Jim Harrison on The End of Nature

Credit: Jason Persoff Stormdoctor / Getty Images

Occasionally as a writer you come up against a brick wall that is far too sturdy for you to follow Dostoevsky’s dictum that you must dash your head against it over and over again. Certain walls seem infinitely thick. Why would I spend what’s left of my heart and mind, not to speak of my time, writing about environmental depredations when any person of average intelligence can look out a window and see how we have maniacally fouled our nests? This perception is a great burden to some of us, as if we were doomed to carry a heavy and sodden knapsack throughout our lives. It can distort our happiness, our sleep and marriages, our daily walks, the possible grace of moment-by-moment reality. The knowledge is always encapsulated in the thrust of “what is” overlayed upon “what might have been.” You have to squint in order to find love among the ruins.

In the past few years I have spent more time than I wished wondering how I evolved a land ethic that so troubles my sleep. Up above my desk I keep a small piece of paper that states “You’re just a writer,” which is what a studio head in Hollywood barked at me years ago. Though meant as an insult, this is an essential idea, in that it promotes the humility needed to function as a human being rather than as an ideologue, an altruistic ranter and raver, a religious lunatic who believes that God gave us the earth and we have metaphorically an actually chewed off the fingers and hands of the gift giver. Unfortunately, with my overfed imagination I can see this vision in the manner of a William Blake or Goya painting. To return myself to earth I walk daily with my dog in empty areas that are naked, blasted, and gutted of their essential nature by our own behavior. They are still beautiful, these mountains and valleys in the Southwest and the rivers and forests of my native northern Michigan. They would be much more beautiful if I didn’t know what they could look like, but then they will have to do because they’re all that we have.

Naturally, it’s my parents’ fault. My father was an agriculturist, a soil scientist whose main interest was in restoring watersheds that had been degraded by improper farming. He eventually had a rather humble joint appointment with the federal government and Michigan State University, but when I was young he was the county agriculture agent in Osceola County in northern Michigan. I’d accompany him on his rounds of giving advice to farmers. He was easy for the farmers to accept in that he had grown up on a farm in the neighboring county and spoke their peculiar language of hard work and privation.

Now, more than fifty years later, what I recall about those country drives is my father trying to teach me the names of weeds, bushes, trees, and wildflowers that we smelled or saw through the open car windows, or on walks when we’d take soil samples with an auger, collecting the specimens in small glass jars. I was a poor student, and accumulated a smattering of knowledge that I increased only mildly by exposure to forest hikes, and daily fishing excursions from our cabin or longer ones to nearby trout streams and rivers.

Added to these outdoor trips were books that he passed on from his own boyhood, by Ernest Thompson Seton, James Fenimore Cooper, and the redoubtable fibbers in Horatio Alger and Zane Grey, to which were later added the wilderness novels of Hervey Allen and Walter D. Edmonds, who wrote Drums Along the Mohawk. Because of my dark complexion and a disfigured left eye, I tended to be designated an “Indian” in childhood games of cowboys and Indians. This tendency was further emphasized by my love of Seton’s book Two Little Savages, which dealt with two white boys learning woodcraft while spending an entire month living as Indians in the virtual wilderness. The transition isn’t entirely clear, but I gradually came to identify with the Indians who stole the heroine away in romantic frontier novels, rather than with the courageous men who retrieved her. What a fine thing to have a pretty girl in my tepee, I’d think.

Perhaps everyone has seemingly smallish events in their childhoods that have disproportionate effects on the later lives they lead. I mean, aside from obvious traumas of injury, sexual abuse, divorce, or the death of either parent. I remember the stack of Audubon cards I used for bird identification more clearly than the teacher who gave them to me. A boy is repeatedly patented on the head for his facility with numbers and later becomes an accountant. The most trifling event can become large. I had read how the natives of the Southwest favored beans, so soon after daylight I’d head into the woods with a canteen of water, a can of beans, and a bow and arrow. Sometimes I’d built a fire to heat the beans, but more often I’d eat them cold. So powerful were the sensuous impressions of these early hikes that it is effortless to re-create them more than fifty years later. I was utterly without the opinions, attitudes, and conclusions that so easily blind one to the nature of experience, virtually the nature of nature. “With all its eyes the creature world beholds the open, while our eyes are turned inward,” said Rilke. When we are young, in a natural setting, our eyes aren’t yet turned inward. It’s extremely difficult, but you can recapture this state as an adult.

You know very well that only the stars are safe from our destructiveness. We are but one of an estimated fifty million species, yet it has given many of us pleasure to dwell upon our dominance over these species. In fact, we have created aspects of religion to reassure us that it’s fine to defile these other species as we wish. We have organized a virtual theocracy of land rape wherein all the steps of our iron feet are acceptable if not sacred. I am mindful moment by moment that this is the world I live in. I know the details. Nothing has changed since Mark Twain reminded us that Congress is our only truly criminal class of citizens. They have constructed their own game of canasta in which earth herself is scarcely a dominant factor.

It occurs to me that what I have studied about Native Americans throughout my lifetime has aggregated into an anecdotal mass, an unorthodox accumulation that wouldn’t enable me to pass an elementary college course but nonetheless exceeds that of 99.999 percent of my fellow citizens, who resolutely hide their faces from the sins of their ancestors against these people. We must accept the fact that most of us wish to know only what is convenient. I recently asked a Native American friend to what degree it distressed him that we apparently have never learned a simple fucking thing about his people. He said he wasn’t distressed, because accepting responsibility for wrongs is a religious idea, and he hadn’t noticed much religion “in motion” in modern culture. He added that without the element of goodwill, all problems had to be approached legalistically because that was the only effective language for social change. How sad. No justice is possible without lawyers.

Way back when, I envisioned that one could spend a thin cotton sheet over our country and its living history and then stand back and watch the locations where the blood soaked through. We must consciously remind ourselves what happened at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, to name two. Such events have never fully entered the history of the conquerors, for the same reason that My Lai hasn’t. You’re scarcely going to see a Wounded Knee or a My Lai float in the Fourth of July parade. Come to think of it, our so-called Indian Wars were, strictly speaking, mere real estate operations and conquests. This property is condemned for better use. Much later, Bertolt Brecht said that whom we would destroy we first call savage.

What we lock in the closet forcibly away from public view invariably becomes ghostly and destructive. Nearly everyone is somewhat aware that it is the media, rather than religion or a sense of national purpose, that gives structure and credibility to their lives. If you look at how we spend our time, it is clear that diversion frames our reality. Who can forget Ronald Reagan speaking of oil-rich Indians on their “preservations”, a notion he got from several identifiable movies. When you go looking for accurate movie portrayals of native culture, you come up with only the recent Smoke Signals and, to a lesser extent, Little Big Man. Movies and television are largely to reality what fast food is to our bounteous crops.

In my own case, which proves not at all uncommon, I learned much about the habitat before I learned of the people who belonged in the habitat. The nature of our predecessors was taught only slightly in school, if at all. The information was out there, but you had to dig, so I dug. It’s unlikely I would have done so without my father’s direction and the knowledge of how a relatively wild and natural habitat could be made livable without destroying it, and how native religions could emerge directly from the earth that gave people life.

Just the other day I was reading how the kestrel (commonly known as the sparrow hawk) has a curious ability to perceive ultraviolet light with a four-dimensional color vision system, which enables it to see the iridescent urine trails that voles leave in the grass, and thus the bird is able to better pursue them. This isn’t a wonderful idea, but a fact, and it led me again to remember William Blake’s line, “How do we know but that ev’ry bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight closed to your senses five?” Whether you are reading E.O. Wilson or Jean-Henri Fabre, you are drawn into ponderous delight at the smallest creatures. At this point it occurred to me that Native Americans paid a lifetime of attention to the natural world in order to survive. The fact that they no longer have to do so poses a series of enormous questions. If Native Americans historically spent all of their existence in intimacy with the natural world, what are the consequences of our imposed rupture of this relationship, other than the obvious effects of disease, drug addiction, and alcoholism? In our own existence, particularly in our urban areas, we have seen clearly what happens to humans when they are reduced to being consumers and spectators.

The poet Wallace Stevens made the uncomfortable statement. “We were all Indians once.” This seems technically true, and it led me to the uncomfortable conclusion that, because of my familiarity with the natural world, I identified strongly with those who until recently had depended on such familiarity for their existence. I had also long understood that my intensest pleasure came from activities such as hunting, fishing, and studying wild country that would have been the same for any Pleistocene biped. The essential difference between me and Native Americans is that my people never got the rawest of deals. My people didn’t get reduced from a possible ten million down to approximately three hundred thousand between the years around 1500 to 1900.

I know men both white and native who go into the mountains or forests, on horseback or on foot, to kill deer for their families. In impulse, this is not unlike riding the subway to an office job. I have been told countless times that hunting is no longer a necessity for anyone in the United States, but that assumes you relish food stamps, or the predominantly ghastly supermarket feedlot beef that oozes pinkish juice as if it has been injected with water. I’ve been to dozens of venison “feeds”, which are celebratory occasions where whole groups of families sit down and eat as much deer meat as possible. With the Chippewa (Anishinable), you eat venison-and-corn stew at a Ghost Supper and afterwards go outside and throw some tobacco on a bonfire to say goodbye to your beloved dead, whom you might have been clinging to in a mentally unhealthy way. It is believed that the dead wish to be relieved of our sorrow so that they may freely enter the next world. We can be taught by these ancient and traditional aesthetics of grief. I am amazed at how, throughout the United States, the rich, the mildly prosperous, and those in cushy government jobs are eager to tell our dirt-poor natives how to live. After being massacred at Wounded Lee, the Lakota were forbidden even to hunt or dance.

At my remote cabin, during my sixty-third summer, I dreamt that after a lifetime in which I had spent thousands and thousands of days outdoors looking “at” nature, I was finally inside nature looking out. The meaning of this was imprecise, but the feelings have stayed with me. As a poet, it became far simpler to imagine myself a tree or a boulder, a creek or a field, and easier yet to imagine myself a fellow mammal. When Shakespeare said, “We are nature, too”, he was making a leap away from the fundamental schizophrenia in Western culture that few have made. At my cabin made of logs there is less distance between inside and outside. You can smell the heart of the forest as you sleep, and hear the river passing by the north side of the cabin. At my winter casita, near the Mexican border, the walls are made of adobe, the dried mud of earth. This is comforting, but it doesn’t discount the elegant imagination of man. I once visited a bedridden old woman in the immense bedroom of her hunting lodge in the Forest of Rambouillet, in France. The walls were of quarried stone and covered with ancient tapestries. From the ceiling were suspended hundreds of sets of bronze-tagged stag antlers, the history of centuries of hunting. The property had once been owned by Charlemagne, and the lodge itself seemed to grow out of the forest. The inside and outside circulated freely between each other. I felt as comfortable there as I had sitting in the doorway of an abandoned Hogan on the Navajo Reservation watching the dawn, which seemed to emerge from the ground and into the sky.

We have lately received a terrible lesson that emerged partly from trying to put all the nations and peoples in the Middle East into our giant dimwitted Mixmaster and ignore the potage except to say, “Just sell us the oil, folks.” We largely did the same thing from the time we got off the boat in regard to Native Americans. Nearly 250 tribes were reduced to one name- savage, Injun, redskin, whatever. Even cursory reading, let alone travel, reveals unique differences, but there never was much cursory reading. Though they live in the same area, the Hopi are as different from the Navajo as the Finns are from the Italians, perhaps more so. And the Utes are as different from the Ojibway as the French are from the Germans. Never in our history has public perception differed so profoundly from reality. Native American history is still often taught as if these people were all currently dead.

I had no right from the beginning to identify with the natives rather than the conquerors. It was an accident, and in describing the accident it is appropriate that I feel a little foolish. They’ve received nothing from me except a number of novels in which I’ve dealt with the curious world of mixed-bloods. I’ve consciously stayed away from the areas where I don’t belong, which are many. There are a couple of dozen fine Native American novelists now, a specific renaissance that is taking place too far from New York to be much noticed.

In my own case and others, there is more than a bit of the fool in the poet’s calling. The metaphoric jumps of poetry are also biographical. Word play was big in my life from childhood onward. Jim Pepper, a Native American jazz musician, sang a beautiful song that was mostly a recitation of tribal names, a song that should be played in every school in America. If I list tribes I’ve visited or read about, I’m swept away by the beauty of accumulated names and images, and also the sorrow of our implacable cruelty: Acoma Zuni, Kiowa, Apache, Mescalero, Apache, Arapaho, Pawnee, Miami, Arikara, Potawatomi, Ponca, Haida, Blackfoot, Lakota, Minneconjou, Sioux, Omaha, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Ute, Cree, Havasupai, Papago, Pima, Mohawk, Mandan, Kwakiutl, Mohave, Crow, and so on. What I have received from these cultures can’t be numbered in the manner of our late addiction to hokum lists as we approached the millennium, which reminded one of row of bowling trophies. Life is inevitably holographic, and thousands of brushes have painted us inside and out.

I have learned from Native Americans that we prove that we belong where we live upon the earth only by carefully using, but not destroying, our house. I’ve learned that you can’t be at home in your body, your truest home, if you wish to be somewhere else, and that you have to find yourself where you already are in the natural world around you. I have learned that there are no specific paths for me in my work as a poet and a novelist, and that I write best when I call on my boyhood experience as a faux-native setting off into country where there were no paths. I have learned that I can’t have a viable religion by denying pure science or the conclusions of my own attention to the natural world. I have learned that looking at an upland sandpiper or a sandhill crane is more interesting than reading the best book review I’ve ever received. I’ve learned that I can maintain my sense of the sacredness of existence only by understanding my own limitations and losing my self-importance. I’ve learned that you can’t comprehend another culture unless you can stop your moment-by-moment mental defense of your own. As the Sioux used to say, “Be brave; the earth is all that lasts.” None of the fifty million other species can talk, so we must speak and act in their defense. That we have failed Native Americans should urge us on, both on their behalf and that of the earth we share. If we can’t comprehend that the reality of life is an aggregate of the perceptions and nature of all species, we are doomed with the earth we are already murdering.