“Human place in nature” is a topic I’m semi-obsessed with right now, and though it seems sorta esoteric, I think the issue has huge implications for gardeners and designers.
Here’s what got me all stirred up this time.
I just finished showing the 2005 film Grizzly Man to my English classes as part of a unit on documentary film. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s the story of the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, a self-proclaimed “kind warrior” who lived with the Grizzly bears in Katmai, Alaska for 13 summers in order to study and protect them.
Although Treadwell had a genuine love for animals and appeared to have better relationships with the bears than with other humans, he was actually killed and eaten by a Grizzly in October 2003.
Treadwell’s violent and somewhat ironic death is part of what makes the film fascinating, as is the question of whether he was a courageous hero or a lunatic narcissist. But as I was watching the film with my classes this week, I was more intrigued by something else.
The director of the film, Werner Herzog, clearly felt that Treadwell was — if not a lunatic — at least a misguided idealist. Though he might have had some sympathy for Treadwell, Herzog did not share the “kind warrior’s” warm fuzzy feelings about the natural world. In his narration of the film, Herzog makes some bone-chilling statements about nature — statements that are in direct opposition to Timothy Treadwell’s romantic view of wilderness. After a segment of the film in which a male grizzly kills a cub, Herzog reflects:
“I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”
When Treadwell looked into the eyes of a Grizzly, he saw a kindred spirit, a friend, a brother. Herzog saw no such thing, just “the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
Wow. Did you get that?
The overwhelming indifference of nature.
This is what fascinates me — one man perceives nature as pure, life-affirming, vital, uncorrupted, beautiful.
And another man perceives it as chaotic, indifferent, hostile.
There’s more to be said about the folly of such extremes in perception, but in the meantime, I asked myself what all this had to do with gardeners.
I think gardeners, more than most people, exist in both of these worlds — Treadwell’s and Herzog’s. It may seem like a stretch to compare living with Grizzlies to planting a row of carrots or potting up a bunch of petunias, but I’m going to go there anyway.
Gardening requires a person to step into the natural world in a way that hikers and even campers don’t often do. A good gardener knows the soil, the seasons, the habits of grackles and grubs, the timing of bud break and leaf drop. We have a long-term relationship with a piece of land — never mind that it’s a quarter acre in Cleveland and not a vast expanse in some national park — the point is, like Timothy Treadwell, we draw pleasure and inspiration from the world of living things. And we feel connected to something larger than ourselves.
Gardeners are also all too familiar with nature’s “indifference.” Though an outbreak of the Leaf Notching Beetle on our peonies may not bring us to our knees, our romantic ideas about nature and gardens are often kept in check by such disappointments. Vegetable gardeners, especially, must have the backbone to deal with Nature’s cruel disregard for all our toil and passion.
All of these different perceptions of nature are very much at play in the world of design, as well. The recent emphasis on “sustainable” landscaping puts us smack-dab in the middle of this Humanity/Nature debate, which is why the topic interests me so.
So yeah…for now I have to wrap up this brain dump, but be on the lookout for a “Part II” on this topic!