trash (although like Grandpa Simpson I have always been the kind of person who reads things he finds on the ground). But I offer it as a micro case-study into why Nature has fallen into such disrepute in some circles.

Toys “R” Us and Alienation

We’ll start with Toys “R” Us’ by now notorious advertisement that has recently gone viral. In the ad, a group of disadvantaged children are loaded onto a bus and told that they are off to the forest for a nature lesson, only to take them to Toys “R” us instead, to “make all their wishes come true.”

Evidently the advertisement was a genuine charity stunt. For its part, Toys “R” Us also released this behind the scenes video on YouTube. Anyone interested can see what they have to say for themselves here.

It’s a “capitalism with a human face” stunt gone rather badly awry. The ad is blatantly offensive. The implied message “who needs nature when you’ve got big box toy stores?” is pretty bad. The caricature of a teacher is also insulting. But that’s just obnoxiousness. What strikes me as most awful, and is perhaps not as immediately obvious, is the fact that the ad also works by thrilling a mostly white middle and upper class viewership with the sight of disadvantaged children being allowed to briefly partake in the worst habits of consumption. As potential Toys R Us patrons, our hearts are supposed to be warmed because the rules are bent so that these children can do once what we could do any time. And the acquisition of a thing beats an encounter with a forest. As Stephen Colbert observed, the moral of this story: “nature sucks.”

Toys R Us has really captured the magic of having a stranger take your kids on a bus, lie about where they’re going, then take off his clothes and promise them toys.

Way out west, Chris Clarke has this thoughtful critique of the ad on the KCET website. Clarke suspects that the ad hits a “sore spot” with environmentally minded people, essentially that environmentalists advocate for nature while also being alienated from it. He observes that environmentalism has itself given in to a destructive techno-fetishism (in fairness, we should specify that this criticism applies mostly to establishment liberal environmental discourses). The basic thesis of the argument as it applies to the ad:

The Toys R Us ad comes from an unspoken sensibility that is so commonplace among adults, even among environmentally concerned adults, that the ad writers thought it unremarkable:

“Nature sucks: we want our toys.”

I’m no better at reading minds than the next person. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the outrage over this ad among my colleagues in the environmental realm came from the wounded realization that it describes something all too real, even among ourselves. It pushed our buttons. Those of us who advocate for the non-human world fight apathy and hostility toward nature all the time. We are constantly told that nature is boring and unimportant, at least compared to a moment’s dubious thrill catching air in an off-road vehicle. Or a quarter’s dubious thrill watching the value of your stock options go up four percent.

I tend to agree with Clarke’s assessment, and I wonder if ascribing it to intuition isn’t being a little demure. While I am disinclined to bemoan “alienation from nature” because doing so is rather cliche, the ad is not just a cultural document of such a condition, but revels in it as something desirable. As the Christmas season comes around, Toys “R” Us profits will spike as it hawks plastic crap, most of which plays with itself and will probably be off to eternal rest in a landfill by June.

What stood out to me about Clarke’s argument, though, was that he got there via an image that was wending its way around the internets a couple years back (I first encountered it here on Adbusters).


Like the advertisement, there’s a message here, one that calls out those of us who more easily recognize commercial signifiers while being ignorant of the given world. Clarke offers a more specific reading:

The lesson of the exercise: we recognize what’s important to us. Most of us know what the swoosh and the apple with a bite missing mean. Identifying leaves by their shape? To most of us, that’s not important.

Good critical practice entails not taking a didactic text’s claims at face value, no matter how sympathetic the “message” may be. This image invites a reading against the grain. Because it’s visual, it’s message is agreeable, and it is easily digestible, it lends itself to the repost reflex. And for that it’s a rather dubious image.

First, while the image means to draw a contrast between two kinds of consciousness, it gets there by way of a false equivalency. We (post)modern subjects instantly recognize the brands at the apparent expense of the earth. But brands are signifiers, they stand for something else. What does a tree stand for? Or a tree branch? One might as well complain that English speaking humans will have an easier time turning the combinations of letters reproduced on this site into meaningful language than they will in identifying a birch leaf. For my part, I recognized the maple only because the shape has also been appropriated as a symbol of the Canadian state. As Clarke points out, the individual drawings could be identified with more than one tree. So the document itself raises the classic problem of a disconnect between signifier and signified. It always already is what it critiques. My point is not to level a cheap charge of hypocrisy, but to point out the difficulties of a line of argumentation I’ve seen elsewhere.

Second, the charge that the image reveals “what’s important to us” is a bit imprecise. The charge could place the blame for collective consciousness formation primarily in the hands of the individual. But if recognizing brands but not trees is a symptom, wouldn’t it be more a symptom of exposure? Given the diversifying channels through which advertising comes at us, it becomes impossible to will away the ability to recognize a logo. Because advertising works best when it subverts cognition, brand recognition does not demand the level mental labor required for reading texts or identifying trees. The point is, what the image calls out is not a question of individual fault. We’re dealing instead with the challenge of bringing into cognition what consumer culture would have us not cognicize. One might say that the problem with the Toys R Us ad is that it is too transparent, it lends itself too easily to critique. That’s how it ended up on the Colbert Report.

Third, what is really at stake in identifying trees by the shape of their leaves? Obviously this is a topos that is really about something else, namely taxonomy as evidence of caring, knowledge, and therefore connectedness. But that does not rescue this particular environmentalist commonplace. Taxonomic knowledge is not the sine qua non of being environmentally good. Ranger Brad is a caricature of just that mindset. It leaves you with an environmentalism that sounds a lot like the Monty Python bit “how to recognize different types of trees from quite a long way away.”

On a side note, the actor playing “Ranger Brad,” Bradford How, stands by his work.

Unfortunately the tweet misses the critical edge of Colbert’s satire. Or is that the idea?

“Uncommon Ground” Reconsidered

It has been almost two decades since the publication of the volume Uncommon Ground. While some of the essays now appear somewhat dated (the Nature Company, for instance, has long since vanished from America’s malls, although that by no means diminishes the essay’s relevance), the book articulates a line of thinking that has had an enduring presence in environmental history and philosophy, and the arguments it puts forward continue to raise hackles amongst the environmentally committed both inside and outside the academy. J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson have done all of us a tremendous favor by collecting a large sample of essays on the concept of wilderness by academic as well as activist supporters and detractors in The Great New Wilderness Debate (1998) and The Wilderness Debate Rages On (2008), and I can only recommend those two books to anyone who wishes to orient themselves in the wilderness discussion. If nothing else, they are a testament to how polarizing the arguments in Uncommon Ground continue to be.
I recently got myself a copy of Uncommon Ground, and felt moved to share a few reflections. First a bit of background: the book evolved out of a colloquium that took place at UC Irvine in 1994. Being a UCI alumnus, that alone makes me a rather sympathetic reader. William Cronon edited the book, and his seminal essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” is the leading text in the volume. The basic thesis of the essay:

Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, [wilderness] is quite profoundly a human creation – indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.  It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization.  Instead, it is a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made.  Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural.  As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.  For this reason, we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem. (69-70).

As Cronon himself acknowledges, these claims will seem heretical to many of different ecological stripes. I don’t think anyone will say that he wasn’t at least right on that count. Particularly from an activist point of view, this claim would at best be a weak basis on which to build an environmental politics, at worst a philosophy that justifies the activities of Monsanto (although it’s also worth saying that Monsanto never needed permission from humanities scholars to do what it does). The paperback edition responds to the furor that the book’s initial appearance provoked. The subtitle was changed from Toward Reinventing Nature to Rethinking the Human Place in Nature,and included a preface that emphasizes the reality of what we commonly think of nature. Nevertheless, the paragraph above is an easy go-to text for anyone who wishes to take umbrage with the so-called constructionist camp. And that is unfortunate, because in the texts that I have read that cite Uncommon Ground, Cronon’s essay seems to eclipse the many other thought provoking essays.

An often cited passage from the book that Cronon is not responsible for comes towards the end, when the colloquium participants shared a few concluding thoughts on their time together in Irvine and the arguments they presented. In her remarks Anne Spirn appears to have second thoughts about the kinds of positions that emerged at the colloquium and in the book itself:

But I also remember our discussions as so abstracted from the “nature” in which we were living, which I was feeling so intensely but perhaps not expressing verbally.  Sometimes the talk seemed so disembodied.  I regret that we didn’t fully engage the tangibility, the “reality,” of nonhuman nature.  I wonder how different our conversations might have been if they had not taken place under fluorescent lights, in a windowless room, against the whistling whoosh of the building’s ventilation system. (448)

The comments have the appearance of tacitly acknowledging that because of the conditions in which academic discourse all too often happens, the authors lack the authority to make the claims that they do. It would seem that Spirn is taking the side of those in the environmental humanities in particular who seea sustained unmediated encounter with nature as the prerequisite for ecocriticism, ecophilosophy, environmental history, and unfortunately I have seen some of the book’s critics use this particular quote to bolster their own criticisms. But I wonder if Spirn’s words haven’t been unfairly turned against the project. The quote above follows a reminiscence about the collegiality at the colloquium, and the quote itself reads like more of an afterthought than a weighty counterargument. In any case, Spirn’s point is not that “had we gone outside we would have discovered that nature is real after all.” She goes on to say:

Our discussions deepened my awareness of how nature is and has been culturally constructed, but now more than ever I feel it crucial to reassert the reality of nonhuman features and phenomena.  I hope our book doesn’t overemphasize the cultural construction of nature to the extent that readers come away with the impression that nature is only a construct. (448)

In other words, it’s less of a negation of the project itself and more of a qualification against possible abuse by an overly sympathetic readership. This is not the first time this point is made in the book, nor is the affirmation of the reality of the world just a flimsy rearguard defense against ostensibly common-sense objections. What the essays in the book really get at is the strange dialectic of first and second nature that Neil Smith talks about in Uneven Development. There is a world out there, but it’s a world that is constantly being cycled through the labor process, for one thing, but also perceived through its cultural mediation. Getting away from the crowds in Yosemite Valley and exploring the far reaches of the park may be an encounter with reality, but the the windowless room with the noisy ventilation system that Spirn mentions also has a real existence in that sense.

Cronon has a beautiful moment in the introduction to Uneven Development where he encounters this dual character of the planned space. He describes the non-native snails that would come out to enjoy the water from the automatic sprinklers that kept alive his garden of non-native plants. He writes:

The snails were the one element of this garden that had somehow escaped automation and control, the one example of nature doing its own thing instead of what the planners had prescribed.  Never mind that the snails could hardly have been native to the place and depended just as much as our succulent plants on the artificial rain that our computer delivered each night.  Because they didn’t fit the plan, they somehow seemed more natural.  (43).

What Uncommon Ground arrives at is not a naïve Weisheit letzter Schluß that “it was all a construct.” Instead the book offers a nuanced way of accounting for environments that we would (and should) otherwise shudder at simply because they represent our society’s worst excesses in the consumption of the planet.

It seems to me, then, that the salient point in Cronon’s essay is not merely that nature is not what we commonly take it to be. The passage that sticks with me is instead the conclusion, where Cronon writes:

But if we acknowledge the autonomy and otherness of the thing and creatures around us – an autonomy our culture has taught us to label with the word “wild” – then we will at least think carefully about the uses to which we put them, and even ask if we should use them at all.  Just so can we still join Thoreau in declaring that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” for wildness (as opposed to wilderness) can be found anywhere: in the seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, even in the cells of our own bodies.”  (89)

And this is what the so-called constructonists have over the camp that seems to think that you can only talk about nature after you’ve logged enough hours in “wilderness.” There is no easy ground here on which to base a political program, but at least we have a framework for thinking about more than what commonly gets offered to us as “nature” and “wilderness.”