I had a bad case of the lazies, today. Nonetheless, we did eat lunch out, and I did finish reading pages 73-145 of The Overstory. It is a history not only of the people in the book, but of the trees in the Book. This is an arresting way of portraying Environmental Man (or Woman). I do not think I could write this way: for me I might write a story (or poem) about a Wolf (“I, Lobo”) or–though I haven’t done it yet–one about the forest Yosemite, its founding when John Muir got the land grant from Teddy Roosevelt. Yet for me, writing is intensely personal. Even the wolf must somehow become human so that we can understand him (or her). I believe I picked this up from writers as disparate as Charles Dickens to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Charlotte Brontë to Shalom Aleichem. Dickens draws by caricature; Hawthorne and Brontë paint from the emotions of the inner world; and Shalom Aleichem uses Jewish folklore to write his stories. None of these writers can escape the Human World for the World of Nature in their writing.
Yet unlike my heroes (and heroine) I do try to write about Nature in a way. In my book Brazil, I refer to Dame Nature, and refer to the destruction of the Amazon. In my book of poems On Buffalo and Men I hope to refer to Nature in a big way, and also in my books of short stories This Land Was Made for You and Me and South of the Border. Yet there is a difference–I hope not a detrimental one–to my writing about Nature and the Overstory. I like to write about Nature in personal terms, ala St. Francis. It is as though looking at Dame Nature, we like the good monk see the Sun become our Brother; the Moon our Sister; the Earth our Mother; and the Sky our Father. Likewise, Lady Poverty is the belle to whom the St. Francis courts, and unlike the other Catholics of St. Francis’ age, he is said to have referred to a wolf who was a scourge to his community’s sheep, “Brother Wolf.” What I always liked about Saint Francis, even as a child (and a Protestant one at that), was his gentleness and his insistence that not merely the human world matters. His personalizing Nature, moreover does not dehumanize the humankind it fails to depersonalize. Too often, science’s obsession with reducing the animal to being “it” forces humanity to be reduced to “it” to. Rebelling against this, there are writers who insist that Nature transcends the human. I insist that it is the opposite way we should look at Nature: that the Dog, happily wagging his tail, shares something in common with the Human.
My taking on the cause of a Catholic saint is perhaps ironic: I am a Jew, after all. Yet a person ought to be able to see the mirror put to the Divine in Nature even in those who do not share their faith. Jews ought to be able to see in St. Francis what Christians often see in Martin Buber and the Baal Shem Tov: an extreme of personalism.