By Ben Matthews, a student at Sterling College A review of:
Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest: Region, Heritage, and Environment in the Rural Northeast (American Land & Life)
Edited by Pavel Cenkl
TO MOW OR NOT TO MOW
Every time we mow our lawns we cross the boundary between nature and culture. The natural elements of grass, soil and water, would, without human influence, revert to hayfield and forest. Mowing our lawns is a claim upon nature that requires constant care: the grass will not thrive without our blades, and we will not thrive without the grass. So is your lawn a part of nature, or of culture? This paradox is largely ignored because of the headache it engenders, but Pavel Cenkl, the editor of Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest, points out the importance of “... return(ing) the “eco” into economy.” Every time we feed our wood stoves, fill up our cars, or cut our grass, we traverse the boundary between nature and culture.
This collection of essays is predictably academic due to its philosophical context, but has a passionate insistence that prevents you from putting it down. Kathleen Dana's compelling criticism of Robert Frost and the Sami poet Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa suggests that nature defines culture in both poet's landscapes. Dana points out that both Valkeapaa's minimalist poem, that states “When darkness fell, I could see you beyond the mountains” and Frost's reverential The Pasture, which demands that you join him at the birthing of a calf, require the reader to literally go into the poet's world to read their poems. “And magically, shamanically, text becomes context, and reading becomes ritual, and the reader is renewed.” Dana's prose is as expert as her subjects, “Taking poems into the field give them life beyond the page.” Reading the poems where they were composed invites you into the poet's world, and shows you the inspiration they found in nature.
But we are not allowed to get comfortable with this idea. In Youth, Refinement and Environmental Knowledge in the 19th century Rural North, Jill Mudgett examines the changes of rural landscape as the urban culture of New England coastal cities infiltrates into the mountains of pre-world war Vermont. History, popular fashion and romance fiction are woven into a tapestry that illuminates how culture has defined nature in the rural northeast. Recounting the ballad of “Poor Charlotte,” who froze to death on a carriage ride because she was too vain to wear a coat, Mudgett reveals this popular song as a morality play intended to warn rural youth away from the perils of fashionable society. Delving into the popular literature of the 1800's, she demonstrates how urban industrialist values supplanted the traditional rural values and ultimately led to the deforestation of the northeast.
While Mudgett doesn't directly contradict Dana, her emphasis on the effect of culture on nature is at odds with Dana's poetic image of nature birthing culture. The tension created here is deliberate and reflected in the other pieces in the collection. Each of the authors has their own perspective--what is nature to one is culture to another. As we jump from Terence Mosher's torrid love letter to Thoreau to Natalie Coe's brusque lament for our dying beech forests, we dance across the nature /culture puddle so quickly that it's impossible to see where our feet land.
Cenkl asks us to forget the man vs nature conflict that we all learned in English class, selecting specific narratives to get us to question whether any such conflict exists at all. The conflict itself is just a distraction, because any attempt to delineate a boundary between culture and nature draws focus from the reality that we all live in the gray area between these two words. Ultimately, Cenkl is saying that humans are not purely cultural, nor natural, we are both. Just like our lawns, we inhabit the unique place where neither term is accurate, but both can apply. So go ahead, mow away.
A link about the Editor: