“What Can We Say About Nature?”
A Review of
Two New and Very Different Nature Books.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
Hardback: Pantheon, 2010.
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All about Birds:
A Short Illustrated History of Ornithology.
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2010.
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What are we to do with all of the creatures of this earth? All of that life that is not human? How do we begin to describe it? Just as significantly, how in those descriptions might we also be describing the limits of human language and a desire to understand what seems so different from us – honeybees, crickets, red-winged blackbirds? Surely this is part of what physicist Niels Bohr means when he writes that “physics concerns what we can say about nature;” for Bohr, working at a quantum level, the act of observation must be included in the experiment, and so it goes, for physics and for any object of study, that the observers have methods by which they work, and that the language about the thing in study will define the thing itself.
The act of observation, of looking, might seem to go without saying. But there are vast differences in meaning that appear between “today’s technical language of genomics” and Karl von Frisch’s “deeply personal language of bees, a remarkably affective language that imbued his subjects with purpose and intentionality” (172).
Two new books that take on the study of creatures are Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles (from which the above quote is taken) and All About Birds: A Short Illustrated History of Ornithology by Valérie Chansigaud. While one is about the study of insects, and the other about the study of birds, the approach of the two authors is telling of two different sensibilities of approaching the world; with Raffles, it is entered into thoroughly, telling stories, observing and participating in the broader culture that surrounds his insects, seeking out localized insect events, and asking questions that might not have apparent or empirical answers. Chansigaud, on the other hand, tells a very linear history, laced more with the affiliations of dead white guys than with the birds, and relying heavily on the Enlightenment mythologies of the West. While Raffles embraces an embodied and nuanced relationship to the creatures he’s writing about, Chansigaud aims for the authoritative voice of the canon to define her subject.