Tending the Garden
Lavina Fielding Anderson, editors
From Walden Pond to the Great Salt Lake:
Ecobiography and Engendered Species Acts in Walden and Refuge
Cecilia Konchar Farr and Phillip A. Snyder
[p.197]All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. —Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”
I crossed the line at the Nevada Test Site and was arrested with nine other Utahns for trespassing on military lands. They are still conducting nuclear tests in the desert. Ours was an act of civil disobedience. —Terry Tempest Williams, “The Clan of One-Breasted Women”
It may seem a vast distance in time and place from Walden Pond to the Great Salt Lake, but with our “new historical” field glasses we can gaze dear across that distance to imagine the (un)natural well-spring [p.198]of Self/Life writing which constitutes the common source of their respective articulations in Walden and Refuge. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854), a classic American literary. text describing a transcendental personal experience with nature and writing, has helped define the possibilities of this experience for generations of readers.1 Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, a complex contemporary personal narrative, links the rising Great Salt Lake’s encroachment on the Bear River Bird Refuge with the terminal cancer of Diane Dixon Tempest, the author’s mother.2 Williams describes this nature/writing experience in terms which are very different from Thoreau’s but which nevertheless belong to the very same pastoral tradition of literary expression. Walden and Refuge are both extraordinary exemplars of a generic mode of writing we will call “ecobiography”—that is, a life-story constructed according to a pattern divined internally through the Selfs interaction with the external environment, especially Nature, the multiple exchanges between which (re)present a kind of ecosystem of the Self. All the various voices of the Self, conscious and unconscious, plus the environment within which and against which they speak, comprise the dynamic network of that Self’s ecosystem.
This creation of the Self interacting with Nature in (re)constructing a Life partakes of the mainstream American literary tradition, which itself reflects the broader, chauvinistic vision of American history as a series of predestined frontier settlings and of the American as a figure of rugged individualism whose character mirrors the vast land he (gender-specific reference intended) must tame. Both Walden and Refuge offer revisionist critiques of this simplistic, binary vision of Self as antagonist to Nature, each text with its own ideology of ecobiography turning on axes of nineteenth/twentieth centuries, eastern/western landscapes, Transcendental/Mormon revisualizations of God, and Self/Other encounters. Further, something in their respective ecobiographical acts define Thoreau and Williams as endangered, engendered species whose assertions of Self-preservation take on decidedly political agendas, defined particularly along gender lines, as essential parts of their ecobiographies. Finally, because their textual displays inevitably include certain gaps or blind spots in the depiction of Self and Life, we read between the lines and [p.199]within the margins to (de)construct their privileging of education, independence, race, class, and particularly a maternal earth.
As ecobiographies, Walden and Refuge are set in the environments of very different Americas. Written midway through the nineteenth century, Walden develops a naive view of Nature as an infinitely renewable resource whose wilderness appears available for everyone’s economic access; Refuge, published a century and a half later, describes Nature as poisoned, perhaps irremediably, by the polluted byproducts of consumer waste and warfare for which everyone is held accountable. Here Leo Marx’s vision of the “machine in the garden” shifts dramatically from Walden‘s nineteenth-century train whistle to Refuge‘s twentieth-century mushroom cloud, each dominating its respective wilderness as an extreme industrial counterpoint to the pastoral ideal, revising the notion of manifest destiny from American dream to American nightmare. Indeed, Refuge comprehends the extremity of industrial destruction that Walden only hints at, for, as Marx notes, in nineteenth-century America, “the transition to industrialism was enthusiastically endorsed as the stage of history when the direction of change finally, unmistakably acquired the character of continuous, predictable progress.”3 Refuge‘s late twentieth-century critique of this “progress” reaffirms the contemporary pastoral as “particularly well suited to the ideological needs of a large, educated, relatively affluent, mobile, yet morally and spiritually troubled segment of the white middle class.”4
In this sense of the pastoral, both texts would agree with the multiple meanings of a Thoreau quotation printed on a popular L. L. Bean T-shirt: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” This wildness operates on literal and figurative levels in each text, for their respective protagonists and environmental settings depend on “wildness”—first, for the preservation of Nature and, second, for the preservation of the Self which Nature helps construct in the best American pastoral tradition: “In the New World … it actually seemed possible, as never before, for migrating Europeans to establish a society that might realize the ancient pastoral dream of harmony: a [p.200]via media between decadence and wildness, too much and too little civilization.”5 Thoreau and Williams share this pastoral impulse toward harmony with Nature based on their common estimation of the value of wildness and on their own individual status as liminal pastoral figures. They move constantly between the lines of the civilization/wilderness binary, prototypically American in their self-possession and self-reliance within its borders, as they carefully chronicle their largely harmonic interactions with Nature. However, Thoreau’s personal philosophy of economic independence based on one’s cultivation of basic natural resources seems simplistic, especially when compared to Williams’s philosophy of complex ecological interdependence in a time of natural resource exploitation for profit. His views do not adequately anticipate what the American economy and environment would create out of the wilderness: a wildness that can exist only in expensive private recreational developments or in underfunded national public preserves.
Walden‘s landscape is intimately eastern, cozily wooded and almost womblike as a “walled-in” pond with little threat of danger to the initiated. Refuge‘s landscape is wildly western, harshly deserted, impossibly vast as the Great Salt Lake itself, with edges rough enough to harm even the most seasoned inhabitant. Walden seems the enclosing introvert that protects and nurtures, while Refuge seems the inhospitable extrovert that endangers and challenges. Richard West Sellars argues that the western landscape lacks the “intimacy” of the eastern landscape6 but inspires a “single pervasive theme in writing about West the theme of man, alone, against the grand immensity of nature—the nature of the land, reflected in his own soul.”7 Quite simply, an environment forms the character of its people after its own image, depending primarily on what that environment requires of them to survive and prosper. For Thoreau, Nature seems open and inviting and safe, with an inherent but latent sensual intimacy, as expressed in this passage: “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself” (174). Nature’s sensuality in Walden seems decidedly benign and friendly. For example, Thoreau writes of “such sweet and beneficent society [p.201]in Nature … an infinite and unaccountable friendliness … [in which] every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me” (177). Walden‘s eastern wildness may not really be all that wild, especially when compared to Refuge‘s western landscapes.
For Williams, Nature seems resistant to such intimate anthropomorphic interactions as Thoreau depicts. To emphasize this resistance, Williams anchors her text with the rising and falling lake levels, over which humans can attempt only ineffectual control. The text itself requires a complex continuity of bricolage, or of multiple hybrid combinations, for its articulation as part narrative fiction, part personal essay, part philosophical musing, and part scientific observation. The lake level notations at the beginning of each chapter reinforce for western inhabitants of the region the message of Williams’s curlews—”that you do not belong” (151)—especially on the border’s edge between the Great Salt Lake and its namesake city. That edge nearly kills Williams during one of her forays into the “forbidding landscape” (259) of the salt flats: “I have a throbbing headache, which tells me I have been ignoring my own need for water. I fear I may be suffering from heat-stroke and begin to worry about getting home. Too much exposure” (260). Here, too little potable water ironically counterpoints an over-abundance of the undrinkable. The Great Salt Lake’s aggressive encroachment on civilization also reverses the typical pattern of civilization’s encroachment on the wilderness.
In this depiction, Refuge exposes both the literal and figurative implications of the American frontier as described by Sellars: “The frontier is, then, the meeting point between myth and the more concrete reality of the western experience, the point where Utopias and Edens begin to fade into contemporary. social conditions and tensions.”8 This frontier meeting point in Refuge thus signifies an intersection of life and death, individually and familially and communally, for the atomic bomb in the southern Utah desert matches that western landscape in its enormous scope of destruction, just as Walden‘s train matches its limited eastern landscape. In short, much more seems to be at stake in Refuge than in Walden. As transformers of the wilderness, steam locomotives simply cannot compare with nuclear war engines; or, to put it another way, one can drink the waters of Walden but not of the Great Salt Lake. Environmental [p.202]survival in the twentieth-century West remains much more uncertain than in the nineteenth-century East.
Transcendental/Mormon Revisualizations of God
The depictions of God as Creator of both of these environments, eastern and western, depend on revising the Puritan concept of a stern, segregating, deterministic God. Transcendental and Mormon revisions, contemporary in their early nineteenth-century origins, each feature a “personalizing” of our relationship to God, although Walden’s deistic vision of the “great creator-artist” in Nature seems much more metaphysical or Platonic than the Mormon concept of the Godhead as three distinct individual personages—the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Nature always reveals Thoreau’s God with subtle indirection, while Mormons believe that the Father and the Son revealed themselves directly to the Prophet Joseph Smith and gave him specific direction. Nevertheless Thoreau and his contemporary Joseph Smith both reform the traditionally rigid figure of God, ordered and interpreted strictly according to authority, law, and ritual, in favor of a more flexible figure which reveals itself in diverse ways to individual human beings and, often, through Nature. In effect, they reform God in their own images.
Williams does likewise, extending her own interpretation of Joseph Smith by envisioning the Holy Ghost, the great personal Mormon comforter and revelator, as a female:
I believe the Holy Ghost is female[;] although she has remained hidden, invisible, deprived of a body, she is the spirit that seeps into our hearts and directs us to the well. The “still, small voice” I was taught to listen to as a child was “the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Today I choose to recognize this presence as holy intuition, the gift of the Mother (241).
In this transformation, Williams takes the traditional Mormon doctrine of personal revelation, as established initially by Joseph Smith’s first vision, back to its origins as the ultimate revelator of deity to the individual. Thoreau, marching to the individual beat of his “different drummer,” undertakes an analogous transformation of Emersonian transcendentalism in Walden by giving it a personal face set in a concrete earthly environment instead of Emerson’s abstract realm of the ideal. Both Thoreau and Williams also make a significant shift from their respective world views to ideological action through their [p.203]literal and literary life productions, particularly as they dramatize their natural “conversion” stories in their narratives. According to Marx, “the function of a world view is to provide a credible picture of reality, [and] the function of an ideology is to guide its adherents in changing that reality.”9 Walden and Refuge operate according to clear ideological motives and conclude with overtly political statements. Their respective revisioning of God, first in personal and then in public terms, creates the basis of their political action and constitutes the moral and ethical imperative for us to be “righteous stewards” over the natural world.
The Selves of Walden and Refuge may be situated in very different kinds of wilderness, with different gods presiding; but the voices crying out within them may be speaking to the same kind of Other, one which encompasses Nature primarily but which also includes God, family, friends, literature, history, and archeological artifacts as its constituent parts. As intertextual as these complex texts are themselves, this Other (re)presents a network of relations the Self responds to and then represents as part of its multi-genre textual construction. The Other is thus an external ecosystem which is also an internal egosystem. In postmodern terms, the Self constructs itself as an indeterminate, loose-bordered, dialogic entity, as much bricoleur as bricolage, or, as much producer as product. The Self defines the Other as much as the Other defines the Self. It becomes clear that the narrative “Is” of Walden and Refuge are as much constructed by Nature as they are constructing of Nature. In these ecobiographies, it is impossible to tell exactly where the Self ends and Nature begins or where Nature ends and the Self begins: ego and eco are inextricably intertwined, though ultimately separate.
The frontiers these Selves face are circumscribed as the literal borders of their own back yards (Walden Pond and the Great Salt Lake) and the figurative landscapes of their own psyches—nineteenth-century eastern male transcendentalist and twentieth-century western female Mormon; the exploration of one depends on the exploration of the other. In Walden, Thoreau depicts his figure of the Self as in but still somehow apart from nature and society, a self-contained individual capable of detachment and observation. His attitude seems [p.204]typical of what J. Baird Callicott describes as Western European attitudes toward Nature: alienated from the natural, in an “exploitarive practical relationship with it.”10 Though he makes a point of rejecting capitalism-he refuses to benefit economically by logging because, after all, it does not take much wood to make a pencil—Thoreau does focus on what he gets from being “in” Nature. He distances himself from it to make personal, philosophical use of it. He observes the depths of Walden Pond through its sheet of ice. He engages the loon in a chase that is, for him, limited to the surface and dependent on a boat’s mediation. He studies the villagers as if they were a town of prairie dogs and he were Emerson’s transparent eyeball, apart from, even above, both the civilized and the natural worlds. Though Thoreau pushes the edges of his nineteenth-century humanist traditions, he remains a child of the Enlightenment thinkers to whom Nature was a “machine, an extension of the mind of man.”11 In Jim Cheney’s words, he overcomes the alienation of Self/Nature only by the totalization of “absorbing the other into the self.”12
In Refuge, by contrast, Williams depicts her figure of the Self as a naturalist both in and of Nature and society, subjective despite her scientific training and dependent on the natural and social community. Her text seems informed by Native American cultural attitudes in which, Callicott notes, the “human and natural realms are unified and akin.”13 Williams immerses herself to float in and through the Great Salt Lake. She risks her life on the lake’s alkaline flatlands by venturing forth without the protection of food, water, or vehicle. In much the same way, she lies beside her dying mother to breathe with her almost as one person, and she marches with Mylar-draped women into a radioactive town. Refuge, in combining a history of family and place, creates a kind of frontier community composed of environment and inhabitants in a near-kinship relation, with Williams displaying Arne Naess’s ideal of environmental maturity: “Increasing maturity activates more of the personality in relation to more of the milieu. It results in acting more consistently from oneself as a whole.”14 Nevertheless, she still manages to maintain a distinct but slight separation of the Self from Nature as the Other, observing an essential ecobiographical difference, because to merge with Nature, according to Marx, would be to invite a “dire loss of selfhood; a [p.205]merging with the nonhuman whose ultimate form is death.”15 Life, on the other hand, depends on the Selfs engaging the Other ethically, without merger or totalization. Thoreau uses his objective distance to totalize Nature, subsuming it unto himself; Williams uses her subjective closeness to engage Nature, embracing it without totally subsuming it.
In the tradition of autobiographical writing, women writers often describe themselves apologetically by describing someone else, in what Mary G. Mason calls a “duo pattern.” Mason explains that “the self-discovery of female identity seems to acknowledge the real presence and recognition of another consciousness, and the disclosure of the female self is linked to the identification of some ‘other.”‘16 Male autobiographers, on the other hand, assume a unitary cultural self-identity that seems as “natural” to them as it seems alien to female autobiographers, given their fragmented and subordinate cultural status. In this paradigm, male lives tend to be constructed directly, according to a pattern of autonomy, while female lives tend to be constructed indirectly, according to a pattern of dependency; male autobiographers focus more on Self; female autobiographers focus more on Other. For example, though Thoreau’s move toward Nature takes him into this realm of women’s relational writing, his gendered identity keeps him solidly apart and self-assured: he depicts the figure of Self/Nature as Male/Female while Williams depicts it as Female/Female. The former is an essentially male figure of unity by domination and the latter a fundamentally female figure of unity by community. Thoreau looks to Nature as singular Other to his Self; Williams looks to Nature and to her maternal progenitors as multiple Others to her Self. Their respective ecobiographical “acts,” then, are the acts of engendered species.
Endangered Species Acts
Of course, the notion of “engendered species” plays on the concept of “endangered species” to call into question the nature of the autobiographical subject and to emphasize the uncertain outcome of the autobiographical project. This autobiographical subject is endangered because its presence to the reader in the autobiography is made possible by the inherent absences in the text, the [p.206]absences of both the “real” Self and the Other(s) that make the “textual” Self possible. As Sidonie Smith notes in her Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: “This genre [of autobiography], apparently so simple, so self-evident, so readily accessible to the reader, is ultimately as complex as the subject it seeks to capture in its representation and as various as the rhetorical expressions through which … that subjectivity reads itself into the world.”17
In both Walden and Refuge, this complex, endangered ecobiographical subject is also engendered. Each text constructs its respective Self as distinctively masculine and feminine. These engendered Selves are created by positing different relationships to the endangered subject of postmodern autobiography. For example, Thoreau’s “I” in Walden is very much like other male individualists we know from our American literary tradition: a complete, autonomous Self who would be destroyed by too much contact with civilized society. As Huck Finn avoids the Widow Douglas, Thoreau’s “I” keeps his pure inner self separate from the “dirty institutions” that would, Thoreau writes, “constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society” (218). Significantly, these “institutions” of civilization against which characters such as Huck struggle are maintained and promoted by the influence of women. The presence of this literary and historical figure of masculine American Self, even in its absence, helps us construct the “I” of Walden.
The presence of this figure also helps us to construct Williams’s “I” in a different way, one which emphasizes the centrality of gender in the construction. As Nina Baym posits in “Melodramas of Beset Manhood,” women in this schema, from the point of view of the traditional subject of American literature, and, as we have noted, of the broadest, chauvinistic vision of American history, have acted almost exclusively as “entrappers and domesticators.”18 They are the influence from which this subject needs to free himself. Williams’s “I” of Refuge is a woman in a community of women, not Thoreau’s self-contained “I” who goes to the woods alone to “suck out all the marrow of life” (135). Williams’s Self is a Self-in-Relation-in relation, that is, both to a textual community of others and to an intertextual historical and literary figure of Self which includes Thoreau. Thus the female autobiographical project functions as a dialogic connector rather than a monologic isolator; it is about the construction of [p.207]multiple Selves instead of a unitary Self; it celebrates the freedom, not the restriction, of community.
Nevertheless, while Walden and Refuge are differently engendered texts, they are, in the end, very similar in rhetorical purpose. Both are, to some extent, revolutionary ecobiographies which call for a subversion of political and socio-economic policies that deny or destroy the Self and its communities, natural and social. Their call becomes especially evident as we compare Williams’s epilogue, “The Clan of One-Breasted Women,” with Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” which usually follows Walden in contemporary editions of the text and also amplifies the night in jail episode mentioned in “The Village” chapter. Both authors encourage activism against the State for a political purpose, Thoreau to end war and slavery and Williams to stop nuclear testing. Both texts end with a plea to change the world into a better place for themselves and their communities. But here, again, the act of engendering these ecobiographical Selves makes for distinct textual differences. Thoreau argues for a State with “true respect for the individual,” for, he says, “there will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly” (413). Clearly, this closing passage of “Civil Disobedience” continues the theme of individualism so prevalent in Walden. Thoreau’s soul, like Emily Dickinson’s, wishes to—indeed, maintains the right to-select its own society. His basis for activism is individual conscience, the result being the creation of “man” (393), as he emphasizes, one who is “a majority of one” (397), one who “declare[s] war with the State … though [he adds] I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases” (407). It is consistent with Baym’s paradigm of “beset manhood” that here the State is the enemy and, not coincidentally, a prostituted female.
Refuge ends with a small group of women being dropped off in the desert by the local authorities as punishment for their activism; but, at home there, they remain “soul-centered and strong, women who recognized the sweet smell of sage as fuel for [their] spirits” (290). This community of women, tied to Mother Nature with a bond Williams makes metaphorically biological, have “crossed the line,” literally and figuratively. These and other women seem wholly part [p.208]of Williams’s Clan of One-Breasted Women, a society they could not select and probably would not have chosen. Yet, thrown together by ecobiographical necessity, their basis for activism is communal and maternal: “They would reclaim the desert for the sake of their children, for the sake of the land” (287). “Ours,” writes Williams, invoking Thoreau, “was an act of civil disobedience” (289). And to the extent that her call to arms is a call for the individual to act in opposition to religious and social institutions, she is the inheritor of his tradition of ecobiography. Echoing Thoreau, she asserts, “What I do know … is that … I must question everything, even if it means losing my faith, even if it means becoming a member of a border tribe among my own people” (286). Despite this demand for individual responsibility, however, she identifies herself, not like Thoreau, as a lone man of conscience, but as a “member of a border tribe,” whose identity is still plural, still multiple … And she does not invoke conscience as her prime motivator, but what she calls the “common, heroic deaths” of the women in her family (285).
As engendered readers and postmodern theorists, we add our own critiques between the lines of these ecobiographies on issues of unexamined and unproblemitized privilege: the privilege of class that allows both writers to move in and out of Nature in comfort and ease; the privilege of education that grants both of them access to an autobiographical voice; the privilege of whiteness that gives both a sense of self-significance; and, most centrally for this project, the privilege of western discourse that places both Thoreau and Williams in the position of Subject in opposition to an Object-Nature. Significantly this Object-Nature is, in both texts, constructed female, a construction which has undergone serious critique in recent feminist and eco-feminist criticism, beginning with Annette Kolodny’s Lay of the Land in 1975. Kolodny argues that American mythology sees “the land as essentially feminine—that is not simply the land as mother, but the land as woman, the total female principle of gratification—enclosing the individual in an environment of receptivity, repose and painless and integral satisfaction.”19 This mythologizing and romanticizing of the land leads to inevitable disappointment and, Kolodny [p.209]posits, anger. “It is anger,” she writes, that “appears today as the single-minded destruction and pollution of the continent.”20 Making it female is, in our western philosophical tradition, making it Other, the site of male dominance, the blank page he writes upon.
Williams’s female land is, of course, not as radically Other as is Thoreau’s. Indeed, she juxtaposes the pain of her Earth with the pain of her biological mother dying of cancer, and her narrative is filled with passages that emphasize her oneness with her mother and with Nature. But the result of her representation of Nature as Self in language is equally violent. We cannot overcome the violence of binary thinking by simply inverting the binary, by making Nature the Self. As Cheney points out, in this model, “there is no respecting the other as other.”21 And Karen Warren emphasizes, “Unity in sameness alone is erasure of difference.”22 Donna Harraway posits the possibility of human relations with nature which can “somehow—linguistically, ethically, scientifically, politically, technologically, epistemologically—be imagined as genuinely social and actively relational,” yet in which “the partners remain utterly inhomogeneous.”23 We propose that ecobiography, especially in the American tradition, may be the most viable route toward this goal. As the postmodern subject/Self both locates itself within and absents itself from the nature/Other it looks toward, it locates itself in the tension between Self and Other, creating a Nature that is itself and beyond itself (while creating a Self which is in Nature and beyond it), utterly inhomogeneous. Since the postmodern autobiographical project finds the Self in flux, a tissue of competing identities, it follows that ecobiography would also place traditional definitions of Nature in question and do so with the urgency of self-preservation which typifies autobiographical work in the late twentieth century.
As we imagine a postmodern ecobiography, then, we imagine further, beyond boundaries and binaries, to an eco that is not ego, a Nature that is neither Self nor Other, neither male nor female. We imagine a postmodern mode of thinking and writing about Nature that resists violence and is actively relational. And we hope, as a result, for a Nature that is neither engendered nor endangered.