Escaping indoors | Daily News

Escaping indoors

In E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, there’s a revealing moment when the heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, is walking in the countryside with Cecil Vyse, her unsuccessful suitor. In answer to a question he puts to her, she admits that whenever she thinks of him she always pictures him indoors, in a drawing room with no view.

Why begin an essay on climate change with fictional characters from a comedy of manners written a century ago? Improbable though it sounds, Cecil, Forster’s effete creation, can be cast as environmental villain or fool. He represents the mind-set that stands in the way of effectively addressing the problems which confront us. In case this sounds like evading responsibility by passing the blame to someone else, let me say at once that I can see aspects of Cecil’s lethal indoorness in myself and in everyone I know. We all need to change.

Like Cecil, millions of us have become more defined by the time we spend indoors than outside. As a result, we’ve lost touch with the natural world. Those with the most pronounced indoor sensibilities can’t identify even the commonest species of birds, insects, and plants in their locality. They don’t remember the last time they got thick mud on their shoes. Climbing a mountain or walking by the sea are rare activities, confined to vacations. They may never have visited a farm or witnessed nightfall in a forest; never picked fruit directly from a tree and eaten it, or experienced being alone in a landscape in which there’s no trace of human habitation.

WRITING ABOUT ETHICAL approaches to land use, Peter Carruthers emphasizes “the role of encounter in shaping thinking.” Philosophy and ethics are, he says, “formed by real-life experiences.” If those experiences are predominantly of an indoor world, can our thinking be honed to a sharp enough edge to take on the challenges posed by climate change? Looking at how our understanding of nature has been influenced by the likes of William Wordsworth, John Muir, and Wendell Berry, Carruthers suggests that whether or not we agree with their outlooks, “we should take note of their methodology”—namely, “the way in which their thought is deeply rooted in experiential reality and authentic encounter.”

These are precisely the sorts of reality and encounter that Cecil and his ilk avoid. Yet without them, it’s hard to see how environmental codes of behavior can be properly grounded. Carruthers urges the creation of “opportunities for people (especially young people and city dwellers) to encounter land, nature, and farming.” If our thinking, and the action that it sanctions, is to be focused with the necessary acuity, such encounter is essential.

A nice example of the transformative power of encounter is provided by David Orr in his passionately argued book Down to the Wire: Confronting the Climate Collapse. Considering the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980, Orr suggests that its impact on the weather offers “a very small preview of a world we should avoid.” He looks at one particular outcome of the eruption: “the hottest, driest summer recorded up to that point in Arkansas.” But Orr doesn’t use the generalized, objective style of academic prose. Instead, he explains how he and his brother were personally affected as operators of a small farm and sawmill:

After the summer of 1980, climate change was important to me, not because I’d thought a great deal about it in an air-conditioned office but because I had first felt it viscerally and somatically. My interest did not begin with any abstract intellectual process or deep thinking but rather with the felt experience of the thing.

Those occupying drawing rooms with no view are clearly insulated from this kind of experience. However much the Cecils of the world may inform themselves about events like Mount St. Helens, their perspectives won’t have the urgency of what’s felt. Reading about the destruction of an ecosystem or watching a TV documentary about an endangered species is useful, yes, but such mediated experience lacks something: the persuasive force—the gravity, if you will—of our physically being in a place and savoring its nature, feeling the sun and rain upon our skin, seeing the landscape up close, hearing its sounds, being immersed in the flavors of what passes moment by moment, and becoming attuned to what threatens to poison and derail.

READING PETER CARRUTHERS'S cogent pleas for more experiential contact with the natural world brought back memories of when I worked as warden on a nature reserve. The reserve was an area of marsh and woodland that ran along the shores of Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the British Isles and Northern Ireland’s enigmatic geographical heart. Acting as guide to school parties was an important part of the job, and they poured into the reserve at the rate of three or four coach-loads every weekday at the height of the season. -World Literature Today

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