Primal Fears, Primal Joys

June 20, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

Last Friday, as Tropical Storm Andrea bore down on the Carolina coast, I sat in the writing shack I’ve built behind my house and watched as the storm moved in. The shack sits on the edge of a salt marsh; soon after I entered, the grasses started thrashing wildly. Then the wind picked up even more, until it began shaking the red cedar outside my door as if it didn’t like that tree one bit. There was a sticky expectancy in the air: something you could probably say, in general, about this part of the country at this time of the year. It wasn’t just that Andrea was coming. It was that Andrea, the first major tropical storm of 2013, was effectively announcing the arrival of another hurricane season — which is always an anxious time for us here on the Carolina coast.

Mine isn’t the only part of the country in an apprehensive mood. Living in the East, I happen to be spending this summer writing a book about the West. The same morning that I sat in my shack and watched the storm come in, I was typing up notes from a tour I took last July of the scarred land above Fort Collins, Colorado. It was there that I saw entire charcoal hillsides of burned trees, their spindly arboreal remains looking like rows of black skeletons. It occurred to me that while the East readies itself for the season of wind and rains, the West is dreading the advent of wildfire season — which, if the recent news out of Colorado is any indication, has already arrived with a vengeance.

In both parts of the country, what anxious people are really anticipating is the season of the elemental. We’re living in a time of growing fear of what I have come to call the “Big Primal.” Whether what we fear is a hurricane that’s capable of splintering a home on the beach, a fire that can quickly turn a hillside house to kindling, a superstorm, a flood, or a tornado, we are on edge. Our scientists confirm that we’re not all simply imagining that our weather has gone wild; for them, the warming of the oceans and the rising of the seas are facts, not theories. And these scientists know that what’s coming will be worse.

So yes — the water is getting warmer, the storms stronger, the deserts drier. This most of us believe. But there is something else occurring, too: an unfortunate and coincidental bit of irony. For just as nature is so aggressively barging into our lives in the form of the Big Primal, our experience of the small primal is quietly leaking out of our lives. The other day I saw an item in the newspaper that got, at least partly, at what I’m feeling. I read that bonfires in fire pits may soon be banned on California beaches. These fires have long been a part of California shore life, but experts are now saying that they’re an appreciable source of air pollution and could cause health problems for nearby residents. I understand the reasoning behind the position, of course. But still I felt a pang at the thought of the bonfires disappearing. In my writing shack I have a manila folder labeled “The Death of Wildness,” and the news clipping went right into it.

Last summer, while traveling through Utah, I was lucky enough to visit with Ken Sleight, who was immortalized as the character “Seldom Seen” Smith in Edward Abbey’s novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Ken told me that his favorite times with Abbey were always around the fire. “The worst thing was when they told us we couldn’t have any more campfires down there in the Grand Canyon,” he told me. “Instead, you have complete blackness, where you can’t see people’s expressions. You just can’t have that kind of trip without a campfire. You lose something.” He meant: it’s just not the same kind of experience when you can’t stare into that dance of red, orange, white, and blue.

Later that summer, I got to experience this sense of loss personally on a mostly wonderful eight-day river-rafting expedition on Utah’s San Juan River. It had everything: cliffs of red rock, mildly scary rapids, side canyons like cathedrals, a fox that flowed like quicksilver right up a sheer canyon wall. Well, it had almost everything: campfires are no longer allowed along the river. During a year in which practically the entire West was aflame, I knew exactly why it was considered unwise to start a fire. And yet: yes, something had been lost.

What did it matter that we weren’t able to stare into those flames? Admittedly, it’s a pretty small price to pay for helping to prevent a wildfire. But all the same, I would contend that by depriving ourselves (or being deprived) of a small, intimate experience like that one, we’re robbing ourselves (or being robbed) of a chance to grow in how we think about our larger world. In other words: our communion with the small primal, whenever we can find it, necessarily affects how we engage with the Big Primal, whenever it comes around.

I want to be careful not to overstate things here. But I really do think that one of the things that gets us into the most trouble is when we come to believe that we exist apart from the natural world. This is simple arrogance, of course; but it’s a specific type of arrogance that seems to have infected all of our fevered thinking, to the extent that when we find ourselves faced with a problem like climate change — a problem born of our technologies — the solution proposed by many is more technology: shields to block the sun, walls to block the water. It’s the kind of arrogance that drives homeowners in wildfire zones and hurricane zones — people who may have watched as their houses burned down, or were slammed by the sea — to choose a stance of defiance over humility. The kind of arrogance that is always commanding rebuild, and never suggesting retreat.

There was a time, not too long ago, when those who erected dwellings in the sorts of places where disaster routinely struck built them with the knowledge that those dwellings would eventually be destroyed. I, for one, certainly knew this when I built my writing shack. That was the whole idea, in a way: to create a monument to impermanence. The shack is flimsy and I know it. So far it has weathered three hurricanes, and the floor is warped from flooding. It’s only a matter of time until a storm takes it out.

So what does it mean, to build something that you know won’t last? What does it do to your thinking, to know that there are forces in charge beyond human forces? While I’ve had it, the shack has helped me invite the small primal into my life on nearly a daily basis. Through its windows I can watch birds, and study the marsh, and observe tropical storms as they roll in. In his book, The Outermost House, the naturalist Henry Beston wrote: “The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.” That, I believe, is what we are most missing.

We may like to believe that we can cordon the natural world off into a separate section of our lives, but that becomes a lot harder to do when boats are floating in your front yard, a twister has splintered your house, your crops have withered, or your whole state seems to be on fire. Those Big Primal events that now seem to be occurring with so much more intensity and regularity are, among other things, opportunities for humility. Not a false humility, but a deep one: one that comes from understanding that we are part of the larger natural world, and one that bespeaks an acceptance of our temporality, not an insistence on permanence. We can’t control the schedule of these Big Primal events. But we can, and should, schedule as much interaction as possible with the small primal — with bonfires, with the rising and the falling of the tides, with marsh grasses and birds — or else the artificial gap between ourselves and nature will widen ever further.

As it turned out, my little shack breezed right through Andrea. This particular storm decided to move inland shortly after the first formidable gusts began to pummel its siding. I can express more gratitude now for its fickle-mindedness than I could at the time, since I was too busy stuffing my laptop in a garbage bag and trying to get it up to the house through the rains. Now, one week later, I’m back inside the shack, surveying the damage. Up in the trees a pileated woodpecker lets out its crazed war whoop, a noise that seems to belong more to the jungle than to a salt marsh. The heat has returned after the storm, and for all the spikes of fear that events like Andrea can generate, the atmosphere on the Carolina coast right now feels oppressive in a much more familiar way: summer humidity, thick like pea soup.

I am thankful that Andrea didn’t take out my shack. But I have no illusions that this place will last. This was just the first storm of what will undoubtedly be a long hurricane season. We can expect even wilder weather ahead.

Image: Jason Teale

David Gessner

David Gessner is the author of eight books, including 'Sick of Nature', 'The Prophet of Dry Hill', and 'Return of the Osprey', which was chosen by the Boston Globe as one of the top ten nonfiction books of the year and the Book-of-the-Month club as one of its top books of the year. The Globe called it a "classic of American Nature Writing." In 2006 he won a Pushcart Prize; in 2007 he won the John Burroughs Award for Best Natural History Essay; and in 2008 his essay, "The Dreamer Does Not exist," was chosen for The Best American Nonrequired Reading. His work has appeared in many magazines and journals including The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, Outside, The Georgia Review, The Harvard Review, and Orion. He has taught environmental writing at Harvard, and is currently an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he founded the national literary journal, Ecotone.

Tags: climate change, ecology