I’m old enough to remember when the back-to-nature movement began, in the ’60′s. I traveled to a college campus in a big city in the last year of that wayward decade, straight out of a small town whose official motto was “Queen City of the Prairies.” When I arrived what I found was Manhattanites dressed as if they had just walked out of the Maine woods.
“You’re from Missouri!” a girl named Sharon from Tenafly, New Jersey, squealed when I told her where I grew up as we rode the bus on an orientation week outing to the beach. “You must know a lot about nature!”
I racked my brain for some quaint and curious fact about the natural world with which to regale my new friend from the East Coast. “Uh,” I said after a while, “Did you know that if you pick up a hog snake, it will take a crap in your hand?”
Sharon screwed her face up into a look of disgust. On the way back to campus she sat with a guy named “Ian” from Manhattan.
To someone who has grown up surrounded by it, nature isn’t a religion, or a museum. It’s where you work and, when that’s done, you play–baseball, football, fishing. If, on the other hand, you’re from a major metropolitan area and think of nature in the manner of Fran Lebowitz, who defined it as what you walk through on the way from your apartment to a cab, you can get unduly sentimental about the place.
Take hiking for instance. My first girlfriend on the East Coast was constantly scheming to get me to go hiking with another couple who loved nature. ”Let me get this straight,” I’d ask her. “We’re going to go outside, walk around–then come back?”
“Yes,” she’d say, questioning why anyone would question her most fundamental beliefs.
“Why don’t we just stay here in the first place?”
“Because it’s good exercise.”
“No it’s not. Running is exercise. Walking around and congratulating yourself on how ‘natural’ you are burns up very few calories.”
“Well, it’s . . . spiritually beneficial.”
“Let’s put that theory to the test,” I said, using skills I had picked up in 8th grade “modern math” class, “and see if we can apply it to a different set of facts. If I walk into the Empire State Building, the guy at the reception desk asks me where I’m going. If I tell him I’m just ‘walking around’ they call security or the Department of Mental Health and throw me out.”
By this time the woman would be in tears, or out the door, leaving me free to watch the pathetic 70′s-era New England Patriots. No maple tree on earth can compete with the sight of Mosi Tatupu hurtling into the end zone in a short-yardage situation.
Henry David Thoreau was the guy who got the back to nature movement going with his “Walden; or Life in the Woods”–going into the woods west of Boston deliberately to discover himself through self-sufficiency. As it turned out, Thoreau was a bit of a fraud; he went home to his mother’s house on weekends, using his cabin in the woods as a sort of reverse getaway.
He walked into Concord, a nearby town, nearly every day. He was the original natural dilettante, getting just enough of the stuff to be able to lord it over all the grubby schmucks who kept their noses to the grindstone while he got all transcendental. Your first tip-off as to what to think about Thoreau is the gilt-edged name, “Henry David.” If “Hank” or “Dave” isn’t good enough for you, it’s likely that you don’t spend much time in Bass Pro Rod ‘n Reel shops.
If you really want to learn about nature, the best way is to follow the example of Joris-Karl Huysmans, a 19th-century French novelist most famous for A rebours–translated: “Against Nature.”
Joris-Karl Huysmans: “Look at all that nature out there–it’s horrible!”
Huysmans method was to conjure up the reality of something–say a trip to London or a walk in the woods–using his imagination alone. Huysmans broke from the Naturalist tradition to retreat into an idealistic aesthetic world of his own creation. Idealism’s a good thing–right?
Not hunting right now.
Your best sources of information about the outdoors can accordingly be found indoors, of all places. That’s right–you never have to leave the comfort of your home to learn more about the natural world of which we are all, in varying degrees, a part. Here are some intriguing facts about the world around us, and where I discovered them.
Polar bears cover their noses while hunting! Next time your Sierra Club friends start yapping about their honeymoon trek in the Himalyas, and how they still send Christmas cards to their sherpa, take the wind out of their sails with this brain-teaser: When a polar bear goes hunting, which part of its body does it cover with a paw? Answer–his nose, the only black part, you stunod (donuts spelled backwards). I stumbled upon this startling fact in the Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum “Fun Facts to Know and Tell” feature in the Sunday comics, sprawled out on my living room floor while the Soupy Sales Show played on our black-and-white TV.
Hummingbirds can fly backwards at 60 miles an hour! I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t read it on the back of a package of herbal tea, but hummingbirds can go backwards faster than any other animal on the planet. If you do get dragged into taking a hike, this is a real show-stopper when your friends “Jared” and “Erin” are droning on and on about how great it is that grey wolves are making a comeback, like some 50′s doo-wop group touring the country playing Holiday Inn lounges. “We can co-exist with the grey wolf,” you interject with a note of caution, “but I wouldn’t stand behind a hummingbird if I were you.”
Walruses only sleep a minute and a half at a time! Walruses never get more than ninety seconds of consecutive sleep at a time–no wonder they’re always so crabby! I didn’t even have to leave my office building to learn this astounding law of nature–it was on the inside of a Snapple lemonade cap, from which I drank as I ate my tuna sandwich.
At least I think it was tuna.
From the forthcoming “Imitations of Myself.”