Friday, April 8, 2016

Translating the language of the natural world

One subject you will certainly see discussed with frequency in this blog is environmental ethics. I define this rather broadly. My sense of "ethics" is mostly philosophical more than specifically policy-oriented. I would describe my view of environmental ethics as the ways in which human beings relate to and interact with nature, both for good and for ill, and the values that drive these interactions. There is a sort of aesthetics embedded in this as well. This hearkens back to the adage about only being able to save the things that we love and know.

I was struck by a recent article by Will Falk on "The Language of Pinyon-Juniper Trees." In this article, the author expresses the conundrum of seeking to inspire the protection of nature through writing, when the act of writing itself seems to carry a sort of anthropocentric bias. He says,

"In my efforts to write about the ecological importance of pinyon-juniper forests, I made a mistake. I immersed myself in human voices. Too many of the human voices I heard were interested in valuing pinyon-juniper forests only in human terms. Too often, I found forests’ value measured as a function of the benefit forests bring to humans."

This struck a chord with me, because I struggle with balancing my desire to write on behalf of the natural world with the understanding that I understand very little of its internal language and logic. As a human being in the modern world, I find myself many steps removed from the innate ability to hear and appreciate this language in its pure form. Without a constant conscious effort, I find that most of my supposed understanding is filtered through an ingrained system of value that places human beings (and even more so, technological products of human beings) above all else in the chain of being.

Gary Snyder refers to the need for a "new nature poetics" that goes beyond utilitarianism, sentimentality, and romanticism when it comes to nature. This approach is marked by humility and accepts wildness as a primary value of all living things. It requires a shift from product (the obsession of analysis and technology) to process. It understands that wild nature may appear as chaos and cacophony, but within this chaos is a system of harmony and balance.

What, then, is the role of the nature writer in contributing to an environmental aesthetic and ethic? I think that our role is to be one of a faithful translator. A translator seeks primarily to listen and to hear rather than to be heard. A translator understands that the ultimate goal is to stay as faithful as possible to the sense and intention of the original language. And most of all, a translator does not assume to be able to find parallels from the original language in their own system of values and understanding. They seek to let the text (in this case, the natural world) speak for itself.

In the human world, I recognize that I inhabit a social and cultural space of privilege as a white male. I don't claim to try to speak for those from oppressed classes and demographics. But I do try to listen as well as I can, and communicate faithfully what I am hearing so that understanding can be achieved and steps made toward justice. Hopefully from our place of supposed "human privilege", we can do the same in our approach to the non-human world.

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