Seeing the world fully: books about nature
I always wanted to work, live, and be in nature, and now I do – but not in the usual ‘cabin in the woods’ kind of way I first imagined. How does a lifelong love for the environment bring me to teach in one of the world’s most intense urban centers, and spend most of my research time in the mega-cities of Asia?
It was through books that I first learned to think of nature in a new way: not as something ‘out there,’ but rather as all around us, waiting to be seen and heard. Two books in particular have taught me to do just that: to see the environment in its layers of complexity, and to hear more clearly the voices of those who shaped, and whose lives were shaped by, nature and its human networks.
One of my favorite high school teachers introduced me to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I remember vividly the day I curled up on a couch, opened the book, and dwelt right there until I devoured every word. On one level, this is a simple book, and the ‘nature’ it describes is fairly conventional. Dillard writes of long forest walks, wanderings by a creek, stumbling over things in nature and working to figure out what they are and how they fit. Yet there is nothing simple here, for layered into the prose are sharp observations, conscious choices to look and then look again – to notice and enumerate the endless dimensions of a simple tree, a simple bug. I was captivated, convinced that before I’d read this book, I’d failed to see the world fully. At least, I’d failed to try. Decades later, when I’m struck yet again by the power of looking again, I remember Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the day that I was first introduced to the art of seeing nature wherever you are: as a conscious choice, an act of reverence, a way of growing ever outward toward an understanding of the interconnections of human and natural worlds.
Much later, with my vocational life as an environmental studies and anthropology professor firmly planted in my passion for human cultures and the natural world, a dear friend recommended the work of Amitav Ghosh. Although it was not the first of his books that I read and relished, Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies left me dazzled and dizzy. A carefully documented work of historical fiction, the novel describes a human geography I’d never before imagined. It traces nineteenth century connections between a poppy-producing countryside in Bengal, sugar plantations in Mauritius, opium markets in China, and the colonial power center of London. Like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I finished the novel in one sitting, brought fully into a history, landscape, and vast array of lifeworlds whose connections I’d never thought through so carefully before. Yet there is more to Sea of Poppies than seeing history afresh. Ghosh’s central characters are largely people who occupy the marginal, everyday places in the story of the opium trade. They have no official, recorded voices in the formal archives of history, but instead life experiences that are only suggested or hinted there. It is this novel, then, that affirms the art of hearing: the characters in Sea of Poppies offer voices and human dramatic fullness to an otherwise silent archive. In doing this, Ghosh brings the lives lived in, and shaped by, the complex colonial poppy trade into a story otherwise dominated by the flowers, their seeds, and the powerful states and people who control their sinister economic histories.
By teaching me the art of seeing all nature – from forests to cities – as layered and infused with history, and by amplifying the voices of human beings otherwise silent in the human histories that shape the landscape, these authors and their masterful books breathe inspiration, even today, into the everyday work I do and love. They have buoyed me through research on urban river degradation and political revolution in Kathmandu, taught me to see and amplify dignified human and environmental landscapes in South Asia’s slums, and pushed me to find ideas of urban nature among architects in Mumbai and social activists in Delhi. For those attuned to the arts of seeing and hearing, the projects I do in cities are as ‘natural’ as a long walk in the woods.
Anne Rademacher is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Anthropology at New York University. Her previous books are Ecologies of Urbanism in India: Metropolitan Civility and Sustainability (Hong Kong University Press, 2013) and Reigning the River: Urban Ecologies and Political Transformation in Kathmandu (Duke University Press, 2011).
The image at the start of this post is by Freaktography.