I’ve been working my way through W. Somerset Maugham’s Introduction to Modern English and American Literature (1943) and its got me thinking about a number of things, especially how much our relationship has changed towards nature in modern Western society and how the loss of that has impacted the transition from boyhood to manhood and ritual in general.
I was born in 1982 and raised, like so many others, in the suburbs. Our house and neighborhood were very “nice” and safe. The extent of my exposure to nature pretty much consisted of our yard, my grandmother’s yard, and the Brookfield Zoo. Of course there were other outings and such, but I almost never – if ever – experienced true, untouched wild nature. I had family members who went fishing and camping, but I never did those things (and still haven’t). I was a whole mess of allergies, and that was as good of an excuse as any to avoid a world uncontrolled by humans.
What is any of this have to do with literature? Well, I recently read John Steinbeck’s The Gift (the first story from The Red Pony) and T.O. Beachcroft’s The Erne from the Coast. The first story, familiar to many, follows a boy as he bonds with a wild horse, which he tames, only to watch it grow sick and slowly die. The second story has to do with the young boy who tends his family’s sheep flock when the normal shepherd is unable to, during which a bird of prey attacks the flock as well as himself. Both stories have a strong coming-of-age element, of the rituals that must be attended to in order to go from boyhood to manhood. That made me think back to my recent rereading of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, and how most all of them have a very strong element of nature, going from young Nick’s experience of learning about it and respecting it, to postwar Nick’s trauma and his use of nature as a healing tool.
The healing power of nature is something that has been known for centuries but in recent years has been documented and proved over and over again by science. This is absolutely clear. Unfortunately, what is also clear is the overwhelming belief that humanity can be controlled and bent to our whim with little to no negative consequences to ourselves. It is this belief that fuels all the climate denial, as well as all the people who say something must be done, but continued to live in an extremely destructive, materialistic manner. In the end nature will always win. We pushed that knowledge away in order to further indulge our hedonistic behavior. For in the end, nature represents all that is destructive, all that cannot be controlled, and the ultimate thing that cannot be controlled is our own death. By believing we can control nature, we try to convince ourselves that we can control death.
This is not a new idea and was expertly laid out in Ernest Becker’s classic work, The Denial of Death (1974). To be in better balance with nature, to accept its power, is to accept death, especially our own death. We, especially in the West, do not address death head on. If Americans had to still kill their own animals for meat, there would be thousands, if not millions more vegetarians out there. This disconnection between ourselves and nature, and ourselves and our inevitable nature, has led to a great lack of resilience and inability to deal with difficult things. It’s something that I’ve watched in my own self, that I was failed by all those who sought to protect me from anything difficult, keeping me a child much longer than I ever should’ve been, putting me in denial of all the things that they themselves were afraid to look at.
In looking at these short stories from the past, as well as other media, it’s clear that this is a phenomenon that has dramatically ramped up in the last 50 or 60 years, and explains so much about where we are as a society and a world. We’ve become extremely good at hiding difficult things from ourselves, and in turn from our children, whom we think we are protecting, but are really just setting up for a fall later on when the difficult reality of life inevitably comes.
Take, for example, the works produced by entertainment giant Disney. I’ve always been, and I still am, a big Disney fan. It’s something I almost never talk about here because often people in the “serious” writing community will immediately deride anything dealing with Disney. But I think taking a look at how their works have portrayed death and our society’s reaction to that, is telling.
Two old Disney movies are famous for their death scenes – Bambi and Old Yeller. The first, of course, deals with a human who goes to the forest and kills Bambi’s mother. The second deals with a beloved family dog who has to be killed when he becomes rabid. These were dealt with matter-of-factly. One Disney movie that has been all but forgotten is a nature film with a fictional story narrated over it called Perri (1957). I had never seen this film until recently and was surprised just how frankly it dealt with and showed death in the forest. It wasn’t bloody or sensationalized, just showed all the perils amid the life of a squirrel and other woodland creatures. The first fact of nature is that everything dies, something that is incredibly difficult to deal with, yes, but not addressing it and addressing it early on in life, leads to huge hosts of problems down the line. (I’m a prime example of this).
The Lion King came out when I was in seventh Grade. I first saw it on a field trip to Springfield, Illinois. The death of Mufasa left me in tears and left the rest of the busload of kids laughing at me. I can remember stories on the news about how children were completely traumatized by this, attacking Disney for putting such a scene in the film, and calling for it to be banned. What nonsense. Going to a Catholic school the only talk of death was of Heaven, death was simply something not to worry about, forget about it and focus on the unending bliss of Heaven. What a huge detriment to my growth.
Perhaps I’m losing my thread here a little. Point is, we’ve completely lost touch with nature – real nature – nature that can’t be controlled. In the end it will always win. It does my heart good whenever I see little greens sprigs breaking through concrete, finding a way to cut through what ever humanity does to try to control it. We lost our resilience, we lost our strength, and in many ways that’s because we’ve lost our connection with nature, and we’ve lost the rituals of childhood regarding nature, rituals that can be seen over and over in these older boyhood stories. Hopefully we can get some of that back before it’s too late.