Nature writing and sound

14/08/2009

Ralph Waldo Emerson

3 trees

Throughout my preparations in 2008 /2009 towards a sound installation based on a local archive of environmental field recordings, I decided to delve into the work of some of the classic nature writers, initially because I was beginning to feel a strong affinity with artists from other disciplines whose primary objective, as I saw it, was the representation of nature. For some reason I was drawn towards the American canon: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Susan Fenimore Cooper, Aldo Leopold and John Muir. I should point out that this is not a chronological order, but the order in which I read them.

Something else appealed to me. These writers stand for something particularly inspiring. Thoreau, Leopold and Muir, perhaps also Emerson, seem to me to embody wholesome values and attitudes which America and Americans still have in abundance. They offer alternative histories which resonate with all of us, but which have over the years been seriously eroded, corrupted by corporate greed, media amorality and the abuses of various political systems. In other words, many people continue to read these writers because they adhere to or would like to have the opportunity to adhere to the values they promote in relation to the natural environment.

After a second read I became interested in how each writer approached the world of sound in the natural, and to a lesser extent, the human environment. At the time I was also reading various Marxist, feminist and other ‘ideological’ critiques of the arts and wondered about the validity of a new criticism which put the author’s awareness of listening and sound at the heart of the critical process. Why not? Much has been written about sound as the poor sister of sight throughout the ages. Might there not be in our culture, in some abstract sense, a bias which can be expressed in terms of politics or gender, towards sight and against listening? Could this be a new way of reading certain literary genres? Perhaps not in the long term, but the fantasy entertained me and still does in my reading and research.

This approach – looking at writing form a sound artist’s viewpoint – is naive and leaves me open to the sort of criticism levelled at an extreme Marxist, feminist or structuralist positions in that I’m only looking at the text from one very narrow angle. But that is the nature of the text and critics have done this for centuries. It’s a function of the inevitable culture -specificity in both writer and reader.

Let’s begin with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882). I won’t even attempt to outline his importance as an inspirational thinker and writer on so many topics relating to human and natural values. But in Nature, perhaps his most famous work (which I’ve just discovered can be read online) he seems to be completely and utterly deaf. Or at least his pen is, metaphorically speaking. I found nothing in Nature which might suggest that R.W. Emerson listened to or heard anything during his frequent and extensive peregrinations through the late 19th century landscapes of North America (I use this word ‘landscapes’ deliberately). Is this lack of sonic awareness a time-specific cultural bias or is it peculiar to Emerson’s perceptive make-up?

His overall definition of nature and his ideas on the relationship between nature and art emerge from a collection of thoughts and reflections on both subjects. Here he writes with great insight and great sensitivity. For example:-

‘… all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE.’

‘Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither doest the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection.’

‘ In the woods is perpetual youth.’

‘To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field it beholds every hour a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.’

This emphasis on the visual – eye, picture – is typical of Emerson’s discourse on nature throughout the work.

Later, he talks of language as going back to ‘a correspondence between visible things and human thoughts’. The emphasis is again on the visible world – such a theory of language could have the experts debating for weeks….

Turning now to Emerson’s ideas on art and nature, there are frequent passages typical of his strong poetic turn of phrase: ‘Thus is Art a nature passed through the alembic of men’.

He writes beautifully on aspects of the artistic creative process:-

the poet… ‘unfixes the land and the sea, makes them revolve around the axis of his primary thought, and disposes them anew.’

I know from his other work that Emerson’s personal spirituality was reaching out towards a form of advaita vedanta, a non-dualism where everything is pervaded by Spirit. There are passages in Nature where we catch glimpses of this, and, despite there being no sound in Emerson’s universe, such passages redeem the work:-

‘When I behold a rich landscape, it is less to my purpose to recite correctly the order and superposition of the strata than to know why all thought of multitude is lost in a tranquil sense of unity.’

Next I’ll be discussing Thoreau’s Walden – an entirely different prospect.

This is a new topic. I’m jumping ahead of myself chronologically but hopefully the categories will keep everything, well, categorized.

Throughout my preparations in 2008 /2009 towards a sound installation based on a local archive of environmental field recordings, I decided to delve into the work of some of the classic nature writers, initially because I was beginning to feel a strong affinity with artists from other disciplines whose primary objective, as I saw it, was the representation of nature. For some reason I was drawn towards the American canon: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Susan Fennimore Cooper, Aldo Leopold and John Muir. I should point out that this is not a chronological order, but the order in which I read them.

Something else appealed to me. These writers stand for something particularly inspiring. Perhaps naively,  I look at Thoreau, Leopold and Muir, perhaps also Emerson, as embodying ‘good and true’ qualities and attributes which America and Americans still have in abundance, as offering alternative histories which resonate with all of us, but which have over the years been seriously eroded, corrupted by corporate greed, media amorality and the abuses of various political systems. In other words, many people continue to read these writers because they adhere to or would like to have the opportunity to adhere to the values they promote in relation to the natural environment.

After a second read I became interested in how each writer approached the world of sound in the natural, and to a lesser extent, the human environment. At the time I was also reading various Marxist, feminist and other ‘ideological’ critiques of the arts and wondered about the validity of a new criticism which put the author’s awareness of listening and sound at the heart of the critical process. Why not? Much has been written about sound as the poor sister of sight throughout the ages. Might there not be in our culture, in some abstract sense, a bias which can be expressed in terms of politics or gender, towards sight and against listening? Could this be a new way of reading certain literary genres? Perhaps not in the long term, but the fantasy entertained me and still does in my reading and research.

This approach – looking at writing form a sound artist’s viewpoint – is naive and leaves me open to the sort of criticism levelled at an extreme Marxist, feminist or structuralist critic in that I’m only looking at the text from one very narrow angle. But that is the nature of the text and critics have done this for centuries. It’s all about culture -specificity in both writer and reader.

Let’s begin with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882). I won’t even attempt to outline his importance as an inspirational thinker and writer on so many topics relating to human and natural values. But in Nature, perhaps his most famous work (which I’ve just discovered can be read online) he seems to be completely and utterly deaf. Or at least his pen is, metaphorically speaking. I found nothing in Nature which might suggest that R.W. Emerson listened to or heard anything during his frequent and extensive peregrinations through the late 19th century landscapes of North America (I use this word ‘landscapes’ deliberately). Is this lack of sonic awareness a time-specific cultural bias or is it peculiar to Emerson’s perceptive make-up?

His overall definition of nature and his ideas on the relationship between nature and art emerge from a collection of thoughts and reflections on both subjects. Here he writes with great insight and great sensitivity. For example:-

‘… all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE.’

‘Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither doest the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection.’

‘ In the woods is perpetual youth.’

‘To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field it beholds every hour a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.’

This emphasis on the visual – eye, picture – is typical of Emerson’s discourse on nature throughout the work.

Later, he talks of language as going back to ‘a correspondence between visible things and human thoughts’. The emphasis is again on the visible world – such a theory of language could have the experts debating for weeks….

Turning now to Emerson’s ideas on art and nature, there are frequent passages typical of his strong poetic turn of phrase: ‘Thus is Art a nature passed through the alembic of men’.

He writes beautifully on aspects of the artistic creative process:-

the poet… ‘unfixes the land and the sea, makes them revolve around the axis of his primary thought, and disposes them anew.’

I know from his other work that Emerson’s personal spirituality was reaching out towards a form of advaita vedanta, a non-dualism where everything is pervaded by Spirit. There are passages in Nature where we catch glimpses of this, and, despite there being no sound in Emerson’s universe, such passages redeem the work:-

‘When I behold a rich landscape, it is less to my purpose to recite correctly the order and superposition of the strata than to know why all thought of multitude is lost in a tranquil sense of unity.’

Next I’ll be discussing Thoreau’s Walden – an entirely different prospect.

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