Nature: Mirror to the Soul and Window to Family
Writer’s comment: Last winter, while taking Dr. Robertson’s Wilderness Literature class, I happened also to be spending a lot of time walking the hills in the Capay Valley. Past forty, I have had time to find out a lot about who I am and, as a mother, more about the meaning of family. I was born, raised, and have spent the majority of my life in Yolo County, but I always had a hard time considering it “home.” I guess I thought there must be some other, probably more glamorous, place on earth to be.
As I walked the roads and hills near Rumsey with my companion and we talked about the works I was reading for class, I could feel my connection to this place I had long taken for granted deepen. Austin and Snyder (and others) gave me the guideposts. Robertson’s lectures and his wilderness art photography deepened my understanding and appreciation for my own journey. I finally know that all I need is right here; all that needs to be done is in this place.
Instructor’s comment: To go in is to go out. To go out is to go in. Focus on yourself and, if you follow the path of ancient wisdom, you will find yourself in the midst of an enormous family. Reach out to the family and you will grasp yourself.
These are the paradoxes that Kathryn Pye explores so cogently and so movingly in her paper. The narrator of Atwood’s novel turns mostly inward. Psychological terms seem appropriate, as Pye notes. Yet she gets, in the end, we hope, a relationship in which she is not a victim. Austin looks outward to the natural world. She mainly describes. So objective language is appropriate. Yet it is clear that Austin is after herself. Snyder, as Pye so wonderfully says, goes in and out, back and forth, to and from the self and the other. This is a marvelously well-constructed paper. That counts for a lot. It arrives at insight. That counts for more.
—David Robertson, English Department
Journeys into the wilderness test far more than the physical boundaries of the human traveler. Twentieth century wilderness authors move beyond the traditional travel-tour approach where nature is an external diversion from everyday life. Instead, nature becomes a catalyst for knowing our internal wilderness and our universal connections to all living things. In Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain, and Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, “nature” mirrors each narrator: what the narrators ultimately discover in the wilderness reflects what needs they bring to it. Their points of view, expectations, and awareness all determine their experiences of the wild and “self.” Ultimately, however, each work reveals that the experience of nature need not be restricted only to “self-discovery,” but may well expand to an understanding of the spiritual “family self.”
Atwood’s psychological novel describes the return journey by its narrator from a self-centered, urban existence to the Canadian wilderness of her youth, where she finds the meaning of family and her role in it. Though not overtly psychological, Mary Austin’s intense devotion to the life and people of her desert community suggests these have become replacements for her own, unsuccessful attempts at conventional family life. Finally, Gary Snyder’s kinship with nature exemplifies a life integrated in all aspects—a union that merges the practical, psychological, and spiritual into what may be called the “cosmic” family.
Birth of Family
Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing describes the heroine/narrator’s physical and emotional journey in search of her lost father along the remote Canadian lake of her childhood. There in the wilderness, she is forced to look deeply into her life. Like the fish totem which she adopts as her “protecting spirit,” she dives deep into her childhood, resurfaces to confront her lost womanhood, dives into the face of death, then resurfaces finally into life.
In response to unresolved childhood conflicts, the heroine uses both flights of imagination and physical distance to escape an alienated family existence. Abandoning all but a surface relationship with her parents, she moves to the city, where she also refuses—or fails to find—herself a place in “family” at any level. Emotional instability causes her to translate a failed love relationship and an abortion into a made-up husband and child, both of whom she then claims to have abandoned to pursue a career. As she searches for her father and clues to his disappearance, she experiences disconnection from her real past and real emotions: “I realized I didn’t feel much of anything. I hadn’t for a long time. Perhaps I’d been like that all my life, just as some babies are born deaf or without a sense of touch” (123-24).
A series of interpersonal disasters with her traveling companions, combined with the likelihood that her father has drowned, makes her recognize the death of her childhood and the emptiness of her current life. Stripped of her normal defenses, her healing begins as she begins unveiling her “self” from deep within her family past:
There had been an accident and I came apart. The other half, the one locked away, was the only one that could live; I was the wrong half, detached, terminal. I was nothing but a head, or, no, something minor like a severed thumb; numb. (127)
She stands, looking at the photos of a dead past and unable to let herself feel her present love relationship; in fact, she fears it. Her internal wilderness then draws her out into the woods where her journey becomes a fight for emotional and psychological survival; she must take from her parents whatever teachings fit, release her living half, and become an adult. As hunter into the past, she works to free herself from an emotional bondage to her false life. Nature now becomes her mentor in her break from the past and her journey to find renewal and future.
Pivotal in this journey is her dramatic underwater vision of her aborted fetus. Now seeing this death as a crime committed against nature, she accepts her complicity, calling it “the slaughter, the murder” (170). In preparation for atonement, she offers gifts to the gods of nature; like a shaman, she gathers powers for her healing from the sacred, ancestral places—the Indian hieroglyphs her father discovered in his final quest for his “true vision” (170).
To fully atone, she removes herself once again from the real world, now not to escape but to replace lost life with a renewal of life. Surreptitiously, she uses her new lover to make her pregnant, thus invoking the last steps on her circular path. Her mission is to complete the destruction of her past, break free of her parents, and take on her mythic and real role as mother—bringer of life. An apprentice, she follows nature’s dictates as if following a master teacher. Wrapping herself inside the earth, naked and refusing nourishment, she awaits her spiritual confirmation.
This confirmation comes after a hunger-induced hallucination illuminates her full natural state, a being in her own place. Having passed nature’s tests, she affirms her choice to now live in the world:
Although still apprehensive about a future with her lover, she accepts his flaws as his own state of “being half-formed.” Her journey has taken her across the border into the wilderness of the “self” and out to family one more time. This time the “family” will be her own creation made from her own palette. Nature retreats and again stands apart, its job finished: “The lake is quiet, the trees surround me, asking and giving nothing” (231). She brought to the wilderness her need for a psychological and spiritual rebirth, and nature has functioned as midwife.
Nature as Family of Choice
Mary Austin, in Land of Little Rain, bears a similarity to the heroine in Surfacing in that she too comes to the wilderness psychologically wounded. Unlike Atwood’s character, in childhood Austin used nature as a vehicle for her spiritual growth, as a form of “child magic” against the pain of a rejecting mother. The stories in Land of Little Rain show Austin’s return to nature’s comforting arms, implying that she was searching for a new definition of “family.” The traditional one of marriage and children had failed her. Unlike the heroine in Surfacing, Austin chooses a larger “family” frame, hers not being an overt quest for psychological or even spiritual transformation.
She meets her emotional needs not by looking inward but rather by directing herself outward. She finds shelter and belonging in sharing the lives of the people, animals, plants, and places that become her desert family. Her front door is open wide and she invites us to come visit, “the best time being when you have longest leave to stay” (104). The inclusive form of her invitation illustrates a recurring theme, that of commitment to place. Her personification of the land, plants, and animals of her world make her the image of a proud and devoted parent. She also painstakingly chronicles the cycles and progressions of the living desert, season after season, year after year—all the heartaches and the joys. This is very like the commitment one makes to family.
It is typical and significant that Austin uses the inner workings of nature to mirror the workings of our human relationships. Her essay “Nurslings of the Sky” suggests both the fear and the inevitability of discord in healthy relationships. Her language implies that we go into close relationships as we might enter the mountains, as if fear of bad weather is analogous to the insecurity people feel when they relate. Austin suggests that the storms of human relations are as predictable and important as the storms of nature:
Some rains “relieve like tears,” others “have work to do, ploughing storms that later alter the face of things” (135). Sometimes we make mistakes in our life choices, like the bobcat mother who chose the wrong den, and a rising stream under full storm drowned her kittens. As Austin’s own experience exemplifies, not everyone knows how to create a safe place for a family to exist. Austin observes that we humans mistakenly hide from the wind and turn for “reports from the Weather Bureau to teach us when to sow and take up crops” (139). We need only look to nature for what we need to know because the calms and storms of relationships are mirrored there over and over.
Austin’s observations about the people and towns of the desert extend her personal “family” relationship with the desert and mountains into that of community. In “The Little Town of the Grape Vines,” she tells of Las Uvas, a small town that grew up from one family’s silver strike. After the strike gave out, many mine workers, all of whom were related to the mine owner and his wife, stayed on, poor in material things but rich in family. Lines between the families in Las Uvas lead from house to house and beyond: “Of what account is it to lack meal or meat when you may have it of any neighbor?” (144). “What incentive to thieving or killing can there be when there is little wealth and that to be had for the borrowing!” (149). Though the people of Las Uvas have little wealth, they have their freedom, their God, their generosity, and their “heart” (148).
While Austin united all aspects of the desert to illustrate a global perspective of family, she was apparently never able to find success in her romantic relationships. Austin’s hostility toward men is expressed in those stories in Lost Borders which delineate “men’s betrayal of women, of the land, of nature and of their own best selves” (Pryse, xxx). Austin opened herself to the desert looking for a place to belong, and her writings portray her need to “understand the desert in human terms” (Pryse, xxvii). For her, the desert became “a mirror in which to explore ‘her own desires.’” (Pryse, xxix).
Practicing Life within the Cosmic Family
While Atwood and Austin view nature as a place to go to and go from, Gary Snyder’s essays, The Practice of the Wild, argue that the separation of human from nature is illusory. We are always in and part of nature, the wild is both “out there” and within us. His works explore the practical and spiritual nature of four main themes: Nature, Home, Family, and Community. The “self” operates within these dimensions and is connected to all. Compared to Atwood and Austin, Snyder broadens the scope by defining thematic interconnectedness, blending themes together, then holding them within the spiritual cup he calls Grace. What is most significant is that he integrates this complex whole into a practical guide for living in the world. His title exactly captures his intention to affect our immediate lives: he offers “Practice.”
The mirror in nature for Snyder reflects what he brings: his years spent immersed in nature, people, and the spiritual world, primarily Zen philosophy. Reversing the conventional order, he equates nature with home, a place of support for our journeys of discovery into the larger “cosmic family.” “To know the spirit of a place is to realize that you are a part and that the whole is made of parts, each of which is whole....You start with the part you are whole in” (38). For Snyder nature is not someplace you “visit,” it is “home,” the place where “all tentative explorations go out from and it is back to the fireside the elders return” (7, 26).
The key is to center the “self” within home, family, and community, a circular support system encouraging us to wander in “youth” and to return with wisdom, to practice what we learn and to teach others. As Austin first showed us, “self” functions not in isolation but in unity with a multi-dimensional family. Like Austin, Snyder urges us to know the world around us, to walk, use language, know myth, and be involved in the rituals of life: “It is not enough to be shown in school that we are kin to all the rest: we have to feel it all the way through” (18, 57, 68).
Snyder’s fifth concept, “the first and last practice of the wild,” is “grace.” Grace adds a spiritual practice to all the others. Grace is a way of giving action to the “self,” a way of going and being part of it all. Grace is the humility of knowing that “we are all food for the hungry” (184). We should go with grace out of “our little selves into the whole mountains and rivers mandala universe” (94). And like the Aborigine elder Jimmy Tjungurrayi, Snyder gives us a map to memorize, “full of lore and song and also practical information.” Off by ourselves, we “sing these songs to bring ourselves back” (82, 83).
Snyder’s practical guide to living also provides an overview to the critical human challenge of the twentieth century: our very survival depends on successfully integrating our “selves” with nature while acting within models of family and community. What Atwood, Austin, and Snyder clarify is the measure of our experiences: the progress of our consciousness. This progress resolves issues of the self and one’s individual past, heals our psychic pain, and releases us from powerlessness and fear. By accepting the wilderness in ourselves we will understand the wilderness in each other and our connectedness. Nature functions as catalyst, as guide, as test, as teacher. Then opening the spiritual window to grace, we ultimately realize the possibility of being fully human.
Atwood, Margaret. Surfacing (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1972).
Austin, Mary. Stories from the Country of Lost Borders. Ed. Marjorie Pryse (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1987).
Pryse, Marjorie. "Introduction" to Stories from the Country of Lost Borders by Mary Austin. (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1987).
Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990).