On Nature by Martin Eiermann
The map I used to teach myself map-reading had been around for more than a decade when I found it in the glove compartment of my parents’ car. It was the type of map that was sold en masse in highway truck stops before GPS units and smart phones took over, and it provided a comprehensive view of the road network inside the Federal Republic of Germany and adjacent countries, anno 1981. It was old enough to still display border crossings into the Eastern Bloc countries, but I cannot remember a single instance when the map’s age led us astray. The pace of Autobahn expansion was slow enough that most roads built in the late 80s and early 90s were already mentioned on the map as “under construction”. The map had frozen a slice of time onto paper, but that never seemed to matter. The length of its useful lifecycle was itself a testament to the permanence of reality. The world depicted by the roadmap changed very little, and it did so in predictable patterns.
Then, a few summers ago, I ventured into the Yukon Territory for the first time for an extended canoeing trip. My travel companion and I had flown as far North as the major airlines would carry us, collected our stored gear, and found a local who offered to drive us out as long as the dirt road would allow for it – although “dirt road” is a euphemistic misnomer. Old Canol Road was hacked out of the spruce forests and hills of the Yukon Territory during World War II, when military planners entertained the idea of building an oil pipeline and a transportation artery into the Arctic to facilitate the flow of their supplies. The war ended, the plan was shelved, and the narrow clearing that threaded its way through the woods was abandoned.
Several hundred miles from the nearest permanent settlement, it crosses a narrow bridge over the South Macmillan River, one of the many tributaries that sustain the great waters of the Yukon on their northern voyage. That’s where we went. We bid adieu to our driver and cut through the undergrowth towards the river. From there, we planned to paddle down the South Mac until it joined with the Pelly, and then onwards until we could see the Yukon. When the rapids were running too fast, we’d drag our canoe and equipment through the woods. We expected plenty of moose and eagles and curious black bears, but were mainly wary of the swarms of mosquitos that are attracted to a human body like iron dust to a magnet.
The land of the Northern Yukon is vast and rugged and, apart from scattered mining and logging operations, largely untouched by human hands. Further to the South, native tribes and hunters used to maintain seasonal cabins, but many of them are now abandoned. Hunting and trapping have long ceased to be profitable endeavors, and commercial overfishing has taken its toll on the annual salmon run. As a result, the boundaries of Western civilization have gradually retreated southward over the last few decades. Halfway down the South Mac stands a homestead cabin that used to provide shelter to a family of settlers who had come north in search of a simple life and religious salvation, but it too is now empty. Every day around 11 a.m., one can see a solitary plane painting its white tracks into the atmosphere. There are few other signs of human action.
Even the colors of modern life are largely absent. The green and silver hues of the spruce trees mix with the grey sand and pebbles of the riverbanks. The water of the rapids is clear and white-capped, but large stretches of the river are tinted with sediments. Trees along the riverbanks are washed white and shaved of their bark by the annual ice and mud floods. During the summer, the sun barely dips below the horizon, but it never musters the strength to saturate the sky’s blue. Indeed, much of the landscape looks as if it the river has carried some of the colors away in its current. It’s beautiful.
We had brought with us a good set of maps that local guides had hand-drawn years prior and turned into a little printed booklet. The maps showed the locations of rapids, bluffs, distinctive mountain peaks, and good campsites. The exuded an authority that had for many years guided the handful of paddlers who attempt the trip each season, but their topographical validity faced hard limits. Because of the annual ice floods, the river bed might no longer resemble the contours depicted on the map. This happened frequently: We would expect a bend toward our starboard side only to find that the river had also curved to port around a newly formed island. We would look for a campsite only to discover that the shallow riverbank had been washed away. Once, a large landslide had uprooted trees and blocked the river bed with mud and dead branches, and the water had only begun to carve out an alternative path. Some rapids were much stronger than expected; others were almost nonexistent. Fires had burned across the forests and left the mountainsides covered in purple fireweed. Here was a landscape that was not only subjected to the annual cycle of blossoming and decay but to the more erratic spasms of nature.
I was reminded of all this when I watched a viral time-lapse video of a thunderstorm supercell. What makes the video so captivating is not just the size of the clouds but their tempestuous undulations: A rotating updraft sucks warm and moist air from the surface high into the atmosphere like a gigantic meteorological vacuum cleaner. The clouds billow and swirl; they grow dark and heavy with moisture until precipitation falls and heavy drops of water cut into the dry ground. And then the cell disappears – literally – into thin air. The vortex of clouds collapses, and the sun breaks through. The quintessence of the storm is captured in its motion: It is through change that nature asserts itself.
We are often taught to think of nature – and especially of wild nature – as a place or a set of places with some measure of eternal qualities. When Ansel Adams traveled the continental United States in the 1920s and 1930s with his camera, the iconic landscape photographs he produced were intended as testaments to the timeless natural beauty of the national parks. As the Washington Post wrote about Adams’ first solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 1931, “his photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods.” They captured an imagined essence of wilderness that had existed, undisturbed by human construction, since time immemorial. In the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “nature alone is permanent.” Beyond the annual cycle of blossoming flowers and decaying leaves, Adams sought to capture a pure natural environment that sustained itself indefinitely unless human hands intervened and interrupted.
Hence, when we venture out “into nature,” it is often toward places where this eternal essence can still be felt — or at least imagined, as in the green meadows of Central Park. They offer a reprieve from the buzz of urban life, a place where the minute-hand of the clock no longer holds sway but where the only rhythm is provided by the earth’s cyclical rotation around its own axis and around the sun. How many hours have been spent in parks, actively forgetting the passage of time! No wonder that Henry David Thoreau’s quest for spiritual discovery led him into the forest of New England: It is within the unexplained power of nature to induce a state of childlike wonder and grateful appreciation. No wonder, too, that the quest to “go back to the land” became popular among hippies precisely when the illogic of the Cold War appeared to set humanity onto the path of mutual annihilation: Nature seemed to offer a sense of calm and stability, and a place where risks were calculable and manageable.
Yet consider for a moment the following passage from John Vaillant’s masterful book “The Golden Spruce.” It tells the story of a single Sitka spruce with remarkably golden needles that had cast its shadow on the banks of the Yakoun River in British Columbia for more than 200 years. Vaillant’s descriptions of the natural environment of the Yakoun Valley bear little resemblance to the reprieve of Central Park or the calm of rural retreats. He writes:
“Everything is being used as a launching pad by something else; everyone wants a piece of the sky. Down below, the undergrowth is thick, and between this and the trees, it is hard to see very far; the sound of moving water is constant, and the ground is as soft and spongy as a sofa with shot springs. You have the feeling that if you stop for too long, you will simply be grown over and absorbed by the slow and ancient riot of growth going on all around you.”
This is a description of nature as a process rather than a place: a perennial activity of doing and undoing, of moving, growing, displacing the old, of giving birth and forcing death that displays scant obedience to the seasonal cycle. “Nature knows no pause in progress and development, and attaches her curse on all inaction”, wrote the German poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe, echoing the ancient Aristotelean description of nature as physis, that is, as the innate capacity to move and change. Nature isn’t just something that exists – it is also something that happens.
Arguably this perception of nature is disappearing: The flora and fauna preserved in cultivated forests and urban parks represents a tamed version of nature that has been largely stripped of its erratic character. Taking its clues from agriculture – the first large-scale replacement of old-growth forests with cultivated fields and forests in human history – the “management” of parks and forests has elevated the cyclical pattern of seasonal change above sudden fluctuations in the natural environment. Central Park looks different in the fall than it does in the spring, but it looks roughly the same every spring. Change occurs in predictable patterns from one month to the next, but annual changes have largely been excised from the cultivated natural environment.
In this sense, the landscape of Central Park bears closer resemblance to the Autobahn network than it does to the wilderness of the Northern Yukon. Over the course of the 20th century, our idea of “nature” has been pushed through the civilizational grinder and has re-emerged in its contemporary incarnation. In a sense, there’s nothing natural about the idea of nature: It is a product of society, shaped by an increasingly urban experience.
The conception of nature as an erratic process has now re-entered the public consciousness from another, unfortunate direction. In stubborn denial of scientific evidence, self-proclaimed skeptics continue to cast doubt on the existence of climate change by arguing that erratic fluctuations in annual weather conditions, storm patterns, sea surface temperatures, and a whole mix of other indicators render inferences about long-term trends impossible. In essence, their argument is that we cannot detect the signal from among the noise. How ironic that the fundamental feature of wilderness has been turned into a sound bite to deny the largest known environmental threat.
This is a misapplication of the idea of nature as an erratic process. One of Ansel Adams’ predecessors – and one of the earliest photographers of the American West – was Timothy O’Sullivan, who hitched a ride with the US Geological Exploration in the 1860s to take photographs of the Southwestern United States (originally intended as advertisements to lure settlers from the East Coast). One of his most famous photographs depicts cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi people some 500 years ago. Perched beneath the vertically ascending walls of the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, they appear almost fragile. But the most interesting aspect of the photograph isn’t the architecture but the cliff itself. On its surface, intricate patterns of sedimentation provide a glimpse into the deep past: The formation of continents, the rise and fall of sea-levels, and volcanic events are all recorded in hundreds of colored bands of rock. The Arctic shelf ice provides similar records of long-term atmospheric change (although on a much shorter scale). Nature is still a process, but one that unfolds over much longer periods of time. This is what climatologists refer to when they talk about trends, and it is just as real as erratic fluctuations: The processes of nature happen on many scales at the same time.
Paradoxically, the imagination of nature as perennial stasis remains believable only as long as fluctuations are truly erratic: Too much change in the same direction – towards more rainfall or longer droughts, towards hotter temperatures or more extreme seasonal differences – can push complex ecosystems towards tipping points. A few wet spring seasons or dry summers can alter the landscape of the North through mud-floods or brush fires. Their residue is visible for years – a river searching for its bed, a range of mountains covered in burned stumps and fireweed – yet it remains temporary. But once fluctuations become trends, they have the power to effect permanent ecological change. A declining salmon population affects the predatory animals that feed on fish as well as human communities whose lifestyle was once intricately intertwined with the river. A rise in temperatures can create conditions hospitable to invasive species, et cetera.
Addressing climate change is such a daunting political challenge in part because it demands discussions across many different timescales at once. There’s the scientific dimension, couched it in the language of probabilities and uncertainties, of fluctuations and centennial trends. There’s the political dimension, primed for policies that deliver tangible results over the next two-, four-, or five-year cycle. And wedged between the two is the conundrum of having to act in the short run to forestall consequences for future generations.
And there’s more. As Zadie Smith recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, “we always knew we could do a great deal of damage to this planet, but even the most hubristic among us had not imagined we would ever be able to fundamentally change its rhythms and character.” The robustness of scientific findings about anthropogenic causes of climate change does not always translate into critical self-reflection about the modus operandi of modern culture. “Change” remains an abstract concept for which seemingly no-one bears direct responsibility, and which compels too few into concerted action.
In the study of climate change, we have become scientifically literate but culturally illiterate. This is unfortunate not because the regime of scientific knowledge is wrong, but because its rightness has thus far faltered as a force of social mobilization. Historically, all consequential attempts to bend the arc of social discourse have relied on arguments about rightness and wrongness, about the failures of the present and the promises of the future. They have, to paraphrase Antonio Gramsci, cultivated an optimism of the heart even when the intellect cried for pessimism. The cultivation of “the fierce urgency of now” begins with an awareness of time – with the realization that we stand at the precipice of change and have it within our power to affect its direction, or at least to mitigate its consequences. Indeed, this is perhaps the best description of politics I have ever heard: You cannot believe in determinism or nihilism. You have to believe that change is possible, and that some changes are better than others.
The map of the autobahn continued to function – for a while, and for a specific purpose. But like all maps, it had become outdated the minute it was published: New asphalt was poured, new ramps were built, and old borders collapsed. Underneath the permanence of the map, the world changed. It sometimes changed slowly and sometimes abruptly, but it always changed. And it appears to me that one of the central lessons we can learn from the river maps of the Far North (and, by extension, from nature) is precisely this: Change happens. And instead of mapping it out of existence, we are tasked with tackling it.