Why This Is Not My Job

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A woman (me) in a T-shirt, jeans and a bucket hat balances on a natural berm separating the lake to her left from the bog to her right. Photo Credit: the author’s husband.

I probably would have made a great naturalist.

I was raised on a Michigan farm that dates back to 1815, when our quarter-quarter section was provided as payment to its first private European owner as payment for his service in the War of 1812.  (I imagine how his face fell the first time he saw his payment: half hillside too steep to plow, the other half what the Michigan DNRE calls “excessively drained moraine.”)  I taught “nature studies” as a Girl Scout camp counselor for years.  And if you dropped me off in the north woods, I’d still be there when you came back a month later – annoyed and probably low on Vitamin D, but very much alive.

But the idea of following that career path, of becoming a botanist or a park ranger or an outdoor education specialist or even a nature writer, never occurred to me.  And the reason it didn’t occur to me is that my so-called “naturalistic” intelligence, while quite strong, is entirely sensory-based – but none of the “knowledge” one has to demonstrate to get a degree in any of those fields is sensory-based.

I have a fantastic memory, and since memorizing Latin names of local tree species or collecting sub-species of orchids have been among my “special interests” in my life, getting that degree would not have been particularly difficult for me.  But its insistence on symbolic representation and classification as “knowledge,” rather than direct sensory experience, would have sucked every iota of joy from the very things I was studying – in essence killing the only reason I had for getting the degree in the first place.

I did not want cookies for being able to list every endangered turtle species in Michigan.  (I still don’t, which is why this is one of my “hidden talents” that never gets demonstrated at cocktail parties.)  I wanted those turtles and me to be left the hell alone.

My combination of mad hyperlexia and naturalistic talent has prompted many people over the years (my parents chief among them) to urge me to go into nature writing.  But I find nature writing even more frustrating than nature-doing.  Nature writing demands the same symbolic representation and classification as nature-doing; it requires me to reduce a direct multimodal sensory experience to a mono-tracked data stream.  But nature writing goes one step worse; it asks me to compress the experience to a data stream, but then pretend I’m still expressing something meaningful about the experience.

This is why I don’t do nature writing: I don’t want to succeed at it.

I don’t want to hear my audience tell me how I made some experience come “alive,” or how “fresh” and “original” my work is.  I don’t want people to read about, say, kayaking every lake in two counties and then tell me how they feel like they were “really there.”  You weren’t.  You can’t be.  For me, the act of putting those experiences into words is selling them out, and hearing them praised as somehow “authentic” is like hearing about how a trip to the taxidermist is “just like” being on safari.  No.  No, it really isn’t.

Lately, I’ve had to work on decoupling the inborn intensity of my sensory experiences from the social pressure to write about them.  Yes, I’ve made writing my living and my life.  I find great joy in it.  But this is not that, and just because I’m good at a skill that is socially valued (wordifying) does not mean I have to squeeze all my life experiences through that particular juicer – especially not to my own detriment.

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One thought on “Why This Is Not My Job

  1. And had you gone down the science route, say into botany, you would have hit another trap: the detailed ideographic knowledge that a naturalist has — such as where to find those orchids of Michigan’s woods — simply isn’t valued anymore in the scientific culture, even within organismal biology. It’s all about the theory, whether it be in ecology or evolutionary biology.
    For me the best approach to writing about experience of nature is to try to reach for poetical conscousness. These days this is mostly via rather idiosyncratic (or is it neuroatypical?) tweets about place — I’m @mappingcat on Twitter. Every now and then these brief writing experiments actually work.

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