In a previous post, I mentioned a Guardian article that deemed nature writing little more than “bourgeois escapism” that romanticized the natural world. It’s made me consider why I enjoy nature writing (other than the romantic aspects, that is, haha).
Of the many ideas that sprang to mind, the first was that nature is an antidote to the irritating buzz of everyday life. It’s a respite from the active presence of humanity: chatter, car engines, perfume and cologne, the expectation to interact, the feeling of being observed, judged, and found wanting.
I’ll be walking down the sidewalk, heading into the bank or the grocery store, when it suddenly feels as though my legs aren’t working properly, my arms are jutting out at odd angles, and my neck is excruciatingly stiff. I become a marionette with tangled up strings, my puppeteer having fallen asleep in the semi-darkness backstage. As hard as I focus on walking naturally, on swinging my arms and legs in a smooth and relaxed motion, I sense my movements have become jerky and my gait hitches at odd moments. My arms forget how to easily hang from my shoulders, and I feel overwhelmed and exhausted.
This has apparently become the ‘new me’, who can empathize all too well with the Intense World theory of autism (here and here). While I’m not autistic, I’m easily washed away by the sensory overload of public spaces, and forget what should be said in the course of a normal, lighthearted conversation.
When I’m in nature, however, it’s entirely different. Out in the woods or on the beach, wandering outdoors with my camera pressed against my face or the dogs exploring happily around me, I have no trouble walking. I feel the gentle rise and fall of the trail under my feet, and the suck of mud in the boggy patches, where dinner plate-sized maple leaves are trapped like abandoned, rusted hulks. The trees are coated in a soft carpet of moss, and in the distance I can hear the gulping glug-glug of ravens and the call of eagles for their mates.
It’s not that the nature I’m exploring is free of human influence – far from it. The ferns are bent and trampled where the quadders have driven through, enlarging each stream crossing by riding in ever-widening circles to avoid mud bogs (my inner hydrologist is horrified). This is a second-growth forest – the remaining old-growth stumps have rectangular holes where springboards were installed to give early loggers a leg up on these Pacific giants. Hunks of mid-century cars moulder in the bush, gradually overtaken by fuzzy moss, creeping blackberry vines and the thin whips of alder seedlings. Partway along the trail are small trees protected from browsing deer inside bright blue mesh, though they would have fared better if protected from the constant flooding caused by local beavers. Fence lines – barbed and split rail – cross the land at random intervals, and I call the dogs close to keep them safe.
It’s more that nature absorbs and quietens, unlike public spaces that reflect and amplify. The woods hold only the echoes of human activity, muting the noisy chaos inside my head. I’m not mirrored in nature’s surface, instead it goes on as it should without me. I don’t see the disappointment or superiority that I catch in the faces of people around me. There are no whispers, no staring. No salespeople turning pointedly to help a more well-dressed customer. Instead I see the mushrooms and moss, the abandoned maple leaf husks. I hear the rushing, tea-coloured river and the smaller creeks that stink of iron and sulphur. I feel the gravel underfoot along the riverbank, the hardpacked dirt of the old road through the ghostly aspen grove. Sometimes I see a herd of deer, rushing quietly through the salal like a breeze.
In nature – which could be the forest, the beach, or even a botanical garden – I can relax. It’s just me and my thoughts, waiting to be untangled like a pile of yarn from an unravelled sweater. Nature presents a palette on which I can focus, outside of and independent from my busy mind. Nothing is asked of me, yet everything is given.