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?
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
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. 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.