Our Dramatic Relationship With the Natural World

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Nature writing has always been a little unsatisfying to me, I’ll admit. Unlike our relationships with other humans, which are tinged with friction and love and all the other ingredients of drama, our encounters with the natural world seemed fairly static. Nature exists out there: We walk through it, we enjoy its beauty, we sometimes feel its indiscriminate wrath. But there is not much back-and-forth. Or so I assumed. This week, Kelly McMasters gave me a lot to think about, and to read, with a list of books about our connections to nature, a collection that feels especially relevant at a moment of vulnerability for the Earth. Take Akiko Busch’s Nine Ways to Cross a River, which is about her experience swimming across nine American waterways, including the Hudson and the Mississippi, each time feeling personally transformed and acquiring a new, visceral understanding of the landscape. Or Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge, about the Great Salt Lake region where she grew up, a geography, McMasters writes, of “fear and comfort,” in which a troubling rise in the lake’s water level was affecting the local humans and birds. In each of these books, people find themselves having a fraught—and dramatic—confrontation with the animals, trees, and land around them. Reading about these titles, I suddenly realized that one of my own favorite books of 2023 did exactly this same thing.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic’s Books section:

  • The novel that takes you inside a defense lawyer’s mind
  • The rise and fall of the ‘IBM way’
  • What does the working class really want?
  • The dream of a united Korea

Lauren Groff’s novel The Vaster Wilds has stayed with me since I read it earlier this year. The premise of the book sounded almost impossible to pull off: A single character—an unnamed teenage girl—is fleeing the Jamestown colony in the early 1600s after it descends into starvation and cannibalism. She begins running into the American wilderness and never stops, vaguely headed in a direction that she hopes is north, toward the French settlements. She suffers extreme and gnawing hunger, encounters bears, and survives terrifying downpours of sleet. But she also moves closer and closer to a spiritual oneness with the natural world, submitting herself to it, letting herself be enraptured by its beauty.

All the girl has to engage with is what she sees in the woods around her, and Groff makes this an electric exchange: “The trees wore coats of ice so thick that they seemed glazed over with glass, and the stars shone so bright upon the world that the world shone back at the stars in stupid dazzlement.” I worried that I might get bored following just one character and her search for food and shelter, but I was proved very wrong. Like in the books that McMasters points to, the Earth itself is a character here. The relationship is dynamic. At times, all the vastness makes the girl feel minuscule, almost nonexistent, and at other times, she conquers it, striding and huge. Just as with the story of any tumultuous romance, I wanted to see what would happen: Would nature cradle or reject her? Would she succumb to her fear of its unknown dangers or trust that she would be protected? In one of the most beautiful passages in the book, while scared she might fall through the thin ice of a river, she accepts the possibility of her death as a chance at communion, a violence that Groff renders with awe:

It was not sad to her, this idea of the river gathering her dead body up into its dark hands and carrying it bumping under the ice all the way down into the great bay, where the larger and more vicious fish would find her and eat her up, just as she had eaten the fish that thrashed within her guts now. With delight, these huge fish would strip the flesh off her bones, and thrust their heads into her viscera, and let the knobs of her spine fall from their mouths and be buried by the muck at the bottom of the bay. She preferred the fishes to the worms of the earth, for fish were a higher form of life. There would be poetry in the repetition: fish into girl, girl into fish.

Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum

Seven Books That Will Make You Rethink Your Relationship to Nature

What to Read

Nina Simone’s Gum, by Warren Ellis

In 1999, the Australian musician Warren Ellis attended a performance by Nina Simone. After the show, he snuck onstage and swiped a piece of chewed gum that Simone had stuck to the bottom of her Steinway. Twenty-two years later, Ellis’s obsession with this bit of refuse spawned this mixed-media memoir, which interweaves text and images to exalt the everyday objects and experiences that represent “the metaphysical made physical.” In it, he recounts how he took Simone’s gum with him on tour, wrapped in the towel she’d used to wipe her brow during the concert—a “portable shrine”—before storing it in his attic for safekeeping and, finally, making a cast of it for posterity. He describes the concert with pious zeal—it was “a miracle,” “a communion,” a “religious experience.” He’s self-aware enough to know his devotion is odd, but not self-conscious enough to let that stifle the joy it brings him. In a screenshotted, reproduced text exchange from 2019 with his friend and frequent collaborator Nick Cave, Ellis reveals that he kept the gum. “You worry me sometimes,” Cave replies. “Haha,” Warren writes back. “I guess I do.” — Sophia Stewart

From our list: Six books that music lovers should read

Out Next Week

📚 How Migration Really Works, by Hein de Haas

📚 Down the Well, by Joseph Blackhurst

📚 The Waltz of Reason: The Entanglement of Mathematics and Philosophy, by Karl Sigmund

Your Weekend Read

photo of sculpture of crouching woman seen from the back
Musée Camille Claudel / Marco Illuminati

Camille Claudel’s ‘Revolt Against Nature’

In 1892, the French sculptor Camille Claudel applied to France’s Ministry of Fine Arts for a block of marble. As was customary, the ministry sent an inspector to decide whether her planned work was worth the state’s support. Her plaster model, showing two nude figures waltzing, was a “virtuoso performance,” the official wrote. Not even Auguste Rodin, Claudel’s mentor, could “have studied with more artistic finesse and consciousness the quivering life of muscles and skin.” But although the ministry commissioned equally sensual works from Rodin in that era, it refused to support one by a female artist. In Claudel’s composition, the “closeness of the sexual organs” went too far.

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