Rod Dreher

Heard an interesting segment on Morning Edition driving in this morning, a bit about African-American nature poetry. Excerpt:

Camille T. Dungy, the editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry, calls her book a first of its kind. The nearly 200 poems in the anthology reach back to the mid-1700s, but Dungy says people rarely think of black poets as writing in a genre that brings to mind having the leisure — and time — to contemplate a field of flowers.
“The way that the tradition of nature poetry has taken off in America in particular is often about a pastoral landscape, a very idealized rural landscape, or a wilderness landscape in which people are involved,” Dungy tells NPR’s Renee Montagne. “And black people have been typically working in the land, and that’s not part of the idyllic version of things. And then also the majority of African-Americans have tended to live in urban landscapes, and so there’s a very different view, quite often, of the natural world.”

I had never considered how being forced to live and work close to nature by virtue of social oppression (slavery, which bound black folks to the land) would condition and complicate an individual’s or a culture’s relationship to nature. How do you learn to love the land when your face has been ground into it, so to speak? It is possible that someone forced into a marriage can learn to love his or her spouse — but how does that work, exactly?
The Dungy interview made me reflect again on my trip to the Morris Arboretum this past weekend (see my post The Garden of Memory for an account). I was so surprised by how much I was moved by the beauty of nature in the arboretum, and how spiritually vital it is to conserve these places. But then again, I always am surprised by nature. As a matter of intellectual conviction, I believe in conservation, and defend it, but I am not by temperament a nature lover. I grew up in a rural area, surrounded by nature, but unlike my sister and my father, I didn’t take to it. The nature I did respond to was cultivated nature, tamed nature — my great-great Aunt Lois’s gardens. The woods, though, was where the rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths were, and as a very young child I read a book about Bigfoot, which absolutely terrified me about the woods. Even when I got to adolescence, and could laugh about how scared I was of Bigfoot back in the day, I still had a sense that the woods concealed terrors.
I don’t think that anymore, of course, but I don’t like the sense of isolation from others one has in the forest. As a boy, I longed for the city. I wanted to see people, and bright lights, and colors. The city was where the bookstores, movie theaters and museums were. My favorite thing to do as a kid was go to the mall, not because I enjoyed shopping (I didn’t, and don’t), but because it was the only place you could really see people on that scale, and lots of them, walking around and being social. At least it was the only place where I could see them. I enjoyed the anonymity I enjoyed in tame crowds (though to this day, the idea of a riled-up crowd evokes the same stark terror that the dark forest did for me as a child). I couldn’t wait to get old enough to move to the city, because its colors, sounds and movements felt more natural to me than the world of nature in which I was raised.
I have never liked nature poetry, because pastoral imagery sounded like a foreign language to me. I mean, I understood cognitively why it was appealing to people, but it left me cold. However, I wonder if that is changing as I age. I took the Myers-Briggs test again not long ago, for the first time in a long time. I used to be an ENFP,but now am an INFP — meaning I shifted from an extrovert to an introvert. It’s true that I used to be excited by city life, and energized by it, but now it just wears me down. Crowds — even small crowds, like at big parties — used to give me energy, but now they just tax me. Conversely, Julie never could drag me to the arboretum in Dallas (and poor Rawlins Gilliland never, ever got me to go with him on a hike through the Trinity Forest), but much to my surprise, the arboretum here in Philadelphia, far from leaving me bored, filled me with a sense of renewal and, indeed, energy. I, the avid indoorsman, was going to take my family back out there on Sunday, but it was too chilly. I missed very much being in the quiet, in the serenity, surrounded by trees and flowers and flowing water.
This has never happened. I wonder what happens next?

Colors blind people’s eyes,
sounds deafen their ears;
flavors spoil people’s palates,
the chase and the hunt
craze people’s minds;
goods hard to get
make people’s actions harmful.
Therefore sages work for the core
and not the eyes,
leaving the latter and taking the former.

— Tao Te Ching

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