Growing up in the country, in Pennsylvania, nature was every bit of the world on the other side of the screen door, a place I went to when I stepped off the back porch or past the garage. Nature, the natural world, had I been defining it (which I hadn’t) was most obviously the woods, the creek, the chicken hawks, black racers, and honeysuckle.
Then there were other degrees of nature, like the eighteenth-century springhouse on my great-grandparents’ farm at the top of the hill, grown wild round with orange and freckled tiger lilies and magenta phlox, extra-spectral and glowing in the shadows of the low, field-stone springhouse walls. The aged wooden door was angled and flaking its whitewash, resistant to all but the hardest push, like the doors to the houses that stood empty here and there in the woods. Like the door to the house across the road and up the hill, back along a near-forgotten cow-path lane through the trees, through green-tinted light. The springhouse, the abandoned farmhouse—these were on a sliding scale of natural, a scale of slow devouring. Engulfed by nature, their atomistic parts in a process of disassembly. Not returning to an original, natural state, but transformed into forms that would eventually stop looking like human contrivance.
Soil and leaves filled the empty human spaces, and always the buzzing of insects. Spider silk and dust and feathers and carapaces accumulated to build soil, to make new ground for the first seedlings of oak or mulberry that would push through the glass of those stone-walled greenhouses, reaching through broken windows to the sun, pushing through warped floor for the damp and earthy root cellar. Connecting, intimately, through touch, the wood and stone of human habitation to the wood of a living trunk, and the brown scaly stones of a pioneer oak’s first acorns.
These things I’d have connected to nature, had I been counting. But then, too, there were the country roads, snaking like black water through arched green tunnels, or past baking fields where fog would roll down from the flanking hills of an evening. Fog creeping and rolling like the slow ghost of a landslide, white, wet, chill, covering the crops along the road or, by the end of summer, just touching the corn-silk-topped stalks and spilling across the road and dissolving near the still-warm asphalt. The roads were not apart, not separate from the nature, that other, and the more closely I look now the more the otherness disappears in all directions.
There were aspects of the landscape I took for granted as belonging, when I was a girl. That black ribbon (tarred and aromatic for six-feet on either side to keep down the weeds) that led to the Coke Works, a fuel-producing offshoot of the Bethlehem Steel, rising from a desert of cinders beyond the road, beyond the narrow scrubby meadow that remained between the baked, oily dust and the tar. And on low, man-made ridges in the meadow, the nightly-dumped molten slag, poured from pots mounted on the backs of train cars, illuminating the road and warming our faces as we waited in the car on the shoulder of the road to watch it flow, liquid nickel and aluminum and arsenic. The slag was a controlled eruption: tangerine heat, a magmatic phenomenon of uncommon beauty, colored so intensely as to produce shivers in my teeth, viscous light that smelled like pouring honey. It was a normal part of a varied environment.
When I was a girl, we had a family cabin in the Pocono Mountains just inside the boundary of a tract of game-preserve land. We, my mother (or my grandparents, or any combination of those three plus or minus various uncles and cousins and such) and I, would drive north from home, from the Lehigh Valley, up and over the elongated hills, the twists and folds of the Alleghenian Orogeny visible at every cut-through. Leaving the Great Appalachian Valley for the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians meant piercing Blue Mountain’s Great Wall, slipping into the Lehigh Tunnel at a ridge-wall green from shoulder to toe-hold, a dense canopy that sheltered blueberries, magpies, star mosses, spring peepers, horns-of-plenty.
Exiting the tunnel was discovering another world.
The northern mouth of the Lehigh Tunnel opens to Palmerton, where the sulfurous exhalations of a large-scale zinc smelter breathed a great upside-down yellow bowl, a gaseous cap that warmed and burned the northern side of Blue Mountain and the mirroring ridges until they were seemingly free of any living thing. The smelter closed almost thirty years ago, when I was almost ten, but virtually nothing grows on the hills above Palmerton even now.
This is what covers Blue Mountain, where the Lehigh and Aquashicola flow past its toes: standing sticks, bleached grey and smoothed by the wind, the trunks of trees killed by cinders and sulfur dioxide—those trees that were too slim to fall under their own weight. They rise tall and white and long on near-sterile slopes. The dead trees stand, still and broken, decades after the gases cleared from the air, unable to decompose, their upper parts shattered and littering the ground like tinder, parched sticks that cannot rot. When the trees and undergrowth died, the rich forest soil washed down the mountain to the river, or simply blew away. What were left were dry rocks weathering in the sun, pebbles and larger stones, and the matchstick trunks and branches.
The Palmerton zinc smelter left its own mountain, a moraine of waste from the burning of ores. The smelter’s cinder bank along the Aquashicola holds thirty-three million tons of refuse from eighty years of smelting: zinc, cadmium, manganese, arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals and toxins in a mountain-ridge of waste. Two-hundred-feet high, a thousand-feet wide at its maximum, and almost three miles long—Google “Palmerton” and you can see the cinder bank (as it is called) from the satellite view. The cinder bank is now terraced in wavy Nazca lines, presumably to slow down the progress of heavy metals into the river. But this pile, too, is part of the natural world—the world turned inside out, an evisceration of the hills, their contents brought to the light and spilled in every direction. Palmerton is a frame of a larger picture, a place greatly changed at rapid speed, where geology and biology continue to work. Where rain falls, where tardigrades might still wait in suspended animation under stripped grey trunks. Where Superfund money pays for sod and saplings. Where the biological mechanism of reclamation is carried out by government agents, and pioneer scrub from blown seeds and pips shat by passing birds.
The normal circumstances of nature come easily: verdant fields, deep forests, dusky hills, and dark wild waters. But what about the unusual circumstances, the nature that is we, that is domestic, inside, and surrounding?
I sometimes hear cries against classifying violence, whether physical or environmental, as natural behavior. People say that to call a horrific act “natural” is to excuse it and to invite accusations of being biologically deterministic. But this reduces the argument to ridiculous simplicity, and so allow me to reduce it in another direction:
What relation does a human hunter, of whatever kind, bear to a macrophage or other apex predator?
Predation, the earliest form of violence, where violence is defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something,” evolved more than a billion years ago in the Precambrian Era with the first cellular life that evolved to feed on photosynthesizing cyanobacteria. Where would we (or cobras, grey wolves, praying mantises) be, if not for the early evolution of strategies that allowed some organisms to bypass photosynthesis and nourish themselves by engulfing others?
This is not to condone violence—but to suggest that we can never escape nature, even at our worst.
This is not to say natural equals good. Remove the culturally constructed portion of the definition and “natural” becomes chemistry, geology, natural selection. Natural is about iron ore smelted with coke in a blast furnace, vulcanism worked by mammalian hands.
This is to say that natural and nature can’t only be Out There and The Other—in fact, they are not the other at all. Nature and natural are in here, in the springs of this couch and in the division of my skin cells.
When I was about thirty, I felt that I was somehow losing the ability to distinguish between the green world and steel. (That sounds airy-fairier than I mean it to be.) Or maybe I just didn’t want to keep doing the work. Understand that I still escape to the woods to camp as often as possible, that I smell the car exhaust and frying potatoes in my neighborhood and that I am not deaf to the morning clashing and clanging of garbage trucks.
A contributing moment: when Andreas, having hoped to leave the city for quieter habitation, the chance failing to materialize, took the attitude (with a sigh) that “You can never walk the same alley twice.” (He was trying to cheer himself up, but Heraclitus goes on record as the first to have said that you can’t step in the same river twice, real water or river of time. Nor can you fish the same water twice; the surface is never the same glass or riffle, the hatch is never the same brood of mayfly, the trout rising or holding tight to the underside of a waterlogged trunk will not be exactly the same fish two moments in a row.) The alleys change as much every day as any forest, any woodlot, with flowers mating, birds crying, mice sneaking alongside wooden garage walls. I must have been in exactly the right frame of mind to hear it, because the aphorism gained some blood and suggested a new way of looking at this city landscape. The afternoon light on stucco or an enameled car roof is as changeable and subtle as the shades of a forest of trees. The rock doves and house sparrows are not wilderness superimposed on brick on concrete; the generations of birds that have come to feed, mid-winter, on the frozen ornamental fruits of my crabapples are as coevolved with this urban space as I am. Their instincts are not the same as mine, nor their strategies, but my rooftop is as much a part of their natural world as are the fruits of my non-native fruit trees.
The cinder bank, the slag heaps, seem sometimes to be not so far from the waste piles of a colony of leafcutter ants. It’s true that the leafcutters’ bank of moldering bits of foliage and ant carapaces doesn’t cause the soil below it to become uninhabitable for all but extremophile organisms. And it’s also true that the leafcutter, while being the largest consumer of green material in any given habitat it inhabits, does not strip a tree barren, does not leave the trunk bare to grey and parch on the hillside. A leafcutter colony works with the same tireless energy as a zinc smelter or coke works operating at full capacity; it’s just that the ants are far more prudent in their resource use than are their human analogs.
Don’t make too much of my use of the word prudent. I’m not arguing for the self-aware wisdom of ants—as far as scientists know right now, human self-consciousness is special, if not a wholly unique way of interacting with and conceptualizing the world. I don’t ascribe the same level of awareness to the Formicidae. The human tendency to act contrary to our own health and safety is not what distinguishes our cinders from the ants’ leaf mold. Rather, the difference lies in the human species’ ability to outpace the mechanisms of natural selection, mechanisms that have presumably selected against (for more than one-hundred-twenty million years) ant colonies depleting their resources to the point of extinction.
But to say “we should know better” is another kind of biological determinism. We are so changeable, our species, so adaptable. We mutate our behavior to exploit every niche and material we find, like bacteriophages undergoing recombination at rates beyond those of the medical technology that tries to keep up with them. (This is not a new analogy.) We do not practice responsible usage but then, what species does, really? Natural selection has simply not yet smacked us down hard enough, broadly enough, to incur a change deeper than at the level of the individual. At the level of individual self-awareness.
Suffice it to say that wastefulness and carelessness come naturally to us. But remember that nature is not synonymous with good.
This is all just exercise. I am neither a philosopher nor a biologist, and I can only barely convey that sense of noumenal sameness of the nature of all things. A liminal perception. A broadening and opening of the bounds. I’m a fan of the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said that to talk about and describe how things are is to offer mere tautology—most of what can be said about life and the world, that has value, is literally unspeakable.
Is it all language games, then, to say look and touch and see? Can the game be made to live and carry a pulse by connecting the looking to the unspeakable? The bounds of classification count, as do the atomistic elements of the equation. The connectiveness of the elements counts, too.
So we have bounds and elements and connections, twine and copper and neural pathways. What is in a stone but molecules of minerals, and atoms of the elements that compose those minerals? I can say that basalt is primarily composed of feldspar and pyroxene. I can break it down further and explain that these are both silicate minerals and that the silicates account for the preponderance of Earth’s rocks. Silicon is element number fourteen on Mendeleev’s periodic table, a metalloid lying between aluminum and phosphorus. But what does this say of the unspeakable qualities of a chunk of extrusive volcanic rock?
When I was thirty-four or thirty-five, I began hunting. The decision to do so was based on personal ethics; I felt that, were I to continue eating meat, it was right and good for me to know how it felt to take the life I would then consume. I hunted ducks and pheasants with a friend of a friend, with a borrowed 20-gauge and my grandfather’s wool coat. We hunted a pastoral middle-ground between farm fields and open water, where the willows and cattails grew untamed, and the fauna fed on the refuse of corn and sunflower farming.
Sometimes the language games of look and listen become what is ethical? and talk about violence and what does omnivore mean? Sometimes these things grow to carry a pulse and a shotgun.
These suggestions to look and see all come down to my own tautology: I look for what I already know to be there, and so I find it and support my own scheme. And then offer that scheme to you. But it becomes an empirical truth that the world is a system, if you are willing to widen your scale.
To see and listen and look may come down to tautology, but perhaps these actions can induce a new paradigm.
I began in the woods in Pennsylvania, on the asphalt ribbons, at the Coke Works, in creek water and springhouses, in bright Chinaberries and farm middens. I say I began because these things are the wooden blocks and Legos that built me. Began again in the city, on new asphalt, with car exhaust and the perfume of linden trees, by Midwestern lakes, with mulberries and rusty green dumpsters.
Wittgenstein wrote, in his posthumously published On Certainty, that “We know the earth is round. We have definitely ascertained that it is round. We shall stick to this opinion unless our whole way of seeing nature changes. ‘How do you know that?’—I believe it.”
Priscilla Kinter has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota, where she currently teaches creative nonfiction. She has written for Public Radio and is the nonfiction editor at Midway Journal, and her work has appeared in Sentence, New Delta Review, Caketrain, and Hotel Amerika.