It Ain’t My Nature
Joseph Epstein knows his nature.
Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
This morning I was reading along in Vladimir Jabotinsky’s remarkable novel The Five, when I came to a chapter titled “Inserted Chapter, Not Intended for the Reader.” The chapter, it turns out, is about nature writing. Jabotinsky’s narrator, a writer, notes that a critic remarked on the absence of descriptions of nature in his work. He, the narrator, goes on to say the reader “doesn’t read descriptions of nature; I at least always skip over them mercilessly.” He goes on to mention that he doesn’t understand why God, among his other mistakes, created winter. He adds that he can see nothing beautiful in snow; today’s snow, to him, “is simply tomorrow’s slush.”
I can, as they say, identify. Every writer—with the exceptions of Shakespeare and Tolstoy—has his shortcomings, and not least among mine is an inability to describe nature. Nature itself doesn’t bore me, though reading about it does. The one dispensable American classic that I would be willing—secretly delighted, actually—to see jettisoned is Walden. Among the Russians, Turgenev sometimes took excessive time out to do landscapes. Among Americans, Southern writers—Faulkner, William Styron—tend to spend rather too much ink describing nature, and when they do, I depart, mentally, for a tangerine.
In the 50 or so short stories that I have published, nature figures scarcely at all. Rain might turn up, or a wintry day. An apartment lived in by one of my characters might have a swell view of Lake Michigan, but the lake itself goes undescribed. Sad truth to tell, I do not have the language to describe nature. I do not know what an escarpment is, or a gully, or a massif, or a tussock. I once read that women know 279 colors, men know 8. I can name perhaps six different kinds of tree and 10 flowers. I know two kinds of grass, creeping bent and crab; two different clouds, cumulus and dark.
I once took an adult education course in astronomy at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. My friend Hilton Kramer, who sometimes lectured on visual art, which required showing slides, once told me that it is always a big mistake to turn off the lights on a lecture audience. He was right. Most of the astronomy course I took was taught in the dark, the better to illuminate the various aspects of the universe. All I can remember of it now, 20 or so years later, is Orion’s Belt. In Jabotinsky’s novel a gibbous moon turns up. I had to look up the word gibbous. I would as soon put a baboon as the moon in one of my stories. Were I to do either, alert readers would quickly accuse me of using fake scenery.
As for the weather, I’m not much at describing it, either. When people from warmer climes asked me this past winter how cold it was in Chicago, I would answer colder than a Joan Crawford kiss. If they were Republicans, I would say colder than a Nancy Pelosi kiss; if Democrats, I would say colder than a Mitch McConnell smile. My repertoire for describing summer weather is slighter; at the moment all I have to offer is, Hotter here than Bill Clinton’s trousers.
I’m not much on animals, either, and the advent of fashionably hybrid dogs hasn’t helped. I cannot tell a mookie from a yookie from a cockapoodle. I can spot a pit-bull, which I see in depressingly increased numbers and which cause me, instanter, to cross to the other side of the street. Apart from my cat, the charming and resourceful Hermione, the only animals I would care to spend any time with are giraffes, said to be the angels of animals because of their elevation and serenity.
Driving through the northwest five or six years ago, coming upon what for most people would have been scene after dazzling scene of redwoods, evergreens, and other mammoth trees against a background of glittering lakes, all I could think was how I longed instead to see a few neurotic Jews. Evelyn Waugh, during a bombing attack in Yugoslavia in World War II, is said to have come out of his bunker, looked up at the sky raining down bombs, and declared, “Like all things German, this is vastly overdone.” I thought the same of nature in the northwest, vastly—without the German part—overdone.
My great ignorance of nature isn’t due to any hatred or even antipathy toward it. The problem is that I am altogether too urban, in upbringing, in taste, in temperament, in character, to derive much pleasure from nature. A case, mine, clearly, I’m rather smugly pleased to report, of nurture over nature.
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