Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Human Chaos in Barry Lopez's "A Presentation of Whales" and Scott Russell Sander's "Buckeye"

Jessica Mason
ENG 380 Paper 2
Prof JR Balderson - WIU
September 16th 2005

Note: we were not required to cite our sources for this assignment!

Human Chaos

Was it just a coincidence that I had my first—televised—encounter with sperm whales only a day after I read Barry Lopez’s essay, “A Presentation of Whales”? Was my strong spiritual response to Scott Russell Sander’s “Buckeye” a sign that I, too, will feel the ghostly presences of my beloved kindred when they leave this world? No way! I am not a mystic. I am not supernaturally connected to sperm whales or spirits, but I will admit that I entertained self-important thoughts while reading both essays. Not only did I stare at the professional headshots of the writers before I read their essays; I adored them and empathized with their visions.

Perhaps nature writers are advantaged: they can be scientific and not be perceived as being such by non-scientific readers. After all, the word ‘nature’ generates images of the earth and all of its sensory treasures, whereas ‘science’ generates images of laboratory coats, long calculations, laborious extractions, and obscure words like genome, polypeptide and spermatozoa. Nature writers are free to incorporate various genres in their writing, which interests a broad population of readers. Readers are attracted to writing styles that reinforce their subjective perceptions of themselves and the world. A readers’ opinion does not necessarily indicate the success or failure of a writer, but rather the state of mind of the reader when she approaches the piece. This is also how we approach people and events in our lives. We are animals, and therefore we must engage with nature. While Barry Lopez and Scott Russell Sanders have a keen sense of the innate connection between animals and landscapes, they are also grounded in their perceptions of human behavior and aware of their own humanness.

A writer makes assumptions about her reader, and those assumptions allow her to write confidently. Barry Lopez’s concern for places and animals, for instance, is transposed to the reader because he assumes that the detailed images of nature he describes speak for themselves. Lopez connects his visual spectrum with higher elements: historic references, scientific facts, philosophical questions, environmental issues, and cultural practices. If the stone horse wasn’t located on high ground to the north of an arroyo (428), and was, instead, easily accessible to a mainstream population, many people would hastily look upon it as an old, unimportant statue and move on in a matter of minutes. Some people would attempt to move it, and others might mark it up or even try to sit on it. The chaos of human behavior would have disrupted the intimate tranquility that Lopez achieved in his encounter with the stone horse.

When he is alone with the horse, Lopez makes psychic connections with various worlds. I have to admit, reading “The Stone Horse” made me wonder if perhaps illegal substances were involved in his journey. There is no stopping him once he sets his eyes on something. Every image that he encounters spurs other images—exact details of shape and size, historical characters and activities, geographical facts, social issues, complicated assumptions. I am not even sure we should classify Barry Lopez as a nature writer, but I suppose “nature writer” is more encompassing than anything else we could call him. His intimacy with landscape is tranquil, but the heavy layers of information in his essays are lively. As Lopez voyaged through many twists and turns to find the stone horse; he had to leave his car to move past a barricade of boulders. The expedition allowed him to connect with a piece of natural history that would have been taken for granted by most humans.

If Lopez wasn’t alone with the stone horse and its surroundings, the writing may have assumed a mood of overt chaos, as in “A Presentation of Whales,” where human voices occupied the location, disrupting Lopez’s intimate stillness. Instead, Lopez is concealed from the reader. The narrative is broad: it is open to the dramatic influences of a number of characters and chronological details. Lopez knew that the complexity and variation of the human species would be best demonstrated through a sperm whale-crisis narrative.

I was disturbed by “A Presentation of Whales,” but it wasn’t Barry Lopez’s fault. There aren’t any clear distinctions between the villains and the heroes in this story; so the only ones I could trust not to have self-righteous motives were the wise whales and the dispassionate narrator. From the insensitive drunks to the scrutinized scientists, the whale-tale is a classic display of humanness. Each character or group of characters wished they knew the “right” thing to do for the dying sperm whales, but (instead of working together) they inflated their own ideas and belittled the ideas and efforts that others put forward. Crises always reveal that human behavior is preposterous! The only voice of reason is the sound of the sperm whales as they lay dying. Lopez captures the power of the sounds as being “like children shouting on a distant playground—and able to sort a cacophony of noise: electric crackling of shrimp, groaning of undersea quakes, roar of upwellings, whining of porpoise, hum of oceanic cables” (444). This prolific description is only one sentence, but it exemplifies the long sentences and level of detail that Lopez is capable of. The writing itself is well-worth the read, but Barry Lopez really knows how to move the reader. When he ties various points of view together through real-life characters, he examines the contradictory ways of humans and the ultimate chaos of our behavior. Some characters wanted to help the whales and they thought that blaming other humans would solve the problem; still others took photos of and stepped on the moaning whales. It’s outrageous, but it’s not surprising.

I continued to envy trees and other non-cognitive organisms while reading Scott Russell Sanders’, “Buckeye,” but for less hostile reasons than those I entertained while reading about sperm whales. It is not surprising that “Buckeye” is a well-respected essay, nor that Sanders is a well-respected writer. His story conveys powerful messages about essential natural processes: grief and death. Sanders’ fosters a nostalgic quality in the reader with his profound insight and simplicity. The title clearly represents the main natural element in the story, and similarly the narrative—which is a story about humanness—is composed around the natural object (buckeye).
The intimacy that Sanders observes between his father and the trees he closely held onto is similar to the intimacy created between Lopez and the stone horse, but, in this case, Sanders is a third party. The nature that Sanders writes about is viewed as precious by the characters in the narrative. We learn about buckeyes from both a dialogue involving the father figure, as well as through Sanders’ narration. Sanders describes the power of memories and love while describing images of objects. For instance, when he writes, “The wooden box on my desk holds these grazing deer, as it holds the buckeyes and walnut plank and the farm auction and the munitions bunkers and the breathing forests and my father’s hands” (611), he connects human emotions to human possessions. Although the images he lists aren’t scientific or historical, they are still objects in his immediate landscape. Alone, they are solitary objects, but together they create a story of human life.

Curiosity and neediness attract humans to philosophy, in a similar way that they attract humans to religious dogma, cults and magic. Fortunately, nature narratives draw on human interests in various disciplines without simultaneously wreaking havoc on society. Writing helps us create and understand ideas. Personal values and scientific information are often used interchangeably by Barry Lopez and Scott Russell Sanders. Unless the reader is indifferent, both writers prove they are capable of illustrating essential elements of the human experience in both public and private moments. As readers, we are bonded to Lopez and Sanders because of our role in the innate chaos of human interaction.

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