This spring I traveled with two of my professor friends from our hometown of Phoenix to a vacation getaway in the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona. There we did what most writers and academics do while on holiday: we spent part of each day reading and writing. Early one morning we were at our usual posts. Prasad sat in front of his computer at the dining-room table; I was brewing another espresso in the kitchen before heading to a chair on the back porch. Dan had claimed the couch and was halfway through a novel. He was reading a chapter in which the central character, a young man named Jonathan, from New York City, visits his retired parents in Phoenix.
“Are there armadillos in Phoenix?” Dan asked, out of the blue. We looked across the room at him, a little startled and bemused. “Does the pope wear underwear?” I shot back with my own non sequitur. “No, I’m serious,” he persisted. “In the book, Jonathan and his father drive to a movie theater and it says here that they dodged dead armadillos on the road in Phoenix. And what about Joshua trees? It says here that Jonathan stood on a frontage road looking out at the freeway through a line of Joshua trees.”
“So far as I know,” I said, “Joshua trees grow mostly at elevations of 3,000 feet or more in the Mojave Desert. Phoenix lies in the Sonoran Desert at about 1,100 feet.” And the only dead armadillo I knew about in Phoenix, I explained, was the one I bought several years ago at an antique store. The whole animal had been turned into a purse, complete with a gold art nouveau clasp and ruby rhinestones for eyes. Maybe the writer was confusing road-kill armadillos with the husks of palm trees, I suggested, which often litter Phoenix streets after a storm. If you’re going 70 miles per hour on the freeway, the two might easily be confused. They are, after all, both brown and dead.
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?
What makes us think that it’s okay to play fast and loose when it comes to matters of natural history?
It wouldn’t have mattered so much if the book were some cheap airport paperback. But it was A Home at the End of the World, the 1990 novel by Michael Cunningham, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for The Hours. On the back cover there’s an excerpt from a review in The Wall Street Journal that describes the book as “so finely pitched that even the smallest details are sharp-edged and vivid.” A review in The New York Times makes a similar point: “Michael Cunningham appears to believe … that ‘our lives are devoted to the actual,’ and that, in the rendering of those actualities, a novel discovers its themes.” The Times praised Cunningham for his “reverence for the ordinary, his capacity to be with the moment in its fullest truth.”
The fundamental issue here, I think, is not that Cunningham got the details wrong, but that he didn’t seem to care about getting them right. Neither did his publisher or editor or the critics. But what if Jonathan’s conversation with his father had taken place not in the Sonoran Desert but instead in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Would Cunningham have had his protagonist refer casually to, say, strolling past the Elgin Marbles? My guess is that this major American writer would not have conflated the British Museum with the Met. Nor would most of his readers. So what makes us think that it’s okay to play fast and loose when it comes to matters of natural history?
Fudging the facts about nature to serve writerly ends goes back a long way. Who has not committed to memory the oft-repeated lines from what is perhaps the most familiar work of creative nonfiction of all time — the New Testament? “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. … Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,” counsels the Gospel According to Matthew.
Well, the fact is that many birds do sow: they deposit the seeds of fruits they’ve eaten, along with a dollop of fertilizer, thereby upping the odds of future harvests for themselves and their offspring. And some birds even reap and gather their harvest. In a single season, for example, a Clark’s nutcracker has been shown to stash some 35,000 pine seeds in a whopping 9,500 separate caches. The King Midas of the avian world, this North American bird regularly visits its stockpiles, too, a behavior that may serve to refresh the memory of food locations in a spatial configuration that is many orders of magnitude more complex than, say, the air space over Los Angeles. As for lilies, well, they do toil. It’s called photosynthesis. And many lily species are thrifty, too, socking away surplus energy into a communal bank known as a rhizome. These root-like stems wind their way underground, dispensing energy to less fortunate members within the clonal network. This resource-sharing strategy is responsible, in part, for the profusion of wildflower blooms that blankets the Northwoods forests in the spring.
But does it matter that misinformation about birds and lilies is used uncritically to deliver the larger message of Matthew — don’t worry, be happy, trust providence? Does it really matter that dead armadillos don’t litter the freeways of Phoenix or that nighthawks, and not hawks, soar above the Sonoran Desert at night? Does it matter that so many of the stories we tell take place in some ecological make-believe, where plants and animals are treated as little more than the living wallpaper of a stage set for human actions or as interchangeable ciphers for conveying life lessons?
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.” 1
Words reveal — often betray — what we attend to, what we value, what we need to carry out a full life.
The defining difference between the two cultures, you might argue, is that for native people keen observation was nothing less than a matter of life and death. Theresa Smith, an ethnographer of the northern tribe of Ojibwe Indians, writes that native people “observed the natural world with great care and precision because an accurate understanding of one’s environment was essential to one’s very survival. These people were neither vague nor romantic in their descriptions of the world, and their complex understanding of natural phenomena is reflected in their language.” 2 But in a culture where most Americans now hunt and gather in the food aisles of the local Safeway, what’s the point of knowing the difference between a hawk and a nighthawk? Confuse the two, and nobody gets hurt.
Or do they?
In an essay on naming, Gruchow writes that we are “at precisely that moment in our history when we fear that our very lives may depend upon how well we understand nature and our own responsibilities and limits within it.” 3 Take, for example, that hunting and gathering expedition to Safeway. The agricultural scientist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug points out that some 30 plant species now supply 92 percent of the world’s food requirements. Of these 30-odd species, just four — wheat, corn, rice and potatoes — comprise the bulk of the foodstuffs upon which most of us depend for our daily caloric intake. Besides being the most utilized plant foods, they also are the most inbred, making them extremely vulnerable to diseases and insects. The natural world offers a cornucopia of options for diversifying — and thereby safeguarding — the contents of the nation’s larder. But in North America, Gruchow points out, “with the exception of the sunflower we have yet to make significant use of any of its thousands of native plants as a source of food.” 4 In an emergency, which ones would we choose? Would we even know where to find them?
To date, only about two million species of plants and animals have been identified and described. An estimated 10 million species still await discovery, description and naming. But this taxonomic handshake is just the beginning and tells us little about how organisms actually make their day-to-day living in the world — and therefore how they might also be of use to us.
Our ignorance is truly staggering. According to some estimates, 95 percent of organisms in the soil alone are unknown to science. Many of them labor unseen, in the dark, serving as the churning stomachs of our planet, digesting dead plants and animals and, in the process, enriching the earth we depend upon for food and fiber. Other organisms expel their gaseous waste — a precious resource known as oxygen —to create the atmosphere that supports and sweetens the earth with such glorious creatures as toucans and manta rays and blue morpho butterflies, not to mention writers and academics. Some bacteria are even thought to contribute to the formation of clouds. 5
And yet, in the earth’s sixth great extinction event, currently under way, many organisms — great and small — are silently sliding unnamed into oblivion. According to some estimates, by the end of the 21st century, one-quarter or more of all species of plants and animals now living will have gone extinct or been issued a non-refundable one-way ticket off the planet. And they are being snuffed out at a rate that is 1,000 times more rapid than that of any extinction event documented in the fossil record. This great disappearing act, as Gruchow points out, is “one of destroying, and thereby rendering forever nameless, more information about life than we are gaining.” 6
I’ll emphasize that by naming I do not mean the kind of claiming that occurred when European newcomers to America inscribed the names of kings, generals and saints on their maps of the “undiscovered” lands and waters that had already been richly observed by native people. I think of naming as does a biologist friend of mine, an amateur entomologist who spends most of his free time roaming the mountains of southern Arizona photographing bees and beetles and butterflies. He takes great pains to research what plants the animals eat, where they pupate, when they fly. As a child, he’d lie awake at night memorizing the sequence of the earth’s great geologic epochs. These days he commits to memory the names of creatures that are every bit as mind-bendingly wondrous as the eons, butterflies with names like funereal duskywing, fiery skipper, ruddy daggerwing, question mark and satyr comma. Abridged in the shape, pattern and colors of their wings is the story of life’s long evolutionary history, nature’s shorthand for enormity, as close as we’ll come to experiencing earthly time on the scale of eternity. “They are magnificent animals,” he once explained to me. “The least I can do is show my respect by learning their proper names.”
Names are the alphabetic fragments with which we build a language of knowing. And knowing opens up the possibility of caring, the root of which is the Old English cearu, which means to guard or watch, “to trouble oneself.” In the face of the planetary holocaust, troubling ourselves is nothing short of an ethical charge. For writers it means, at the very least, taking the time to get the ecological details right on the page, differentiating a hawk from a nighthawk. It means swearing a pledge of allegiance to the particulars of the world, to rendering the actual, to paraphrase the Times review.
How we use words to portray the world in acts of imagination is a serious matter. Metaphors have the power to structure attitudes that express themselves in actions.
How we use words to portray the world in acts of imagination is a serious matter. Metaphors have the power to structure attitudes that express themselves in actions. The verses from Matthew encourage us to believe that the birds of the air live by virtue of a kind of bottomless birdfeeder of providence. In reality, they survive using exquisite algorithms that have been honed through millennia of trial and error here on earth. Today, habitat destruction, climate change and toxic pollution are scrambling these highly relational sets of instructions to the point where the long-term survival of the birds of the air and lilies of the field may depend not upon providence but upon the active stewardship and judicious restraint of humans.
We as a species were born into these particulars; it’s where we developed our essential self. The emergence of Homo sapiens some 50,000 years ago took place in a world already dense with the webbiness of life billions of years in the knitting, “We are human,” writes biologist E.O. Wilson, “in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with [these] other organisms. They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted. …” Destroying the “natural world in which the brain was assembled over millions of years is a risky step,” he warns. 7
The least we can do — for the survival of the world and for the thriving of our own species — is to learn the real identities of the organisms that surround us. “We will love the earth more competently, more effectively, by being able to name and know something about the life it sustains,” Gruchow says. “Can you … imagine a satisfying love relationship with someone whose name you do not know? I can’t. It is perhaps the quintessentially human characteristic that we cannot know or love what we have not named. Names are passwords to our hearts, and it is there, in the end, that we will find the room for a whole world.” 8
And maybe a home before the end of the world.
06.09.2011 at 14:54
Fantastic piece. I remember being incensed when I read how beautiful Elizabeth Gilbert thought the hummingbirds were in Bali in Eat Pray Love. Hummingbirds are only found in the Western Hemisphere! What laziness (and ignorance) on the part of all those editors and publishers to let that mistake slip onto millions of printed books.
06.09.2011 at 16:04
I share Ms. Fischer's indignation on the part of all misidentified entities of nature, be they animal, vegetable, mineral, liquid or gas. What this essay reinforces is the notion, amplified over the last century, that all of nature can be acknowledged by merely lumping unrelated species or natural features into similar categories. (I am reminded of an Ann Beatty novel, in which a landscaper in Florida is planting rhododendrons.) Funny-sad, how the "webbiness" of life is is so ignorantly misconstrued, and that nature illiteracy has become the norm.
06.10.2011 at 11:21
that's why it's called 'fiction' - the realm of imagination, yes?
06.10.2011 at 11:52
I absolutely agree that we are increasingly divorced from the physical nature of the world around us. However, correspondence to physical or natural reality is not the only--or even the most important--way to evaluate an artistic work. I don't blame the author of this essay for being bothered by non-realistic depictions of nature. I used to work in journalism, and the unrealistic presentations of the media (which can also have tremendous implications) bothers me; I teach in higher ed, and the presentation if that field bothers me. But do we really want to demand of art that it match natural reality? If you approach art from a realist or naturalist perspective, I guess you do. Should we extend this to visuals arts, such as painting or sculpture? Following this view leaves a great deal of moving, meaningful literature and visual art on the outside.
06.10.2011 at 16:18
Nice article, especially about the importance of naming -- some pretty strong ties to phenomenology there.
I would say that the inaccuracies in the book are not an example of fiction, just bad writing; closer to something by Dan Brown or Chuck Palahniuk, while pretending to be by Hemingway, Faulkner, or Turgenev, at least in how it treats certain details and biases. This, I think, is the author’s point, and it’s a good one, though her use of terms like “natural” and “natural history” would be worth interrogating.
06.14.2011 at 01:45
'How we use words to portray the world in acts of imagination is a serious matter...'.
It certainly is, Ms Fischer, which is why I suggest you look up the meaning of the word enormity in your phrase 'nature's shorthand for enormity'.
06.14.2011 at 18:43
Put me in Adelheid Fischer's camp in taking umbrage at the carelessness of those who season their work with details from the natural world with little sense of or interest in their accuracy. She writes eloquently and effectively about the way that this can translate into carelessness. Sloppiness in perception, a reluctance to study and learn -- both undermine our ability to establish habits that secure the necessary and preserve the beautiful in the world that sustains us.
Something in this carelessness, this imprecision, must have reminded her of things in the bible that bothered her, so to work she went, finding fault, first in Jesus' characterization of the behavior of birds and the habits of plants and, secondly, in the attitude toward life that Jesus promoted, both of which were found in a passage in Matthew from the middle section of the Sermon on the Mount. She writes:
"Fudging the facts about nature to serve writerly ends goes back a long way. Who has not committed to memory the oft-repeated lines from what is perhaps the most familiar work of creative nonfiction of all time — the New Testament? 'Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. ... Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,' counsels the Gospel According to Matthew. "
And, after supplying us with some wonderful natural historical and biochemical detail, she continues:
"But does it matter that misinformation about birds and lilies is used uncritically to deliver the larger message of Matthew — don’t worry, be happy, trust providence?"
After looking at her examples and the "oft-repeated lines" that offended, I could come up with little in the way of misinformation; and, as far as the characterization of Jesus' outlook on life, noticed only our Armadillo blinking in the hot sun, far from home.
To say that birds sow as they pursue their avian ways (that is, they eat) seems to fail some critical test of volition which, I assume, is Jesus' point of departure and which we ought to require of this particular example. (Plus, isn't it seed design which enables germ plasm to survive its intimate encounter with birds' interior lives?) For those in search of the obvious: Jesus chose not to relate what some birds can do, but (ahem) what most birds do do. They forage. It is not misinformation that we confront in his discourse, but an entirely reasonable metaphor for which our author seemed unprepared. SImilarly, her little dissertation on photosynthetic "work" would gratify only the dreariest pedant. That the scriptures neglect to function as biology texts will forever vex some, but to say that what we read in Matthew amounts to error is just wrong-headed.
More damaging than the accusation of incompetence is her portrayal of Jesus as a muddled-headed character pedaling 'don't worry, be happy' CD's with his loaves and fishes. What struck me about her characterization of the passage was that she had "committed to memory the oft-repeated lines", insinuating a degree of familiarity that is in striking contrast to the actual words and their plain meaning. I wonder whether Cunningham felt as familiar with his material?
For those with ears to hear (an invitation issued elsewhere in Matthew) here is the actual text:
“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? “And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! “Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ “For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." -Matthew 6:24-34.
06.17.2011 at 08:26
Outstanding article. Thanks.
It is deplorable that writers, fiction or not, would get details like those mentioned wrong. It reflects the sort of carelessness and indifference that has led to the ecological disasters and mass extinction that face the planet. If literature tells us nothing else, it tells us that such arrogance never goes unpunished.
My only consolation, that I keep hearing myself repeat these days, is that none of this will matter in a hundred million years (maybe a billion?), or so. C'est la vie.
I will vigorously recommend this article on my obscure little blog, and hope a few more open minds read it.
@garbo: Fiction, if it is done well, creates an even more truthful version of reality, with natural details enhanced and clarified, but not altered or misidentified. The idea is learn about our world from fiction, not abandon it.
06.28.2011 at 04:14
this article is the life philosophy I never got round to stating
i am delighted by this piece: I agree with its notions of respect through natural history, I agree with a notion of appreciation that develops into an understanding that frames human life
terrific! probably the best thing I have read on the internet for a v long time! Up there w the poems of Philip Larkin.
06.28.2011 at 05:04
Fascinating piece - naming things is certainly important, and the closer the match between our spoken discourse and the phenomenal world, the better chance we have of understanding what's going on, and responding appropriately.
I have a different problem, though - I live in the Fynbos Biome, (Western Cape, South Africa) and the plant species are so dense and numerous that it is impossible to learn them all, except generically, with a few individual species as examples. I am told there are as many plant species on the slope of mountain above my house as in North America. In fiction here, only general terms for flora work, because a non-specialist audience would not know the names of any but a few species (such as protea, pelargonium, erica, lobelia).
06.28.2011 at 09:07
This article rediscovers what Aldo Leopold coined as the biotic community in "A Sand County Almanac"(1949)
"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
"The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land."
"A sand County Almanac" is an excellent book to read if you want to further develop your understanding of the relationship that should exist between man and the biotic community.
06.28.2011 at 10:27
What basis could there be for an estimate that "95 percent of organisms in the soil alone are unknown to science...?" If we don't know them, by definition we can't know how many of them there are. While acknowledging that we don't know them all, I can't help but feel that this is an argumentative estimate intended to create heat rather than light. It's ironic to find this estimate in an article highlighting the careless use of facts about nature.
06.28.2011 at 10:30
How funny, and how ironically anthropocentric and arrogant, to assert that the "real identities" of wild creatures consist of their human names!
06.29.2011 at 09:21
As an editor and environmental scientist, I am a stickler for these kinds of details. Thanks for a great post.
Like Tom writes in his comment, I also highly suggest Leopold's A Sand County Almanac and/or Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
06.29.2011 at 12:07
Peaceful & wonderful BUT it of course all depends on how we live our lives now.
Do we realize our lives we made to live forever? Eden is more than
a HOPE that's what God gave his only EARTH Child named Jesus born through a Woman named Mary. BUT how many people know how to learn to read our Bible?
At least, I am learning more on how to read & understand it too.
D E Newton
06.29.2011 at 13:02
Two points of view:
1. Writers of fiction should ground their works in understanding of the natural world, and are irresponsible when they don't.
2. Writers of fiction may have other points to make in their works that have little to do with accurate details in the actual world.
While I empathise with the first perspective, for the most part, I don't think it really matters which butterflies are identified in, for instance, 100 Years of Solitude. Sometimes, fiction is rooted in real places, and it seems awkward when flora and fauna are thrown around like mis-matched chairs in a room. There are other cases where this is less central to the flow of a work, and I don't think that there is necessarily anything wrong with such a disconnection. Fiction does not pretend to be science or accurate in straightforward way, and this imprecision can be exactly what is needed to make some other point. Anyway, the assertion is a generalization that could be a kind of cookie cutter over fiction. That simply doesn't work. You can care deeply about the natural world and also not bother with the species of Ionesco's rhinocerous. This is why we have proper formal divisions between disciplines.
06.29.2011 at 17:24
Greatly enjoyed the article, but also Jim Collin's post. On this point, Ms. Fischer seemed to cite Matthew out of context. Nevertheless, I didn't know that birds sow and really appreciated that information.
06.29.2011 at 22:27
amazing piece!! Thank you! This makes me so very happy that in my "middle age" I am discovering the natural world around me (mostly though photos of bugs --- which I DO eventually identify), but angry that I did not use my earlier years more wisely.
07.04.2011 at 00:13
Moving and thought-provoking piece.
About the prerogative to write fiction, fine -- anyone's free to be generic about birds flying over, or run-over animals in the road, etc. What I join the author in objecting to is scamming the reader with bogus precision of detail.
I do agree with Jim Collins that the birds and lilies example from Matthew was mostly off the mark -- though he does gloss over the author's actually apt counterexample on one point, some birds' reaping and gathering of seeds (on which there's also Aesop's ant to think about), and I'm not sure why he construes, with umbrage, her summary of Matthew's message as "her portrayal of Jesus as a muddled-headed character pedaling 'don't worry, be happy' CD's with his loaves and fishes. (BTW please look up pedal and peddle.) Perhaps he found it flip but I don't find anything in the two dozen lines he pastes in from Matthew that would indict her concise single line as misrepresentation.
Kevin, where do you find the phrase "real identities" that you assail? My search function comes up with your own use of it as the first instance in this thread.
More to the point, the author did assure us that she's not concerned with the naming-as-claiming issue, but with whether we care enough to pay attention -- for which naming is a necessary step if we're going to collaborate on doing anything about the survival of whatever it is -- and it's not particularly anthropocentric nor arrogant to observe that our species's brain and propensity for enterprise place us inescapably in the position of stewards or else annihilators. So if we care about preserving this world we've inherited -- and which I wish/hope my son too can inherit most of -- then we're obliged to learn how its web of life works, and that means paying attention and studying, and that means naming things.