“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.
Insectopedia’s chapters are alphabetical, like any good encyclopedia, but that hardly means that Raffles will limit the entry to the chapter title; on the contrary, although each title is significant for the chapter, any given entry can set him off on a long string of stories, all of which eventually come back around and describe the subject in its broadest possible context. Even better, early entries show up later in the book, drawing on parallels across the world and in time. We meet many people who love insects – early on, Cornelia Hesse-Honegger painting flies mutated by Chernobyl; Jia Sidao in 13th century Japan, the “cricket minister;’ Karl von Frish, observing honeybees dance in the mid-1900’s; and David Dunn, recording ultrasonic frequencies of engraver beetles inside pinon pine trees, and converting them into musical compositions.
It’s clear also that Raffles shares the same enthusiasm for these insects; looking at paintings from 1582 by Joris Hoefnagel, Raffles writes,
“[Hoefnagel] was demanding that I not only see, look at, and observe the insects but that I do so with entirely new eyes, that I meet difference and dwell in it, that I discover grounds for empathy in the encounter with these beings’ biological and social marginality. I began to understand that he wanted me eye to eye with these insects, as close as could be, in direct and transformative confrontation” (129).
The possibility for identification and empathy through direct experience, even in these least of creatures – crickets, moths, or even locusts – is crucial in Insectopedia, Raffes even encouraging after the first chapter to “go to a window. Throw it open and turn your face to the sky…There are other worlds around us. Too often, we pass through them unknowing… (12). And when we do have an encounter with these strange creatures, Raffles recognizes that we are always “caught somewhere between the reduction that makes things fathomable and the generosity that gives them fullness” (297).
Bearing this in mind, I turn to the birds. All About Birds: A Short Illustrated History of Ornithology is translated from the French Histoire de l’ornithologie which is probably a more accurate title, as it begins with Aristotle as the “first ornithologist” and follows the science of ornithology through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and up to the present. The text is mostly a history of those men (yes, I mean men) and their significant contributions to the field of ornithology. As such, it would be a helpful reference book, but about as exciting as memorizing dates and numbers of specimens, if not for the beautiful color reproductions of birds throughout the book. There are murals from Egypt, woodcuts, hand-painted etchings, paintings, and then Muybridge’s motion studies of a pigeon in flight.
An entry that typifies the difference between All About Birds and Insectopedia is on 1600’s Jan Jonston, who “brought no new observations to light, but his text was unique in that it only dealt with the scientific aspects of animal studies, abandoning the humanist digressions that had previously accompanied the works of the encyclopaedists” (43). It turns out to be these digressions that make Insectopedia so much fun to read.
All About Birds, while beautifully illustrated, still seems to follow a model of disconnected empiricism that runs parallel to the West’s colonial expansion. Perhaps it could use Martin Espada’s character from “Ornithology at the Caribe Hilton”:
a Puerto Rican amateur ornithologist
contemplates the whitecaps
and the names of bird
ten centuries before the beach was paved,
puffs unseen smoke rings
as his mouth circumnavigates
the Taíno word for hawk: guaraguao.
What we can say about nature? Becoming sensitive to the other worlds all around us – of insects, of birds, of plants – we can learn a humility by which we see the interconnectedness of this world.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com