Out Divine Corners Way
by Jonathan Shimkin
Behind our cottage is a field bounded by forest on one side and road on the other. This winter the field was buried in snow for months. A few deer would drift out of the forest at dusk to nibble at the switchgrass that poked through the snow, the only grazeable thing in sight. The deer presented a picture that evoked many moods. Some evenings the scene was infused with pathos (those sad famished deer, driven to consume what look like corn tassels); on others, with a kind of valor (those hardy and determined deer, doing what it takes to survive). And sometimes there was an acquiescent serenity about the field, and those silent spectral deer were grace notes in the dimming light.
All this had little to do with the state of the deer and much to do with the state of the observer. Nature doesn’t have moods; we do. We are inveterate readers of nature, coming at it from our own slant – the particular mood that creates correspondences between our internal weather and the climate “out there.” When we take the sun to be smiling upon our plans and good fortune, we are in some pre-Copernican mode of perception that puts us at the center of things, with the sun circling round.
We’re fated to read nature like a book, interpreting as we go. We can’t help but describe ourselves as we describe our world, and vice-versa; the objective and subjective elements complement and complicate one another. The finest nature writers know this and strike a fine balance between descriptive acuity – seeing what’s there – and seeing what “what’s there” means to them, usually by means of metaphor. This balancing act lends depth and texture to their prose.
When Thoreau writes about his bean-field in “Walden,” he is as exacting in his literal descriptions as he is free in his flights of figuration. Reflecting on why he pursues the “small Herculean labor” of tending a bean field, he concludes that “some must work in the fields if only for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day” (the Parable of the Sower, from Matthew 13, comes to mind, as does the entirety of “Walden,” a book-length parable of sorts). It’s a key statement: Thoreau’s beans are planted in rows of prose as well as of soil, and will sprout one day into the very book he is writing. His determination to “know beans” is as much a philosophical project as an agrarian one.
This interplay is not just some literary conceit; we are indeed subjects of a natural world that subsumes us (for we are part of it) even as we take it as an object of our scrutiny. Thoreau plays with this paradox, honoring it with a complicating reflexivity (“this doubleness,” he calls it elsewhere). He is averse to a sentimental reduction of nature, which impoverishes our perception and our language. When we naively project our moods onto nature, e.g., my morose deer, or when we subdue nature to our egoism, impressing it in service of a personal agenda, we sentimentalize nature. Such a simplification all too readily curdles into kitsch. Nature enfolds us, but it doesn’t privilege us.
The figure of the Snow Man, in the great Wallace Stevens poem, presents an alternative to the subsuming of nature by the ego. The Snow Man’s “mind of winter” allows him to hear the wintry wind without any attribution of meaning, to perceive without projection. He sees “nothing that is not there”– his descriptive precision would be sharp. And he sees “the nothing that is” – the nature he looks upon neither answers to our moods nor offers approbation to our plans. He sees what simply is, as the deer in a snowy field simply are, moving through seasons with a transparency we arrive at only through the complicating lens of our reflexive human consciousness.
Jonathan Shimkin, writer and editor, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via his website: jonathanshimkin.weebly.com