June 09, 2011

Nature, Knowledge, and the Heart

That a literary (not genre) novelist whose writing is praised as "so finely pitched that even the smallest details are sharp-edged and vivid" would place armadillos and Joshua trees in Phoenix, Arizona, has Adelheid Fischer thinking about names, knowledge, and place.
I later read the chapter with the armadillos and the Joshua trees. And sure enough, I stumbled across more eco-confabulations. At one point in the book, Jonathan and his father take a nighttime walk into the desert for a heart-to-heart conversation. Jonathan describes looking up at the sky "as the sickle shape of a hawk skated over the stars." A hawk, huh? Hawks are sight-feeders, flying during the day in search of desert rabbits and birds. Could the writer have meant nighthawks, a bird that trolls the sky for insects, primarily after dark? They are unrelated species, as different as, say, a Wall Street broker and a kindergarten teacher. But I can see how the two birds might easily have been confused. After all, they both have wings and fly.

I've been mulling over these eco-bloopers for some time now. Like a dog with a bone, I dig them up every now and again, gnaw on them for a while, and then rebury them in the back forty of my study. Mind you, I'm not one of those readers who goes snuffling through the pages of a book hoping to catch the author with his pants down and then trumpets the fact that I know a butt from a hole in the ground. So why then can't I just let them go?
It all comes down to something that I have noticed before: if you do not know the names of things, you cannot really love them.

Does it matter? Or is this just like the advertisement for Canon cameras that I once saw which Photoshopped a saguaro cactus and an armadillo into the same landscape. (The reaction from Canon USA when I pointed out the ecological impossibility was, essentially, "Big f****** deal.")
Certainly it does matter in a material sense. Take armadillos. If they toddled along the streets of Phoenix, Arizona, then Arizona wouldn't be Arizona but rather some other place, say Texas or Louisiana or Florida. It would have different rainfall patterns, temperature regimes, plant communities, geology and soils. And its human economies would be different as well. But there is a deeper issue here, which is that words reveal — often betray — what we attend to, what we value, what we need to carry out a full life.

Ethnographic studies of the American Southwest in the 1930s and '40s showed that the average Apache teenager could name and describe the edible and medicinal benefits of more than 200 different species of plants. In the 1990s, the late nature writer Paul Gruchow conducted an informal survey on a similar topic. With 60 of what he described as the brightest seniors from the high school in his Minnesota prairie town, Gruchow explored the shores of a nearby lake. He'd asked the students to identify as many of the plants as they could along the way. "A few of the students could name a handful; they were mostly farm kids who knew the weeds," he reported. "But the majority of the students could name no more than two or three. The dandelion was the only plant they all knew. They didn’t recognize cattails. Most of them couldn't tell the difference between a willow tree and a cottonwood tree. They have wandered and played along that lakeshore for a lifetime, utterly blind to it."
Or to paraphrase Luke 12:14 , "For where your vocabulary is, there your heart will be also."


Janeen said...

I live in a beautiful little coulee in the driftless area. Our little coulee is full of fruits, berries, brown trout and other wonderful things but in my wandering there the only other people I come across are occasional fly fishermen. None of the local kids ever swims, fishes, forages or builds a fort there.

I find this terribly depressing.

Heather Houlahan said...

What I took to be a mystery novel, The Lovely Bones ruined for me by:

-- Murderer dismembers a body with a knife, but leaves behind one small piece -- the victim's "elbow."

How's that work? Has the author never cut up a chicken? Certainly she has never dressed a deer. Okay, but did NO ONE think this through before the presses ran?

-- Murderer has an underground hideout in a cornfield that he does not own that is large enough for an adult to nearly stand up straight. He collapses this easily, leaving no trace that it was there.

-- A critical piece of evidence is incorporated into a crow's nest. In November. In Pennsylvania.

Holly Heyser said...

I'm similarly irked by the inaccurate portrayals I find, but somehow I'm completely ignorant of the ones I perpetrate.

Anonymous said...

those bloopers can sure ruin an article-or a story. I find them too, but seldom am able to contact anyone about them...Even I know the difference between a fir tree and a pine but the photographer who took the picture doesn't???