Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ramblings on Naturalism

Today I have plenty of ideas sloshing around in my head, but few developed ones. 
Let's just pick one, and see whither it goes...

My last post was about our disconnectedness from nature — from produce, livestock, and natural resources, in particular. Having just read excerpt from John James Audubon's By Himself, this problem is framed in a new light for me. Or maybe it's just a very old viewpoint, just phrased in a different way; I'll let you decide that.

Thomas Cole - "Course of Empire," Part 2

Momentarily ignoring all of his artistic and naturalistic credentials, Audubon was a French-American gentleman of the early nineteenth century. Had he no interest whatsoever in nature, he still would have been within walking distance of nearly-untouched wilderness — for instance, the Ohio River, which Audubon described as it was before the advent of steamboats. Moreover, hunting and riding were popular pastimes among the gentry, and fishing seemed to be a popular communal sport among schoolboys and grown men alike.

In short, these people engaged with nature more directly and frequently than we ever did. They had the means and the free time, and it was much more difficult for them to live completely apart from nature. It was also more "dignified" to indulge in these outdoor activities; nowadays, hunting and fishing carry a somewhat rustic connotation.

A popular sentiment is that technology — computers, iPads, Android SmartBlenders, etc. — distracts us from the value of nature. I suspect, however, that even if these devices were not so widely used, we would still lack the spark that drove Audubon and his contemporaries. 

Our living spaces still have many connections to the natural world, but none that we can readily see. We've grown much more accustomed to thinking of ourselves as enclosed from nature, and we draw clearer boundaries between "inside" and "outside." Audubon went crazy over catfish — but suppose the idea of "catfish" no longer has relevance in our culture? Suppose we can't find catfish anywhere within our own living space?

Perhaps I'm speaking as an ignorant city-dweller. I was born in a city, and allergies have prevented me from venturing too far outside. Even so, it seems to me that the waning interest in naturalism is due to a lack of that which drove early naturalists to the subject.

So, erm, yeah. This was productive and profound.

"TOO LONG; DIDN'T READ" VERSION: Naturalists got interested in nature because they were surrounded by it. Now nature belongs to a niche part of society instead of the mainstream — so we don't have any passionate naturalists like those of yore.

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Today's reading is, of all things, a Wikipedia article about the tale of "Stingy Jack." From all the versions that I read online, this is actually the most complete.

Using this story to supplement Dr. Atkins' comment on my last post, I'd like to take this time to advocate turnip jack-'o-lanterns. Not only are they a more "ancestral" form, but they're much more portable and versatile; I can imagine a good Headless Horseman costume using a turnip. I mean, look at this thing...


That's an authentic jack-'o-lantern from Ireland, looking more like a shrunken head than many shrunken heads I've seen. Spooooky.

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