Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Different Value: Nature (also printed at SIMF)

This one is for those among my readers who didn't make it over to SIMF last Friday...

As human beings, we place value on the things around us; our surroundings and our experiences mean something. If you look around the world, though, you’ll find that the way we place value on things doesn’t match the way someone else’s culture does. Exploring these differences can give us insight and ideas for stories set in alternate worlds. Place a different value on something whose value we take for granted, and you may just surprise and fascinate your reader.

Today I’m thinking about nature. There are a lot of things that have brought the topic up for me: my recent trip to Yosemite, the Gulf oil spill, a recent article about the value of “green exercise” for mental health (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8654350.stm). Most recently I discovered a story where planting trees is saving girls' lives in India (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/south_asia/10204759.stm).

The value placed on nature varies both across cultures and over time. The Biblical view places mankind in charge of nature and licenses our species to use its bounty. In that kind of model, gaining control over nature is a good thing – this would probably involve winning safety against natural threats as well as organizing what grows in one’s garden – growing food would be a part of this, to my mind. It would be interesting to ask whether portrayals of nature as relentless and unforgiving, like those by Jack London, can be included in this view. It’s possible, since gaining control of nature would take people out of danger (even though in the case of The Call of the Wild it can’t be done). On the other hand, the triumph of nature in a story can be interpreted in different ways.

Another often-seen view of nature is that of nature as good, as something we shouldn’t try to control, and particularly not to subjugate. The Garden of Eden would probably be one sort of example of this. Pocahontas has this going on in spades, and in fact there’s a common association between the idea of nature preservation as good and the image of the noble savage. The view that we are a part of nature has grown stronger and stronger over time, influenced in part by the growth of environmentalism. Science fiction has brought us an extreme extension of this idea: that of the ecosystem possessing a collective mind. Midworld by Alan Dean Foster contains one example of this idea, and James Cameron’s Avatar another.

There’s more complexity to be had, though, than just seeing nature as good or bad. The Japanese philosophy of gardening falls at an interesting point between these two extremes, because the idea there is to build a relationship between wild nature and man-controlled nature. (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/ealac/V3613/gardens/overview.html) If you look at a bonsai, you can see part of this philosophy at work: the bonsai is planted in a tiny pot, and in that context the shoot of a full-sized tree is trained into such a shape that it looks like a miniature version of the real thing. I think it’s fascinating that the goal of human control in this case is to emulate actual nature on a different scale.

“The garden can imitate the wider landscape in miniature by the construction of artificial hills for tiny mountains and valleys, meandering pathways and streams. Viewing points are essential in the Japanese garden. The arrangement of features within the garden must consider the different views, and what will be seen from each viewing position.” (http://www.gosfordregionalgallery.com/garden.htm) Japanese gardens, as they design their viewing points, are also known for trying to create a scene that incorporates both the planned areas of the garden and the nature around it, making them match and flow into one another.

Nature can be good. It can be terrifying. It can be majestic, even religious. It can be our servant. It can be our mother. Or it can be so normal that it’s hardly noticed. Whichever value you pick, keep in mind that that value will probably be nuanced in different societal contexts – different aspects of nature may take precedence or be held at different levels of importance. Much of its value will be based on what part it plays in the life of a people.

Woodland dwellers might see it as normal and unnoticed, or possibly they might see it reverently, or as a mother figure.
City dwellers might see it as something vague to yearn for, or they might perceive it as a symbol that people argue over, or they might be frightened of its realities.
Cave dwellers might perceive nature as riotous and out of control, or as a paradise.
The possibilities are endless.

Keep in mind as you write that the way a society perceives nature will influence not only their behavior towards it, but also the language they use in thoughts or conversations about it. Explore how nuances of thought are reflected in language, and what we imply through speech (and thought) about the values we hold. Here are some examples to consider:

“Ejii fought against her surety that this time the world really was ending, that the Sahara Desert was finally finishing what it had started, swallowing up the rest of what was there.” (Nnedi Okorafor, The Shadow Speaker)
“Our great mother Eywa does not take sides, Jake; only protects the balance of life.” (Neytiri, from James Cameron’s Avatar)
“God damn, but he was sick of green.” (a human in Alan Dean Foster’s Midworld)
“‘Your honor, you mean you want me to go into the Sticks? I mean,’ he said, groping for words, ‘you want me to play for the Muckfeet?” (Alvah Gustad in Damon Knight’s “Natural State”)

In countless stories, we see that Nature has meaning to people. I encourage you to think about what nature means – and what it could mean – to the people in yours.

To see this article and many others dealing with the question of using real science in the context of fiction, check out http://crossedgenres.com/simf/