Thinking I have hours stretching before me, I’ll occupy myself otherwise only to discover how little time I left myself for writing.
Summer starts for me mid-June, when my child’s school year ends and the promise of long days beckons. We spend more time on adventures and work on projects instead of rushing to school and completing homework.1 There are trips to the pool and beach, with an occasional pajama day celebrated. For us, summertime always seems to be a bit more. More social invites, ranging from weddings (the bride was lovely, of course) to vacations. Several family and friend birthdays are also sprinkled through the summer, providing yet another reason to get together at a barbecue and at poolside.
But all this more does tend to mean we seem to spend much of our time on the go (particularly weekends), punctuated with the rare, lazy pj day that has a way disappearing with little accomplished. As for those pool and beach days, they also tend to consume an entire day, leaving one exhausted and, perhaps, a bit sunburned). Throw in the odd head cold/seasonal allergies, and it seems that summer evaporates with very little writing done. Whatever happened to summer’s more-ishness?
Summer did. Distractions abound through the year, but beautiful days coupled with the prospect of visiting friends, summer activities such as sports and music lessons,2 as well as road trips makes it easier to slip away from a keyboard. There is also the slipperiness of time itself. Freedom from a fixed schedule, while it promises more opportunity to play as well as to write, curiously unmoors my sense of passing time. Thinking I have hours stretching before me, I’ll occupy myself otherwise only to discover how little time I left myself for writing. Rather unfairly, having more unscheduled time seems to leave more pages blank than when I barely have a moment between activities.
I suppose there’s nothing like the pressure of deadlines and multiple tasks looming to motivate one’s writing. There’s something unpalatable, however, about the notion that one could only really write under some (but not too much) pressure. Surely, one can relax a bit and still write? After, some many say that writers should be in the habit of writing. Perhaps, it’s habit that helps us overcome distraction, lacking motivation, and the notion of “I’ll do it in a bit”. What this summer might need (however close its end may be) is a writing schedule.
Once I get back from my weekend at the shore.
Homework becomes a group effort, when you’re obliged to check it. ↩
I’m pleased to announce that my child now plays the trumpet instead of the recorder. My ears are endlessly relieved—and our canine guests are marginally less dismayed. (Recorder music strikes terror in the heart of arthritic terriers, causing them to—unprecedentedly—leap, run, and hide.) ↩
Travel acts as an agent of change, relocating characters and propelling them into new situations.
If reading is akin to journeying into the perspectives of others, then it’s little wonder that some of those vantages will include actual voyages. Travel1 in writing fascinates, because of its seemingly endless vistas, encounters with fascinating folk, and potential for adventure, adversity, and the unexpected. For fiction writing (our focus here), only the writer’s imagination serves as the limit: travel can acquire fantastic elements (ie, time travel, interstellar exploration) or mirror the more mundane to remarkable expeditions currently within the realm of possibility. However, travel’s role in fiction isn’t limited to bringing characters in contact with new places, people, and experiences. Travel also quietly influences some of the less overt areas of storytelling. Here’s three ways in which travel more subtly shapes a story.
Hooked on Travel
Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse opens with the Ramsay family discussing a possible expedition to said lighthouse, the train in “The Story-Teller” by Saki (more formally, H. H. Munro) is already en route to its next destination as the story of a bachelor and three bored children starts, and Yosiko Uchida’s “Tears of Autumn” introduces us to Hana Omiya as her long trip across the sea concludes. Countless stories ranging from the classics (The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer) to children’s literature (The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett) mention travel in their story hooks for a good reason: travel intrigues readers, because it evokes notions of discovery, exploration, and escape. When people travel, they alter their routine, and readers become curious as to why. Consider Uchida’s character, Hana, who watches the American coastline approach in the beginning of “Tears of Autumn”. Whether readers accurately assume that she’s an immigrant or guess that she’s a visitor, they likely will ask why she chose to venture so far from home, where she is headed, and what she expects to do when she arrives. And that’s what hooks are meant to do: present scenarios that intrigue readers and leave them with questions that will motivate them to read more.
In the Mood to Meander
Travel’s most discernible effect on storytelling occurs in the setting. Setting, of course, depicts where the story occurs, and travel obviously allows writers to use multiple settings.2 As Courtney’s Carpenter’s article reminds us, setting also conveys critical background information about (to name a few) a story’s timeline, its climate, and, importantly, its mood. Mood is the oddball of setting. While most other features of setting provide concrete details that establish an impression of a specific place and time, the mood instead evokes feelings about that place within the reader. Fortunately, travel creates natural opportunities3 for writers to describe their setting and its associated mood as characters survey their surroundings. In “Tears of Autumn”, Uchida describes Hana arriving on a “small ship that shuddered toward America in a turbulent November sea. She shivered as she pulled the folds of her silk kimono close to her throat and tightened the wool shawl about her shoulders….” In addition to leaving clues that suggest Hana’s homeland (Japan), her approximate location (ship approaching west coast of North America), the weather, and an idea of when she sailed (probably before the 1940s4), this excerpt gives readers a feel for this place. Uchida’s wording here—“turbulent…sea” and the small boat’s shudder echoed by Hana’s shivers—suggests a cold, unsettled environment. The combination hints at apprehension, thus neatly prefiguring Hana’s worries about her new homeland and husband. Whether the mood concurs with the viewpoint character’s feelings (as occurs here) or counters it, travel lets writers move their characters while setting up the story’s emotional undertones, thus giving readers a sense of the story’s upcoming conflicts.
Motivation: The Why Behind the Wander
Travel acts as an agent of change, relocating characters and propelling them into new situations. Behind these journeys, however, exists some goal or desire. Falling under the umbrella of character motivation, such goals provide rationale that explains why characters exit their familiar environs. Within this context, the underlying motives for travel can profoundly affect the story regardless of whether (a) travel is central to the narrative and (b) is the character’s primary motivation/goal in the story. And fictional characters, much like real people, roam for myriad reasons. While such motivations can be straightforward, some tales obscure character’s true motives. In Rebecca, author Daphne du Maurier introduces Max de Winter and the narrator, the future Mrs. de Winter, while they’re traveling. The narrator’s reason for being in Monte Carlo is transparent: she works as a paid companion. However, most people assume that Max travels to distance himself from his grief, an assumption that appears to be confirmed when states he want to forget his past. Although it’s true he wants to escape his memories, it has nothing to do with sorrow.5 Lacking this insight, the narrator misconstrues Max’s behavior throughout the novel and becomes convinced he wed her solely to avoid being alone.
Neither misdirection nor complication, however, are uncommon when dealing with characters’ motivation. Writers frequently compel their characters to undertake journeys for several, nuanced, or even complex reasons. Hana Omika’s ostensible reason for sailing to the United States is to get married. Of course, one needn’t cross an ocean to wed. Clearly, this independent-minded young woman seeks more than matrimony, namely greater freedom than her family and village would otherwise allow had she remained in Japan. Finally, it’s important to remember that, since travel can be transformative, character motivation may alter in response to events occurring on a trip. This effect is most clearly observed when adventures take disastrous turns. In such tales, characters’ former reasons for travel are swept away as their goal becomes survival (eg, the shipwreck in Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch). Even in less dramatic instances (eg, when Macon Leary’s bad back inadvertently leads to him confronting his lifelong inaction in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist), the results are the same: the character’s desires change. No matter where the will to wander leads characters or how circumstances change its direction, characters reasons for setting forth helps shape how the story’s conflicts and plot unfold.
Travel allows writers a broader landscape in which they set their characters afield. But in the subtler aspects of storytelling, they also can incorporate details that captures readers’ interest, direct their feelings, or show them the desires that launches these journeys. As these example show, stories gain depth and direction when writers focus their efforts on both evident and understated features of their travel stories.
While we tend to think of travel in terms of vacations, travel technically encompasses many types of journeys of varying lengths and import. Travelers can be sailors, refugees, holiday makers, pilgrims, explorers, commuters, soldiers, pilots/air stewards, business people, etc. ↩
In fairness, these locations may only be mentioned in passing or implied (in the sense that a traveler had to come from somewhere). ↩
Traveling excels at making people observe the surrounding when they are on the move or when they arrive somewhere. In fiction, therefore, nothing seems more natural than when a narrator or a viewpoint character takes a moment to comment on the scenery as they pass by. ↩
Since Hana arrives by boat, there’s a strong likelihood her flight occurred before the 1960s when flying started to become more accessible. Her travel, however, likely occurred before the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II (1941). As it happens, the United States and Canada both severely limited Japanese immigrants in 1907/8 under the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan. In the United States, “picture brides” such as Hana were permitted to immigrate up to 1924, after which all Japanese immigration was banned until 1965. ↩
Max likely wants to escape a bit more than his bad memories. Since most believe he and Rebecca were happily wed, he has no reason to dispel the notion that he mourns her. He’s the sort who would choose to keep his marital distress private in any case, but he certainly has additional cause to maintain appearances. ↩
As Carson readily points out, most pesticides and herbicides do not solely target the intended pest but harm all life in the area.
Without fail, each Earth Day brings mention of Rachel Carson’s most famous work of nonfiction, Silent Spring1—a book renowned for its role in forwarding the modern environmental preservation/conservation movements. Although published more than 50 years ago, this book, meant to raise awareness about the dangers of pesticides and herbicides commonly used in the early 1960s, continues to resonate with readers today. There is good reason for this continued interest. While one might reasonably expect a book discussing such a serious topic to be a dry but dire treatise, Carson surprises with her eloquence, her clear but never tiresome description of scientific knowledge, and her passionate reproofs of shortsighted policies.2 And while our worries for this world may have changed (and indeed may have worsened), many of her concerns remain relevant.
Water must also be thought of in terms of the chains of life it supports— from the small-as-dust green cells of the drifting plant plankton, through the minute water fleas to the fishes that strain plankton from the water and are in turn eaten by other fishes or by birds, mink, raccoons— in an endless cyclic transfer of materials from life to life.
To discuss impact of pesticide and herbicide usage, Carson needed to dispel the notion that such chemicals found in household products and applied to lawns, gardens, fields, and forest were “safe”, an impression conveyed by the manufacturers and government agencies alike. Carson, therefore, had to educate her audience about how ecosystems function, how chemicals agents operate and spread through various environments into others, and how exposed species (both human and non-human) were affected. She happened to be ideally suited for this task. Science and writing were Carson’s twin passions, and she utilized both professionally at US Bureau of Fisheries (later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service) and when writing for the Baltimore Sun. She eventually transitioned to writing about science full time, publishing articles in the Atlantic and The New Yorker as well as bestselling nonfiction books about maritime species and environments. With this experience, she painstakingly (but never condescendingly) translated the technical scientific data underwriting her contentions into the crisp prose seen in Silent Spring.1, 3, 4 Indeed, one of the achievements of Silent Spring is that it serves as an excellent layperson’s primer for environmental studies.
How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?
The picture Carson paints, beginning with the imaginative exercise of small town suffering from an ecological devastation to the actual places suffering devastating drops in beneficial insects such as wild pollinators,5 bird, fish, and other animal populations—not to mention pet and human life—is a disturbing one. As Carson readily points out, most pesticides and herbicides do not solely target the intended pest but harm all life in the area. Pesticides either infiltrate ecosystem food chains and the surrounding soil and waterways, indirectly poisoning or killing other living beings. These chemicals, shown to persist long after application, continue to do damage as they chemically alter and/or combine with other pesticides used, potentially magnifying their destructive capacity. And the damage continues into the next generation, as reduced reproductive capacity is also seen among exposed creatures.
While this may seem like a regrettable necessity to protect crops or to decide between protecting trees or birds (to use her example), Carson reveals that the benefits of pesticides are remarkably short lived as they require repeats applications, often with increasingly deadlier pesticides since the surviving pest insects are immune to previously applied pesticides. Instead of eliminating pests, a pesticide-resistant species is bred. To further illustrate the futility of this exercise, Carson describes several, more effective methods for controlling pest species (both plant and insect), among them employing less broadly toxic and safer pesticides (eg, pyrethrin), using appropriate fungicides, selective (versus blanket) spraying, introducing predator species, and increasing biodiversity; she also points to promising approaches in development. Not content to count the loss in terms of life and beauty, Carson also points out the dramatic costs involved with using chemical versus the usually less expensive, more successful alternatives she suggested. She is also quick to add another economic cost associated with destroying natural habitats: tourism is negatively affected by blighted vegetation and dying birds and fish.
The key to a healthy plant or animal community lies in what the British ecologist Charles Elton calls “the conservation of variety.” What is happening now is in large part a result of the biological unsophistication of past generations. Even a generation ago no one knew that to fill large areas with a single species of tree was to invite disaster. And so whole towns lined their streets and dotted their parks with elms, and today the elms die and so do the birds.
Lyrical Writer, Passionate Defender of Nature
Although Carson’s book focuses heavily on the damage wrought by indiscriminate pesticide and herbicide usage, readers can readily discover passages describing the beauty of the natural world she loved throughout her text. Her imaginary small town that “lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields” evokes numerous rural places found throughout the United States (Carson 1). Her description of the western grebe is similarly vivid:
the western grebe…is a bird of spectacular appearance and beguiling habits, building its floating nests in shallow lakes of western United States and Canada. It is called the “swan grebe” with reason, for it glides with scarcely a ripple across the lake surface, the body riding low, white neck and shining black head held high. The newly hatched chick is clothed in soft gray down; in only a few hours it takes to the water and rides on the back of the father or mother, nestled under the parental wing coverts (Carson 47).
Carson’s compelling imagery enchants, just as the juxtaposition of dead animals (the western grebe were decimated by DDD [a chemical cousin of DDT] in the 1950s) and wasted swaths of vegetation shock. When we witness this beauty and contrast it with the results of indiscriminate pesticide and herbicide use—agents that often cause much harm with few results—it’s easy to understand why Carson felt compelled to speak for the wild places and their inhabitants.6
The Continuing Call
As biographer Linda Lear notes, “Silent Spring compels each generation to reevaluate its relationship to the natural world.”3 It also reminds us that we are very much part of that natural world, which means the decisions we make for nature our ones we make for ourselves and future generations. It’s difficult to read Carson’s words and disregard the potential for harm we may do, should we not heed her call.
I used this copy of Silent Spring as my primary resource: Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Kindle ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. ↩↩
At points, such reproofs are savage. She purposefully defines eradication to make the point that a government agency’s multiple “eradications” of gypsy moth are in fact glaring signs of pesticide failure: “Eradication” means the complete and final extinction or extermination of a species throughout its range. Yet as successive programs have failed, the Department has found it necessary to speak of second or third “eradications” of the same species in the same area (Carson 157–8). ↩
Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise involved with properly reading Sylvia Plath’s novel,1The Bell Jar, is discovering how a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1953 manages to seem contemporary even as it remains so firmly rooted in its own period.2 Undoubtedly, there are timeless aspects to story arcs that move characters from innocence to experience, just as we find that the issues women grapple with in this book (the double standard, for one) are all too familiar. But what makes The Bell Jar so relatable is its captivating protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Esther is witty, sensitive, occasionally angry, often funny—and not at all what a reader expects to discover in a novel renowned for its suicidal heroine.3 But as The Bell Jar often proves, our assumptions don’t always match our expectations.
“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”
The Grim and the Glamorous
From the outset, the sharply observant Esther is aware of how appearances might mislead. Plath’s narrator, an older Esther, describes the morbid thoughts she had about executions and cadavers when she spent part of her summer in New York City at age 19. But from the outside, Esther’s life seems to have all the hallmarks of an American success story: Hailing from an impoverished middle-class background, she’s a “scholarship girl” who wins a position as a summer intern at women’s magazine—an incredible opportunity for someone with writing aspirations—where she attends parties and receives gifts. As she explains, anyone would assume she was “having the time of [her] life” when she instead struggles to get “[her]self to react”. Just as Esther wryly undercuts the image of the glamorous party the interns attend by pointing out the male guests were hired for the photo shoot, Plath exposes the invisible illness haunting a smart young woman’s New York adventure. Plath’s handling here is sure: stereotypical portrayals of mental illness4 are eschewed by showing Esther as nearly indistinguishable from the other smiling interns (significantly, they’re dressed alike) in the magazine spread. In doing so, Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.
“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”
Psyche Under Pressure
Having stripped away Esther’s smiling veneer, Plath better acquaints the reader with Esther’s background and aspirations. Esther, as magazine editor Jay Cee quips, “wants to be everything”: writer, academic, editor, traveler, lover, wife and mother. And while they are the most socially acceptable choices, Esther feels most ambivalent towards marriage and motherhood. Raised by a widowed working mother, Esther sees the pitfalls of marriage (financial vulnerability, drudgery) more clearly than fellow intern, Betsy, a naïve Midwesterner who wants a traditional marriage. Doreen, in contrast, rebels against deadlines and social mores alike in her quest for adventure in New York. While Esther shares Doreen’s cynicism and humor, she finds Doreen’s seemingly violent sexual encounters repellent and untenable given her limited means. Esther is left with uncertainty, as neither model suits her.
This pattern holds true when Esther examines her options for the future, since her unconventional ambitions don’t mesh well with social expectations for women in the sexist 1950s. Evoking the image of a fig tree with diverging branches, Esther sees her choices as being mutually exclusive. Certainly, the various people attempting to influence her future path imply as much: instructors indicate family must be sacrificed for career, her mother pressures her to learn a marketable skill (dictation) instead of gambling on a writing career, society and family insists her proper role is that of wife, and chauvinist Buddy Willard, the boy she’s dating, insinuates a few kids might cure that urge to write poems.5 Coupled with her ongoing pressure to excel academically,6 Esther appears to experience herself almost as two fragments: the outwardly cheerful achiever and the angry hidden self who chafes against her limitations. Approaching her final year of school, she finds herself filled with crippling indecision and feels that her successes thus far are meaningless outside college.7 While there’s no definitive explanation as to what precipitates depression, Plath could be arguing that society is what ails Esther.
“I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason.”
The Bell Jar Descends and Lifts
It is, however, apparent that an attempted rape rapidly followed by a serious academic disappointment serve as the triggering events for Esther’s mental health crisis. Although Esther’s breakdown is foreshadowed, the change it brings in her startles: she stops bathing, sleeps poorly, and, alarmingly, cannot write. Plath spends the latter half of the novel exploring misconceptions and stigmas surrounding mental health issues as well as critiquing how this illness is treated. Mrs. Greenwood, for example, fails to understand that Esther’s condition is not a choice and believes Esther could get better if she just tried or instead helped out others suffering greater misfortunes. As a layperson, her erroneous views are understandable, whereas Dr. Gordon (her first psychiatrist) disinterest in discussing her issues almost seems negligent, particularly after her prescribed shock therapy is administered incorrectly. Esther, desperate to avoid another traumatic shock session and convinced that her case is impossible, attempts suicide. Still alive and agitated, Esther is placed in a series of asylums. As it becomes clear to Esther once her scholarship sponsor pays for her to move to a better institution, money determines the quality of the patient’s care.
Not long after Esther settles into the new asylum, Esther meets Joan Gilling. Not only do they share the same hometown, church, and acquaintances, but they’ve both dated Buddy (neither are fans) and attempted suicide. While foils Betsy and Doreen represent extremes of sexual values, Joan serves as a near double to Esther since her journey through mental illness darkly mirrors Esther’s own until Joan succeeds in killing herself. While it’s never clear why one lives and the other does not, Joan’s death reminds readers and Esther’s alike that might also have been Esther’s fate. Esther, however, continues improving. And though some remain wary of her or wish to move on as though nothing happened (her mother in particular), Esther accepts that her illness is an important part of her history that she cannot ignore as there’s no guarantee that the bell jar wont’ descend again. It’s with this sobering, but clear-eyed acceptance that Esther moves toward whatever her future holds.
Unlike the first time I picked it up and partially skimmed it during a busy term (I was studying abroad), which really didn’t do it justice. ↩
And that includes the period’s casual racism and homophobia. Significantly, Esther kicks the only non-white character, a black worker at a mental institute, with little provocation. While her disturbed mindset plays a role in her aggression, she nonetheless appears to have at least some latent prejudices regarding race and sexual orientation. ↩
While The Bell Jar is Plath’s roman à clef, I won’t be discussing making any comparisons with Plath’s life (something which has been done extensively anyway) as it tends to divert attention from discussing the book. ↩
Plath makes this point repeatedly, particularly after Esther is institutionalized, that the mentally ill do not appear different from saner individuals. ↩
So much is wrong with Buddy. Presented to Esther as a desirable marital prospect, he acts like the spiritual heir to the physician doctor from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” when Buddy tells Esther that her stuffed nose is psychosomatic and claims she’s neurotic. More reprehensibly, this “fine and clean” young man who focuses so much on Esther’s minimal sexual experience happens to be a hypocrite since he’s actually had a sexual affair. Although Buddy’s hypocrisy incenses Esther, it’s his paramour who is described as “some slutty waitress”, a detail suggesting Esther’s internalized misogyny. ↩
Fearing that she will fail a chemistry course, Esther manipulates her image as a good student to escape taking this course and earns accolades for her intellectual maturity, something which she later feels crushing guilt for doing. ↩
Esther potentially suffers from impostor syndrome: she describes an incident in which Jay Cee questions her focus and career plans as unmasking her. ↩
Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal.
During grad school, I enrolled in a course that focused on writing personal essays. While I regularly sought out opportunities to improve my writing, my interest in this course partially stemmed from my inexperience with the genre. I’d been in many writing classes and workshops since my teenaged years, but I mostly wrote poetry, fiction, and academic papers. I didn’t (and don’t) keep a journal.1 Discounting those personal statements for college applications, I’d written very little from my perspective.2 Clearly, I missed a stop on my writing journey.
As with all new to new-ish ventures, it took me some time to acclimatize to writing personal essays: I initially found it challenging to unpack my own experiences and turn them into writing material for the weekly theme. I eventually found my pace, and some of my anecdotes made a point well or earned an intended chuckle. But I could see I still had some way to go before I reached real proficiency. And however much I enjoyed the course (reading my classmates’ essays often was inspiring), it seemed unlikely that I’d revisit the personal essay. I never felt quite at home writing about myself.
After writing about a year’s worth of blog posts, I’d like to concede that I may have been mistaken.3
Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal. Any time spent writing or learning about writing isn’t wasted for a writer,4 because more writing makes us write better. And what blogging taught me this year was that I didn’t need to make any grand decisions about future writing. As it happens, I discovered that writing from my viewpoint became easier once I recognized the direction it would take: discussing my writing and reading experiences. I don’t doubt that there are stories that are not mine to tell or genres that I will not master, but the only thing saying never did was limit the paths my writing could take. And frankly, that’s a terrible way to end a tale.
For the record, kudos to everyone who keeps a journal and can, whenever they so desire, peruse a record of events, thoughts, impressions, etc. At present, my attempts still tend to produce writing that has grating “dear diary” tone that kinda bores me. ↩
Unless we’re counting the occasional insertion of inappropriate humor and slightly knowing/know-it-all tone, in which case yes, that would be me. ↩
Before this descends into a not-so-humble brag, I’ve still think I’ve ways to go before I hit the summit for amazing writing. ↩
As it happens, I left that class with a greater appreciation of the personal essay format, which helped me become a more critical reader of them. ↩
In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf seeks to reintroduce the English-speaking world to a once famed but largely forgotten figure who shaped how we view nature: Alexander von Humboldt.
In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf seeks to reintroduce to the English-speaking world a once famed but largely forgotten figure who shaped how we view nature: Alexander von Humboldt.[*] Prior to Humboldt’s scientific exploration of South America, western society largely assumed nature behaved much like a complex machine that was, for the most part, stable and unchanging. Many believed that nature existed for humanity’s use, and some even argued, as French naturalist George Louis de LeClerc (Comte de Buffon) did, that wilderness was a wasteland that required civilizing. No one, as Wulf emphasizes, concerned themselves with the possibility that nature could be damaged or destroyed. However, Humboldt’s observations in South America (then a colony of the Spanish Crown) led him to a very different conclusion.[†]
The “Web of Life”
While in South America, Humboldt intended to collect plant and animal specimens and record empiric data (eg, air and water temperature) as most naturalists did. However, the Prussian-born polymath had an additional aspiration: he wanted to see how natural forces worked in concert. Seeking a “big picture” view of nature, Humboldt’s approach was interdisciplinary and incorporated aspects of art, philosophy, poetry, history and politics. Humboldt’s choice to be inclusive and to compare across disciplines was unique, given that most scientific studies tended towards specialization and excluded the arts. His study of nature was not merely intellectual but also embraced emotional responses to the natural world.
With this “global view”, Humboldt’s radically revised the way in which nature was perceived. Far from the faithful machine depicted by René Descartes and others, Humboldt realized that nature was a delicately balanced “web of life”, one that human could tear asunder. While at Lake Valencia, Humboldt discovered that clear cutting a forest for cash crops yielded barren fields, a dried up river, and soil erosion. The first to recognize forests’ ecological role (ie, cooling effect, retention of water and soil), Humboldt would warn against irresponsible farming and mining practices. Thus, he became a forerunner of the environmental movement.
In writing about Humboldt, Wulf seeks to illuminate the reach of his influence from his time to ours. She describes contemporary scientists whose careers were supported, launched, or even inspired by Humboldt, among them Charles Darwin. Humboldt’s prominence in the scientific community (she refers to him as its “nexus”) existed alongside his ardent support for the free exchange of ideas and democracy.[‡] In South America, he witnessed the horrors of slavery and the abuses visited on the indigenous people whose ancient cultures were destroyed. His writings condemn slavery and challenge the supposed savagery of indigenous peoples. Símon Bolívar met Humboldt in Paris and found in Humboldt someone who admired his homeland and shared his disgust with Spanish colonial rule; their conversations would lead Bolívar to consider the possibility of revolution. Humboldt’s vision of nature and popular publications resonated with writers such as English Romantic poets Samuel Coleridge and William Wadsworth; poets Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman; American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; and nature writers such as John Muir. Wulf also devotes several chapters to disciples of Humboldt who carried on his legacy.
Wulf’s admiration for Humboldt is both deserved and contagious. Discovering the “hidden” history behind concepts I studied in my undergrad science courses was exciting:[§] I had no idea that adventurous undertakings such as mountain climbing led to vegetation and climate zones, let alone who was responsible for this new way of categorizing plants. And as someone with a degree in literature and one in with environmental studies, reading about Humboldt was fascinating as I saw names from two very disciplines intermingle, whether they influenced him (eg, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, Immanuel Kant) or he inspired them (eg, Darwin, Thoreau, Muir). It truly is amazing to see how interdisciplinary knowledge unites to change the world. And it’s perhaps for this reason that Wulf hopes to restore Humboldt to his former prominence. As we now face human-precipitated climatic changes he once warned against, the interdisciplinary approaches he used will likely be needed. According to Wulf, Humboldt may well be the inspirational figure to guide us through these difficult times.
[*] Wulf posits that Humboldt’s ideas potentially were so self-evident that his contributions was forgotten but considers the anti-Germany sentiment following the outbreak of World War I as a more likely cause.
[†] An earthquake that occurred not long after Humboldt’s arrival left him shaken as it forever dispelled the notion that nature was static.
[‡] Some considered his acceptance of a pension from the Prussian monarchy hypocritical, while Humboldt looked at it more pragmatically: he could not pursue his academic studies without financial support. He did attempt to use his position to positively influence the monarchy and would successfully ensure that all slave who entered Prussia would be freed immediately. Humboldt’s commitment to democracy also meant he was bitterly disappointed when the unification of Germany led to another monarchy in place of the federation he favored.
In which I finally give the boot to a several projects on the roster and move onto better writing prospects.
After a dismal and unproductive December, picking up where I left off my writing (and, to a lesser extent, reading)[*] has been challenging, especially where it concerns this blog. Some of the seasonal posts I planned, sadly, will remain postponed until a more appropriate moment. New post ideas for the new year need to be generated (of course), and there’s the small matter of what to do with those potential posts I thought would pan out but have produced, well, nothing. Whether they were in progress or in the notetaking stage, I’m finally admitting that I won’t continue writing on those topics.
There’s something terribly sad about shelving a project that once seemed so full of promise. Yet I feel it’s one of those painful and necessary parts of writing, much akin to revisions and editing. A particular sentence may stun with its style or gorgeous imagery, but it deserves deletion if it doesn’t flow with the paragraph it belong to. Similarly, a scene that doesn’t serve the story in terms of character insight, exposition, or plot development should be cut. And the same decisions must be made for writing projects that aren’t panning out. For example, I planned to write about my travels through the Seattle area in conjunction with a book set in that locale. As I began writing, though, I discovered that the tone of the two experiences didn’t mesh well and my interest waned.[†] And if I’m not excited what I’m attempting to write, I doubt someone else will find joy there, either.
Project officially scrapped.
So, I’m back to revising my list to make sure I’m ready for a writerly 2018. While it might be difficult to discard some of my ideas (especially the ones I sunk some time into developing), I’ve gained a better understanding of what interests me as a writer.[‡] With this awareness, I can better focus my writing time on more intriguing topics. Such as this great biography about a scientist who had a significant impact on how we understand nature, a topic which I’m looking forward to discussing at length in an upcoming post.
Have you decided to shelve a writing project? What made you decide it wasn’t worth pursuing further?
[*]Bookmarks and reading lists (such as Goodreads) excel at keeping one’s place.
[†] One sure sign that a project isn’t working out for me is that I keep electing to write about something, anything else every time I attempt to work on it.
[‡] And as someone whose deleted a post that I spent significant time writing and marketing, I’m far more pleased by decision to remove what doesn’t work than keep something that I feel is subpar.