At the End of Nature

I’ve been sitting on the porch here at Midwood watching the sun play behind the Catskills on the other side of the Hudson River.  It rained earlier in the day, when I was swimming in the river, and now the evening sky is filled with clouds touched with purple and pink and broad swathes of gray.  Every few minutes the light and shadows change—a never-ending panorama of grandeur and beauty.  It’s so peaceful here.  I’m alone this evening and have the house and river to myself.  Our river view  is unique for Columbia County in that there’s nothing built on the opposite shore.  There are only the trees and clouds and mountains, and one tiny green light at the water’s edge, blinking, as out of Fitzgerald.


Yet, what I’m looking at is not Nature in the raw.  The Catskills have been deforested many times; just behind and south of the green ridge is the town of Woodstock.  The sky’s paint box colors are due to pollutants in the atmosphere.  And someone put the tiny green light out in the water to warn passing boats to steer clear of the shallow inside passage.

While clearing out my storage unit in Hawthorne last week, among my papers I came across a photocopy of Bill McKibben’s forty-nine page article “The End of Nature,” published in the September 11, 1989 edition of The New Yorker.  With eloquence, passion and scholarship, McKibben woke the country to the irreversible damage to the planet, and to our imagination, caused by global climate change.  “Changes in our world which can affect us can happen in our lifetime—not just changes like war but bigger and more sweeping events.  Without recognizing it, we have already slipped over the threshold of such a change.  I believe we are at the end of nature.”

“When I say “nature,” I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it.  But the death of these ideas begins with concrete changes that scientists can measure.  More and more frequently, these changes will clash with our perceptions, until our sense of nature as eternal and separate is finally washed away and we see all too clearly what we have done.”

No one listened to McKibben in 1989.  Half the country still doesn’t.  When the article appeared, Christopher Lasch writing in Harper’s called it a “tear-stained” work of “rural piety.”

Since that publication date of September 11, 1989 (made all the more auspicious since that same day twelve years later) the planet is in worse shape.  Everything McKibben wrote about has either become true or is worse than he predicted.  How can this be so in the world’s most technologically advanced country?  It should break the hearts of every rational human being, and cause unrelenting despair.


I use the term “rational” with reverence.  That half of the American population believes that the Earth was created by God six thousand years ago is a tragedy beyond “rational” comprehension. It denies all that we know of the creation over billions of years of our magnificent oceans, mountains, hills and valleys as lovely as Shenandoah, the cliffs of Mendocino, the rocky coast of Maine.  It denies the extraordinary diversity of all life on Earth, from improbable giraffes to the decorative people of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, who adorn themselves with pigments, flowers and leaves.  The eternal laws of Nature have been negated by this magical fundamentalism.  The United States is alone among Western Nations with these primitive, destructive beliefs.  If the Bible were actually to be read as a literal document, these Fundamentalists should take heed of God’s warning to Job, “Who shut in the sea with doors…and prescribed bounds for it!  Who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens?”  With man’s great powers today, the sacrilegious answer is, “it’s us, not God.”  I find it hard to understand why the most devout Christians are not the most committed environmentalists.  Shouldn’t God’s Universe be preserved for all Eternity?  The fatalism of Revelations is a crime against nature.


Yet it’s not just the religious extremists who undermine our efforts to restore and maintain the planet (even if it were not too late.)  Our government is determined with messianic intensity to “save” the Middle East without even a modicum of committed desire to save the Earth.  There is something extremely wrong with our country’s priorities. The oil business runs foreign policy, along with the Congressmen in their pay.  I wonder how many Republicans really want to explain to their grandchildren how they voted away their natural future for short-term corporate earnings.


And, more locally, what are we to do when those administrators who approve the topics to be taught in Stanford’s School of Continuing Education judge Sustainability in Business Practice to be of insufficient community interest to fill a class?  This isn’t Kansas; this is Stanford! —in one of the most liberal and environmentally aware areas of the United States.  What hope remains?


By choice I have no television, no microwave, no dishwasher; by neurological condition I have no driver’s license hence no car.  I can’t be commended for the latter because if I could drive I would. More damagingly, I fly back and forth across the country at least once a month.  I have flown extensively since a child.  I have more than two million miles on one airline alone.  I am a large part of the problem and only an infinitesimal part of the solution.  I am committed to doing more.

Friday’s rain has passed, clearing up the cloudy atmosphere.  It’s a gorgeous August afternoon here above the Hudson River.  The day could not be more perfect. The sky looks as if it were a Winslow Homer watercolor.   I swam in the warm river, against a very strong current in which I could make only minimal headway.  Floating back with the current was like an amusement park ride. The immense good fortune of living here makes me forget the perils we face.  How could the world be hurdling toward sure disaster when places exist like this house above the Hudson, with the civility and grace lived here, with the friends who visit, with the turkeys who take their evening stroll along the road by the pond, with Roundtop off in the distance and the great river itself flowing from a tiny Adirondack spring to the mouth of New York Harbor.


A few miles south of Germantown a Stravinsky celebration is taking place at Bard College’s summer music festival.  The Hudson River is cleaner than it was ten years ago, although PCB’s still leak upstream from General Electric’s Hudson Falls plant.  You can’t drink the river’s water and only a limited number of fish are to be consumed per year. Just before getting into the water to swim this afternoon I stabbed my foot on some diabolical rock-hard spiky seedpod. I’m worried now about infection.


These contradictions in our lives make the reality of the end of Nature difficult to comprehend, much less actively think about. The Hudson with the Catskills to the West looks like real Nature. Neither is likely to go away soon. Today is a storybook summer afternoon, in my favorite East Coast month of the year.  The every seventeen-year cicadas are singing in the trees.  They haven’t heard the news that Nature is over, an idea that’s come and gone.  And yet, as Bill McKibben wrote in 1989, it is.

Overnight the seasons shifted. First the evening sky turned magnolia pink, then deep aquamarine blue. With the rising of the sickle moon, the temperature dropped, bringing that unmistakable crisp night air, a sure sign that autumn is close by.  Fresh sweet corn is over. The flowers and meadows are at their fullest, the lush foliage just beginning to bend towards decay, the end of summer.


Is this what the end of Nature will look like, spread across the planet on an unimaginable scale?  Acid rain already is killing the old growth forests of Europe.  The Greenland Ice Sheet is melting.  Swiss glaciers are visibly retreating every year.  Monsanto is rewarded for developing genetically modified seeds—a crime itself—with no concern whether the great agricultural plains will be able to support growing them.

Nature as a defining imaginative force, infinite in scope, forever renewable, has ended.  We can barely see the physical reality; yet there are signs everywhere.  Will Nature come to be only in books by Thoreau, Burroughs and Muir?  Claude Levi-Strauss’s great 1955 memoir Tristes Tropiques was aptly, and precisely, titled:  the sad tropics. It’s an irony of natural description that almost everything described is already over, gone.

Nature isn’t the province of a lucky few who can afford or find available the time and place to experience its wonder and beauty.  It’s the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we consume.  Without these, a sunset is meaningless, the last tiger an irrelevancy. At minimum, the world will become a new wing of the American Museum of Natural History, just next to the dioramas of the Great African Mammals. I will not see this dystopian future in my lifetime; my children only a piece of it.  After that, I can’t predict.