Seminar in Composition
Dr. Adam Johns
November 14, 2014
What is Nature?
Wilder defines nature in By the Shores of Silver Lake as a thing of beauty and innocence that one should take time to appreciate. Although she does not outwardly make this definition, she demonstrates it several times throughout the reading. Wilder uses Laura as her example to the readers. She shows how nature and innocence can be lost in the progression made by the greed of mankind. This is an argument of the effect of progression also runs rampant in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire.
The character Laura is a free spirited, adventurous child. She possess within herself the innocent and full-hearted adoration of the beauty around her that is uncorrupted by cruelties and reality of the changing West. In the chapter “Silver Lake,” Laura gets consumed by the beauty of the sunrise. She takes the time to enjoy this awe-inspiring moment that most people would take for granted or not notice in the chaos of their day. “You should have seen the sunrise… I just had to watch it,” (Wilder, 72). Laura’s childish adoration of the beautiful world around her is something that many naturalists may want us to aspire to. To walk outside and notice the simple, free world that we have the honor of living in.
Edward Abbey has a lust for being outdoors. When the weather gets hot, he abandons the security of his trailer the spent almost all of his time outside; eating, sleeping, everything to keep him closer to his love. Similarly, Laura has a seemingly burning desire to be out of the house. On pages 159 to 160, Wilder states, “Often she was restless in the house. Then she would walk from window to window, looking into the whirl of snowflakes and listening to the wind… When the sun shone, no matter how cold it was, Laura must go out.” This eagerness appears to more than just childish restlessness; it has a sort of passion to it that drives Laura’s life. If she had it her way, she would never settle down. She would prefer to explore the West and its undiscovered beauty rather than be suck in place following her mother’s footsteps as a teacher.
I fully support Wilder’s definition of nature. I, too, see it as a requited love that shows us the simple pleasures of life that can be enjoyed. As we go about our busy lives as the elder Wilders do, we often take for granted the natural luxuries granted to us. In modern times, when we choose to take in these beautiful aspects of the environment, it is through the means provided by industrial tourism that Desert Solitaire combats. I believe that Abbey would love to have Laura’s opportunity to see the country in its original, untouched state before it was scarred by modern industry. While By the Shores of Silver Lake depicts the beautiful innocence of a child’s take on nature, Abbey’s Desert Solitaire lays out the cruel, degrading effects our modernization has on this view of nature.
The mysterious wolves seem to pose as a symbol of the West. New and uncharted places are often viewed as hazardous just as the wild wolves are. As man starts to colonize the West, the wolves start to vanish along with the fears and speculations of the new land. But is this a good thing? Could it be that by not chasing Laura and Carrie the wolves showed their innocence and vulnerability that is also that of the West’s? Laura subconsciously hints to this realization when she states, “I hope you don’t find the wolf, Pa… Because he didn’t chase us,” (Wilder, 1680). Upon learning of the wolves being driven by hunger from their den Laura sympathizes with them saying, “Oh, Pa, the poor wolves,” (Wilder 172). While they are dangerous animals that should be approached with caution, Laura understands that they are creatures trying to survive just as her and her family. The wolves are merely a small-scale representation of what eventually would happen to not only the West or even just America, but the whole world.
We cannot forget the mystical view Laura has of the buffalo wallow that little baby Grace ran off to and truly mesmerizes Laura with the thoughts of fairies. This is the same kind of mystical mesmerizing effect that the Rainbow Bridge has on Abbey in “Down the River.” Upon finding it, and regretting not having Newcomb with him to see it, Abbey says, “No man could have asked for a lovelier defenestration. Through God’s window to eternity,” (Abbey, 192). It is on this same page that Abbey makes an excellent point about the changes taking place in the environment around him that can also be paralleled to the changes occurring in the West during Laura’s time. “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare, said a wise man. If so, what happens to excellence when we eliminate the difficulty and rarity,” (Abbey, 192). As we currently know, the West has become greatly populated since Laura’s time. Almost all the buffalo that created the beautiful fairy ring have been killed off and so the number of “poor wolves” has declined. We could possibly infer that if Laura had known the changes that would create Abbey’s West she would not be so eager for change.
Perhaps we can make a theoretical timeline between Wilder’s story and Abbey’s work. Wilder’s book takes place during the settlement of the American West. The railroad is being built to allow for the expansion of the nation through the untouched prairies and meadow-lands. Eventually, as more and more people see the possibilities the West holds, they move to Utah and its surrounding states which gradually become more and more populated. One day someone opens their eyes, as Laura did many years prior, and sees the beauty around them. A beauty so magnificent it must be made known to the world. Forget about the beauty that can be found in the nature of your own backyard, you need to see Arches National Monument. And it is spectacular. But with recognized beauty comes popularity just like in high school. The more people who come to see the beauty of the West, to more money is made. Edward Abbey is hired as a ranger and Desert Solitaire shows us the outcome of this “industrial tourism” that is created. Laura’s West is gradually modernized toward so-called progress that Abbey tries to fight.
Biologist and naturalist Edward Wilson addressed the abuse and modernization of our world in his article “What is Nature Worth?” In this, he measures the literal value of nature and weighs our treatment of it to the future outcome. His view of the matter is one that you may expect from a naturalist but is also one that I, along with many others agree upon. “Being distracted and self-absorbed, as is our nature, we have not yet fully understood what we are doing. But future generations, with endless time to reflect, will understand it all, and in painful detail. As awareness grows, so will their sense of loss” (Wilson, 22). Hasn’t this been true thus far? We look back to our actions of the past and often regret the decisions our ancestors made that lead us to our current state. If only they didn’t rely so heavily on asbestos. If only they took greater precautions. If only they realized what the greater outcomes would be. If only.
We have the technology and the evidence of history to see where our path of progression will lead us. We know what the costs are. We just have to decide if the progression that destroys Laura’s world is worth it. How much is Nature Worth? I believe that Wilson said it best:
“The issue, like all great decisions, is moral. Science and technology are what we do; morality is what we agree we should or should not do. The ethic from which moral decisions spring is a norm or standard of behavior in support of value, and value in turn depends on purpose. Purpose, whether personal or global, whether urged by conscience or graven in sacred script, expresses the image we hold of ourselves and our society. A conservation ethic is that which aims to pass on to future generations the best part of the nonhuman world. To know this world is to gain a propriety attachment to it. To know it well is to love and take responsibility for it. (Wilson, 39)
Nature cannot defend itself. It is as innocent as a child. It relies on those who are entrusted with its care. Should nature be neglected, there is no bringing it back. Just as with a loss of a child, the one’s whom it was entrusted with may forever be burdened with the pain of their loss. Without nature what would our life be? We would have nowhere to escape to and something beautiful about the mysticism of the outdoors would be gone from our lives forever. Wilder’s definition of nature is highlighted countless times throughout her writing along with Abbey’s. It is seen through the eyes of an innocent and good-hearted child as well as a vulgar and often bitter man. Both appreciate the land around them in a way that is not common to those among them. One must have the enthusiasm of Laura, or at least the awareness of Wilson or Abbey, for the world to stay the magnificent place that it is. Nature is the most powerful and powerless entity known to us. With it, no words can describe the wondrous beauty of a Western sunrise over an untouched prairie. Without it, those wonders would be nothing but words in a book. Man wouldn’t even have to opportunity to know what it may be like to “look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities” (Abbey, 6).
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Touchstone, 1990. Print.
Wilder, Laura I. By the Shores of Silver Lake. Harper & Row, Publishers Inc., 1971. Print.
Wilson, Edward O. What is Nature Worth? The Wilson Quarterly (1976-) 26.1 (2002): 20-39.