I’ve been thinking a lot since the weekend about some ideas that came out of one of the writing craft lectures at the Chatham residency. Some ideas that seem a bit problematic to me. I’ve been struggling to make sense of these thoughts. I realized yesterday that the term I’ve been reaching for, the idea that feels problematic to me, is atavism. In a social science context, atavism is used to discuss culture, the concept of modern people reverting to ways of thinking and acting that are throwbacks to a former time. And in this sense, that former time is usually looked on nostalgically, almost reverently. This seems to be a common thread in a lot of nature/environmental writing, especially in the contemporary works, given the urgent environmental crises we currently face. Writers who feel that we need to get back to basics, a simpler life and time, before technology and science mucked things up so badly.
What’s been problematic to me about an atavistic attitude is that I’m just not sure it’s such a great idea. I love many writers’ absolute conviction that environmental issues are the single most critical thing we humans are facing, and I would also agree with that. I can even agree, to a certain extent, with the assertion that our advancements, our technologies, are the root causes of many (or most) of our social problems, especially environmental. But these writers too often also have what feels like an overly romanticized view of “nature.” Maintaining what seems to me an idealized view of life as it used to be, the agrarian, close-to-the-land lifestyle, or the belief that we all, unilaterally, need to to aspire to return to that, to heal ourselves and the planet, is where I diverge. While I think that is a lovely, admirable goal, it’s just not that realistic. And it idealizes a way of life that is impractical and perhaps impossible for a lot of people. It’s a way of life I’m not sure I myself would want.
Sure, it would be nice to quit society and move to the country and live lightly, live off the grid. But unless everyone commits to that – which is unlikely – there are lots of people who can do really amazing environmental work within the society we’ve created, who can find ways to see, and help others see/find the “wildness” and “wilderness” (terms that get tossed around a lot by nature writers) in their own spaces and places, as they are now. I like to think that I can do that. People I know can do that. And that we too can make a difference.