The Ecology of Make-Believe

Does it matter when novelists muddle facts about nature?

By Adelheid Fischer

This spring I traveled with two of my professor friends from our home town 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 had 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 (they 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 nighthawk, 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 go snuffling through the pages of a book, hoping to catch the author with his pants down and then trumpeting 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 nor editor nor 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. Ethno-graphic 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 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.”

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. “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.”

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.

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.

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.”

Adelheid Fischer is manager of InnovationSpace, a sustainable product-development program at Arizona State University. Her latest book, North Shore: An Ecology of Place (coauthored with Chel Anderson) is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press. She currently is working on a new book that explore the ecology of grief and loss in the sky islands of southeastern Arizona.

This essay was originally published in longer form as “A Home Before the End of the World” on Places: Design Observer, an online journal of landscape, architecture, and urbanism.

Image: ©Honourableandbold/Dreamstime.com

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