I confess to being a tad star struck as I sat in rapt attention listening to Akiko Busch talk about the natural world. Her demeanor–receding and assertive in turn– and her person–gray haired, middle aged, soft-spoken and thoughtful–together communicated the union she has with her subject. Not simply “nature writing,” whatever that might mean, her subject is the human mind, emotional at its core, as it experiences the natural world in whatever way it does. Her natural world is idiosyncratic, experienced episodically, and opportunity-driven in the best way. If there is a nest of owls to listen to, she will listen.
There is much to commend about Busch’s preoccupations. She is a writer who has moved from writing about human design (design ultimately is “a matter of fit” she explained) to nature writing, a move she said was easy for her to make because of the “domestic” quality of nature writing—all nature writing ultimately starts with attention to intimate details and local environs since all nature is experienced locally, immediately, and intimately. What follows does not do justice to the delicacy and rigor of her words. She has spent her life honing the skills of observation and association, and I for one felt myself to be in the company of an exceedingly interesting person as she spoke. I felt eager to hear what Busch had to say about the form of the essay, how it has changed and has not changed, how it is both anachronistic and important in the digital age. My musings here impose an order on a talk that meandered more than argued and raised questions more than offered answers.
If, as Busch asserts, the encounter between nature and human happens through emotion as well as science, what then stands in our way of seeing what is before us, of noticing that which hides in the plain sight? One obstacle is the hurry sickness that compresses our sense of time and fragments our attention. Another is the status of formal training, without which confidence in our own observational skills leeches away in this age of specialization. Busch reminds us of the great untrained naturalists Henry David Thoreau, John James Audubon, and John Muir, amateurs all whose passion for their corner of nature, their attention to intimate details and local environments, gave their work relevancy, both in the past and now as we measure the impact of global climate change. After all, she reminds us, observation is knowledge. One does not need an advanced degree to watch. This perhaps is the central point of Busch’s musing: observation and attention are forms of knowledge.
Busch offers us two examples of the intersection of science, observation and human emotion in her life. The first is intimate and domestic. Busch’s back yard is deliberately unkempt, marking where the woods recede, a once-a-year mowed mess of grass and weed and bush. She calls this the edge zone, the literal space between environments–between wood and lawn, between river and weeds, between ocean and shore, any point of convergence, where species and plants and humans come into contact each other. It is easy not to see the edge zone with our preference for the visual drama of woods, sea and river. The edge zone outside her writing window is the place where deer come out and bunnies run in, where once a bear walked out and where the writer strolls in. Here is where Busch meets nature, where she thinks about words and plants and wonders about “invasive” species that “aggressively” take over a landscape. What makes a plant into a soldier in an invading army? We do, our words do, our emotions. We, the planet’s biggest change makers, abhor change so we narrate it as a “catastrophe of our own making.” We make nature into something we need—here it is, here it is not.
The second example Akiko offers is that of citizen scientists, themselves an edge zone between expertise and unknowing. Citizen science is comprised of research projects conducted in whole or in part by amateur or non-professional scientists. Citizen scientists can also volunteer for scientists who use the documentation provided by non-scientists to verify trends, establish patterns, and provide detail. Here is where a person’s passion for butterflies or the flight pattern of a specific bird or the timing of the first frost meets science. Here is where technology extends the reach of the amateur, linking what he or she sees to scientists who will translate their observation into knowledge. Busch participated in one such study. She counted blades of river grass from her kayak on the Hudson River. Citizen scientists, she reminds us, are cut in the mode of Thoreau, Audubon and Muir and their insights, digitally recorded in the smartphone age, matter as much as theirs.
What has this to do with the essay? For Busch, the form of the essay structures our capacity to link what we know intimately through personal observation and experience to larger and more universal stories. Busch explains that you know you have a good topic for an essay when associations between the small and large become visible, when what you see is what someone else sees somewhere else, under another local corner of the natural world. The form lends itself to associative knowledge, to comparative ways of approaching the world. We move between the parts of our brain that feels and the parts that think. For Busch, science and humanities are not at odds. The essay form brings them together and provides a rubric for becoming “familiar with uncertainty.” The essay at its best “interrogates ignorance and attentiveness” and accelerates the brain’s capacity to link, converge, and connect ideas.
Jane Gerhard is a historian and writer living in the Elmwood neighborhood of Providence. She earned a PhD in American Studies from Brown University in 1996 and never left. She is the author of two books, the co-author of an American women’s history textbook and is currently at work on on her next book, The Monkey King of Madison. More information can be found at janegerhard.com.
Jane is blogging for the Council as part of the Pulitzer Prize-inspired commemorative series, What is the 21st Century Essay? to help us explore the changing nature of journalism and the humanities in the digital age with a focus on environmental issues because of their urgency and relevance to our health, communities, and economy.