Man vs. nature

July 9, 2012

The main metaphor for nature is not gender, but metaphors as commonplace as nature and gender cross paths often enough to mislead. The feminine aspect of the natural world is popular.

But it wants ornament, despite being doubly confined to the admired pedestal of that which is not for everyday use in life. One can tell this is from one of Tennyson’s satires better if you elide the distractingly vivid “Wind oozing thin through the thorn ..”

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view ..

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,

The pastorale brought to life in symphonies like Creation is a flattery of fairy tales far more violent in their action than a country scene with listeners relieved from mundane indoor chores, the coarse chains of love labors in domestic life, distractedly soaking in the fresh air, exposed and at risk of pneumonia only when they take a walk in dark weather to the full sound and weight of rain, because they could not be persuaded to wait out the weather, they were above persuasion on the day.


Pop culture’s sense of history is similar. Of mass movements we want the stuff of The Chicago Poems, metaphors for mountains, horizons overburdened with stars,

.. the beach where the long push under the endless tide maneuvers ..

.. pageants of war and labor, soldiers and workers, mothers lifting their children ..

Of cities, we want images of artisans, always in action and working as at play in the metals, and someone bigger, also industrious, who works and brawls under the wicked reputation of the city, in smoke, and “dust all over his mouth, laughing .. under the terrible burden of destiny” unselfconsciously. He should not know better than to be remorseless, for he does work hard.

If we are to notice anything in multitudes, we want something less fragile than a crowding of kinds of life in rainforests’ canopies or the liminal subsurface that waits on disturbance, needs the air, but withstands only enough disturbance to bring air below by the breath, by the pocket. The jungle frightens us with long shadows that belie worthless soil underfoot driving all life toward the clouds in search of better nourishment. Response to the soil’s strangling, under the last business cycles of field cultivation, is disdained.

Instead we want simplicity when we imagine great amounts, the idea of an endless supply of any certain thing, and metaphors for rain, constancy, the monotone:

.. the sudden rise and slow relapse
Of the long multitudinous rain.

.. fire and gold of sky and sea,
And the peace of long warm rain.

The suburb with its books of pressed fairies is a complaint, that this flattery was not cunning enough to fool those who can afford to leave the slum, and at a safe distance, plant pasture where nothing comes of growth. They were not fooled out of their boredom with the advantages that make indifference defensible. They are not even committed enough to find boredom melancholy and so succumb to the greater interests of madness.


There’s always violence. Interest pervades the scene of a crime, reanimates the landscape sparsely traveled by birds and feral cattle between the mesas and the scrubby flats beyond a rainshadow, when a stagecoach robbery is to be staged, or a nuclear experiment conducted with stadium seating for secondary hypothesis testing.

A hurricane creek in drylands is a storyteller who knows only outlaw ballads, making miniature rapids in the heat to show up the hikers and outlaws. Even without seawater, far from the nesting grounds of any crocodiles, the white water menaces, never quite too shallow to drown someone. Take Roderic Quinn’s The Fisher.

The mangroves drooped on salty creeks,
And through the dark,
Making a pale patch in the deep,
Gleamed, as it swam, ..

The bream went by, and where they passed
The bubbles shone like beads.


No lost wind wandered down the hills
To tell of wide
Wild waterways; on velvet moved
The silky, sucking tide.

.. stars burned large and still.

The fisher, dreaming on the rocks,
Upon the beaten way,
.. stood entranced, enchained by her

In geologic time, the cross-section of a ridge carved cleanly in relief for paved switchbacks is a record of violent overthrows conducted by faceless giants, detailed in many volumes by John McPhee. Good country for driving.


A mirror carefully staged finds us in the same scene as nature. The same as we always are, only definitely right there in the epic landscape, since the horizon is accessible by a shortcut. There is a trail to the vantage point, you can be seen from below. You can make being seen there look like an accident for camera.

And seeing yourself in the landscape you deferred to as too natural to admit traffic, even your own everyday smile isn’t good enough, so if you cannot convey enough respect for the unconstructed wealth of the opposite of civilization’s accomplished facts, you retreat into another subject.

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,

You stay out of the picture finder’s frame, put certain pebbles in your pockets that come in at least four kinds of brown, remember the other two are reserved for horses you have never met. They were innocently named, ideas “displayed, without intention, in the act” of naming what was there to be mentioned, not shades of brown parsed out with descriptive adjectives in a disaffected struggle “with the communicative significance of words.”

You limit your Christmas letter mementos to uncultivated apples and a still life with driftwood, or a pool that seems uninterested in polishing wood. A pool where a still life can humble the stage manager for trying too hard to include driftwood in the composition, because you can relate to that and would’ve hoped it would look more natural.

One Response to “Man vs. nature”

  1. […] tone is a blend of scientific rigour and light-hearted playfulness. My favourite posts include Man vs Nature, Keep’n it real: efficiency after graduation and All for one and one for […]

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