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THE LITERARY TREATMENT OF NATURE
THE literary treatment of natural history themes is, of course, quite different from the scientific treatment, and should be so. The former, compared with the latter, is like free-hand drawing compared with mechanical drawing. Literature aims to give us the truth in a way to touch our emotions, and in some degree to satisfy the enjoyment we have in the living reality. The literary artist is just as much in love with the fact as is his scientific brother, only he makes a different use of the fact, and his interest in it is often of a non-scientific character. His method is synthetic rather than analytic. He deals in general, and not in technical truths, — truths that he arrives at in the fields and woods, and not in the laboratory.
The essay-naturalist observes and admires; the scientific naturalist collects. One brings home a bouquet from the woods; the other, specimens for his herbarium. The former would enlist your sympathies and arouse your enthusiasm; the latter would add to your store of exact knowledge. The one is just as shy of over-coloring or falsifying his facts as the other, only he gives more than facts, — he gives impressions and analogies, and, as far as possible, shows you the live bird on the bough.
The literary and the scientific treatment of the dog, for instance, will differ widely, not to say radically, but they will not differ in one being true and the other false. Each will be true in its own way. One will be suggestive and the other exact; one will be strictly objective, but literature is always more or less subjective. Literature aims to invest its subject with a human interest, and to this end stirs our sympathies and emotions. Pure science aims to convince the reason and the understanding alone. Note Maeterlinck’s treatment of the dog in a late magazine article, probably the best thing on our four-footed comrade that English literature has to show. It gives one pleasure, not because it is all true as science is true, but because it is so tender, human, and sympathetic, without being false to the essential dog nature; it does not make the dog do impossible things. It is not natural history, it is literature; it is not a record of observations upon the manners and habits of the dog, but reflections upon him and his relations to man, and upon the many problems, from the human point of view, that the dog must master in a brief time: the distinctions he must figure out, the mistakes he must avoid, the riddles of life he must read in his dumb dog way. Of course, as a matter of fact, the dog is not compelled “in less than five or six weeks to get into his mind, taking shape within it, an image and a satisfactory conception of the universe.” No, nor in five or six years. Strictly speaking, he is not capable of conceptions at all, but only of sense impressions; his sure guide is instinct — not blundering reason. The dog starts with a fund of knowledge, which man acquires slowly and painfully. But all this does not trouble one in reading of Maeterlinck’s dog. Our interest is awakened, and our sympathies are moved, by seeing the world presented to the dog as it presents itself to us, or by putting ourselves in the dog’s place. It is not false natural history, it is a fund of true human sentiment awakened by the contemplation of the dog’s life and character.
Maeterlinck does not ascribe human powers and capacities to his dumb friend, the dog; he has no incredible tales of its sagacity and wit to relate; it is only an ordinary bull pup that he describes, but he makes us love it, and, through it, all other dogs, by his loving analysis of its trials and tribulations, and its devotion to its god, man. In like manner, in John Muir’s story of his dog Stickeen, — a story to go with “Rab and his Friends,” — our credulity is not once challenged. Our sympathies are deeply moved because our reason is not in the least outraged. It is true that Muir makes his dog act like a human being under the press of great danger; but the action is not the kind that involves reason; it only implies sense perception, and the instinct of self-preservation. Stickeen does as his master bids him, and he is human only in the human emotions of fear, despair, joy, that he shows.
In Mr. Egerton Young’s book, called “My Dogs of the Northland,” I find much that is interesting and several vivid dog portraits, but Mr. Young humanizes his dogs to a greater extent than does either Muir or Maeterlinck. For instance, he makes his dog Jack take special delight in teasing the Indian servant girl by walking or lying upon her kitchen floor when she had just cleaned it, all in revenge for the slights the girl had put upon him; and he gives several instances of the conduct of the dog which he thus interprets. Now one can believe almost anything of dogs in the way of wit about their food, their safety, and the like, but one cannot make them so entirely human as deliberately to plan and execute the kind of revenge here imputed to Jack. No animal could appreciate a woman’s pride in a clean kitchen floor, or see any relation between the tracks which he makes upon the floor and her state of feeling toward himself. Mr. Young’s facts are doubtless all right; it is his interpretation of them that is wrong.
It is perfectly legitimate for the animal story writer to put himself inside the animal he wishes to portray, and tell how life and the world look from that point of view; but he must always be true to the facts of the case, and to the limited intelligence for which he speaks.
In the humanization of the animals, and of the facts of natural history which is supposed to be the province of literature in this field, we must recognize certain limits. Your facts are sufficiently humanized the moment they become interesting, and they become interesting the moment you relate them in any way to our lives, or make them suggestive of what we know to be true in other fields and in our own experience. Thoreau made his battle of the ants interesting because he made it illustrate all the human traits of courage, fortitude, heroism, self-sacrifice. Burns’s mouse at once strikes a sympathetic chord in us without ceasing to be a mouse; we see ourselves in it. To attribute human motives and faculties to the animals is to caricature them; but to put us in such relation with them that we feel their kinship, that we see their lives embosomed in the same iron necessity as our own, that we see in their minds a humbler manifestation of the same psychic power and intelligence that culminates and is conscious of itself in man, — that, I take it, is the true humanization.
We like to see ourselves in the nature around us. We want in some way to translate these facts and laws of outward nature into our own experiences; to relate our observations of bird or beast to our own lives. Unless they beget some human emotion in me, — the emotion of the beautiful, the sublime. — or appeal to my sense of the fit, the permanent, — unless what you learn in the fields and the woods corresponds in some way with what I know of my fellows, I shall not long be deeply interested in it. I do not want the animals humanized in any other sense. They all have human traits and ways; let those be brought out — their mirth, their joy, their curiosity, their cunning, their thrift, their relations, their wars, their loves — and all the springs of their actions laid bare as far as possible; but I do not expect my natural history to back up the Ten Commandments, or to be an illustration of the value of training-schools and kindergartens, or to afford a commentary upon the vanity of human wishes. Humanize your facts to the extent of making them interesting, if you have the art to do it, but leave the dog a dog, and the straddle-bug a straddle-bug.
Interpretation is a favorite word with some recent nature writers. It is claimed for the literary naturalist that he interprets natural history. The ways and doings of the wild creatures are exaggerated and misread under the plea of interpretation. Now, if by interpretation we mean an answer to the question, “What does this mean?” or, “What is the exact truth about it?” then there is but one interpretation of nature, and that is the scientific. What is the meaning of the fossils in the rocks? or of the carving and sculpturing of the landscape? or of a thousand and one other things in the organic and inorganic world about us? Science alone can answer. But if we mean by interpretation an answer to the inquiry, “What does this scene or incident suggest to you? how do you feel about it?” then we come to what is called the literary or poetic interpretation of nature, which, strictly speaking, is no interpretation of nature at all, but an interpretation of the writer or the poet himself. The poet or the essayist tells what the bird, or the tree, or the cloud means to him. It is himself, therefore, that is being interpreted. What do Ruskin’s writings upon nature interpret? They interpret Ruskin — his wealth of moral and ethical ideas, and his wonderful imagination. Richard Jefferies tells us how the flower, or the bird, or the cloud is related to his subjective life and experience. It means this or that to him; it may mean something entirely different to another, because he may be bound to it by a different tie of association. The poet fills the lap of Earth with treasures not her own — the riches of his own spirit; science reveals the treasures that are her own, and arranges and appraises them.
Strictly speaking, there is not much in natural history that needs interpreting. We explain a fact, we interpret an oracle; we explain the action and relation of physical laws and forces, we interpret, as well as we can, the geologic record. Darwin sought to explain the origin of species, and to interpret many palæontological phenomena. We account for animal behavior on rational grounds of animal psychology; there is little to interpret. Natural history is not a cryptograph to be deciphered, it is a series of facts and incidents to be observed and recorded. If two wild animals, such as the beaver and the otter, are deadly enemies, there is good reason for it; and when we have found that reason, we have got hold of a fact in natural history. The robins are at enmity with the jays and the crow blackbirds and the cuckoos in the spring, and the reason is, these birds eat the robins’ eggs. When we seek to interpret the actions of the animals, we are, I must repeat, in danger of running into all kinds of anthropomorphic absurdities, by reading their lives in terms of our own thinking and consciousness.
A man sees a flock of crows in a tree in a state of commotion; now they all caw, then only one master voice is heard, presently two or three crows fall upon one of their number and fell him to the ground. The spectator examines the victim and finds him dead, with his eyes pecked out. He interprets what he has seen as a court of justice; the crows were trying a criminal, and, having found him guilty, they proceeded to execute him. The curious instinct which often prompts animals to fall upon and destroy a member of the flock that is sick, or hurt, or blind, is difficult of explanation, but we may be quite sure that, whatever the reason is, the act is not the outcome of a judicial proceeding in which judge and jury and executioner all play their proper part. Wild crows will chase and maltreat a tame crow whenever they get a chance, just why, it would be hard to say. But the tame crow has evidently lost caste among them. I have what I consider good proof that a number of skunks that were wintering together in their den in the ground fell upon and killed and then partly devoured one of their number that had lost a foot in a trap.
Another man sees a fox lead a hound over a long railroad trestle, when the hound is caught and killed by a passing train. He interprets the fact as a cunning trick on the part of the fox to destroy his enemy! A captive fox, held to his kennel by a long chain, was seen to pick up an ear of corn that had fallen from a passing load, chew it up, scattering the kernels about, and then retire into his kennel. Presently a fat hen, attracted by the corn, approached the hidden fox, whereupon he rushed out and seized her. This was a shrewd trick on the part of the fox to capture a hen for his dinner! In this, and in the foregoing cases, the observer supplies something from his own mind. That is what he or she would do under like conditions. True, a fox does not eat corn; but an idle one, tied by a chain, might bite the kernels from an ear in a mere spirit of mischief and restlessness, as a dog or puppy might, and drop them upon the ground; a hen would very likely be attracted by them, when the fox would be quick to see his chance.
Some of the older entomologists believed that in a colony of ants and of bees the members recognized one another by means of some secret sign or password. In all cases a stranger from another colony is instantly detected, and a home member as instantly known. This sign or password, says Burmeister, as quoted by Lubbock, “serves to prevent any strange bee from entering into the same hive without being immediately detected and killed. It, however, sometimes happens that several hives have the same signs, when their several members rob each other with impunity. In these cases the bees whose hives suffer most alter their signs, and then can immediately detect their enemy.” The same thing was thought to be true of a colony of ants. Others held that the bees and the ants knew one another individually, as men of the same town do! Would not any serious student of nature in our day know in advance of experiment that all this was childish and absurd? Lubbock showed by numerous experiments that bees and ants did not recognize their friends or their enemies by either of these methods. Just how they did do it he could not clearly settle, though it seems as if they were guided more by the sense of smell than by anything else. Maeterlinck in his “Life of the Bee” has much to say about the “spirit of the hive,” and it does seem as if there were some mysterious agent or power at work there that cannot be located or defined.
This current effort to interpret nature has led one of the well-known prophets of the art to say that in this act of interpretation one “must struggle against fact and law to develop or keep his own individuality.” This is certainly a curious notion, and I think an unsafe one, that the student of nature must struggle against fact and law, must ignore or override them, in order to give full swing to his own individuality. Is it himself, then, and not the truth that he is seeking to exploit? In the field of natural history we have been led to think the point at issue is not man’s individuality, but correct observation — a true report of the wild life about us. Is one to give free rein to his fancy or imagination; to see animal life with his “vision,” and not with his corporeal eyesight; to hear with his transcendental ear, and not through his auditory nerve? This may be all right in fiction or romance or fable, but why call the outcome natural history? Why set it down as a record of actual observation? Why penetrate the wilderness to interview Indians, trappers, guides, woodsmen, and thus seek to confirm your observations, if you have all the while been “struggling against fact and law,” and do not want or need confirmation? If nature study is only to exploit your own individuality, why bother about what other people have or have not seen or heard? Why, in fact, go to the woods at all? Why not sit in your study and invent your facts to suit your fancyings?
My sole objection to the nature books that are the outcome of this proceeding is that they are put forth as veritable natural history, and thus mislead their readers. They are the result of a successful “struggle against fact and law” in a field where fact and law should be supreme. No doubt that, in the practical affairs of life, one often has a struggle with the fact. If one’s bank balance gets on the negative side of the account, he must struggle to get it back where it belongs; he may even have the help of the bank’s attorney to get it there. If one has a besetting sin of any kind, he has to struggle against that. Life is a struggle anyhow, and we are all strugglers — struggling to put the facts upon our side. But the only struggle the real nature student has with facts is to see them as they are, and to read them aright. He is just as zealous for the truth as is the man of science. In fact, nature study is only science out of school, happy in the fields and woods, loving the flower and the animal which it observes, and finding in them something for the sentiments and the emotions as well as for the understanding.
With the nature student, the human interest in the wild creatures — by which I mean our interest in them as living, struggling beings — dominates the scientific interest, or our interest in them merely as subjects for comparison and classification.
Gilbert White was a rare combination of the nature student and the man of science, and his book is one of the minor English classics. Richard Jefferies was a true nature lover, but his interests rarely take a scientific turn. Our Thoreau was in love with the natural, but still more in love with the supernatural; yet he prized the fact, and his books abound in delightful natural history observations. We have a host of nature students in our own day, bent on plucking out the heart of every mystery in the fields and woods. Some are dryly scientific, some are dull and prosy, some are sentimental, some are sensational, and a few are altogether admirable. Mr. Thompson Seton, as an artist and raconteur, ranks by far the highest in this field, but in reading his works as natural history, one has to be constantly on guard against his romantic tendencies.
The structure of animals, their colors, their ornaments, their distribution, their migrations, all have a significance that science may interpret for us if it can, but it is the business of every observer to report truthfully what he sees, and not to confound his facts with his theories.
Why does the cowbird lay its egg in another bird’s nest? Why are these parasitical birds found the world over? Who knows? Only there seems to be a parasitical principle in Nature that runs all through her works, in the vegetable as well as in the animal kingdom. Why is the porcupine so tame and stupid? Because it does not have to hunt for its game, and is self-armed against all comers. The struggle of life has not developed its wits. Why are robins so abundant? Because they are so adaptive, both as regards their food and their nesting-habits. They eat both fruit and insects, and will nest anywhere — in trees, sheds, walls, and on the ground. Why is the fox so cunning? Because the discipline of life has made him cunning. Man has probably always been after his fur; and his subsistence has not been easily obtained. If you ask me why the crow is so cunning, I shall be put to it for an adequate answer. It seems as if nobody could ever have wanted his skin or his carcass, and his diet does not compel him to outwit live game, as does that of the fox. His jet black plumage exposes him alike winter and summer. This drawback he has had to meet by added wit, but I can think of no other way in which he is handicapped. I do not know that he has any natural enemies; yet he is one of the most suspicious of the fowls of the air. Why is the Canada jay so much tamer than are other jays? They belong farther north, where they see less of man; they are birds of the wilderness; they are often, no doubt, hard put to it for food; their color does not make them conspicuous, — all these things, no doubt, tend to make them more familiar than their congeners. Why, again, the chickadee can be induced to perch upon your hand, and take food from it, more readily than can the nuthatch or the woodpecker, is a question not so easily answered. It being a lesser bird, it probably has fewer enemies than either of the others, and its fear would be less in proportion.
Why does the dog, the world over, use his nose in covering the bone he is hiding, and not his paw? Is it because his foot would leave a scent that would give his secret away, while his nose does not? He uses his paw in digging the hole for the bone, but its scent in this case would be obliterated by his subsequent procedure.
The foregoing is one way to interpret or explain natural facts. Everything has its reason. To hit upon this reason is to interpret it to the understanding. To interpret it to the emotions, or to the moral or to the æsthetic sense, that is another matter.
I would not be unjust or unsympathetic toward this current tendency to exalt the lower animals into the human sphere. I would only help my reader to see things as they are, and to stimulate him to love the animals as animals, and not as men. Nothing is gained by self-deception. The best discipline of life is that which prepares us to face the facts, no matter what they are. Such sweet companionship as one may have with a dog, simply because he is a dog, and does not invade your own exclusive sphere! He is, in a way, like your youth come back to you, and taking form — all instinct and joy and adventure. You can ignore him, and he is not offended; you can reprove him, and he still loves you; you can hail him, and he bounds with joy; you can camp and tramp and ride with him, and his interest and curiosity and adventurous spirit give to the days and the nights the true holiday atmosphere. With him you are alone and not alone; you have both companionship and solitude. Who would have him more human or less canine? He divines your thought through his love, and feels your will in the glance of your eye. He is not a rational being, yet he is a very susceptible one, and touches us at so many points that we come to look upon him with a fraternal regard.
I suppose we should not care much for natural history, as I have before said, or for the study of nature generally, if we did not in some way find ourselves there; that is, something that is akin to our own feelings, methods, and intelligence. We have traveled that road, we find tokens of ourselves on every hand; we are “stuccoed with quadrupeds and birds all over,” as Whitman says. The life-history of the humblest animal, if truly told, is profoundly interesting. If we could know all that befalls the slow moving turtle in the fields, or the toad that stumbles and fumbles along the roadside, our sympathies would be touched, and some spark of real knowledge imparted. We should not want the lives of those humble creatures “interpreted” after the manner of our sentimental “School of Nature Study,” for that were to lose fact in fable; that were to give us a stone when we had asked for bread; we should want only a truthful record from the point of view of a wise, loving, human eye, such a record as, say, Gilbert white or Henry Thoreau might have given us. How interesting White makes his old turtle, hurrying to shelter when it rains, or seeking the shade of a cabbage leaf when the sun is too hot, or prancing about the garden on tiptoe in the spring by five in the morning, when the mating instinct begins to stir within him! Surely we may see ourselves in the old tortoise.
In fact, the problem of the essay-naturalist always is to make his subject interesting, and yet keep strictly within the bounds of truth.
It is always an artist’s privilege to heighten or deepen natural effects. He may paint us a more beautiful woman, or a more beautiful horse, or a more beautiful landscape, than we ever saw; we are not deceived even though he outdo nature. We know where we stand and where he stands; we know that this is the power of art. If he is writing an animal romance like Kipling’s story of the “White Seal,” or like his “Jungle Book,” there will be nothing equivocal about it, no mixture of fact and fiction, nothing to confuse or mislead the reader.
We know that here is the light that never was on sea or land, the light of the spirit. The facts are not falsified; they are transmuted. The aim of art is the beautiful, not over but through the true. The aim of the literary naturalist is the true, not over but through the beautiful; you shall find the exact facts in his pages, and you shall find them possessed of some of the allurement and suggestiveness that they had in the fields and woods. Only thus does his work attain to the rank of literature.