On my grandfather, the ancient Greeks, and Nature

I have been thinking and writing for the past year about how memory shapes our experience of environments. I’ve been focusing mainly on cultural memory, in particular the modern, mainly Euro-American memory of ancient Greece as the site of a uniquely beautiful relationship between humans and the more-than-human world of birds, grapevines, Nemean lions, forests, tree nymphs, river gods, and so on. In “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry” (Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, 1795-1796), Friedrich Schiller evokes such a memory in order to draw a contrast between the ancient Greeks and moderns like himself and us:

“If one remembers the beautiful nature, which surrounded the ancient Greeks; if one reflects how intimately this people under its happy sky could live with free nature, how much closer its mode of conception, its manner of feeling, its morals lay to simple nature, and what a faithful impression of the same its poetic works are, so must the remark appear strange, that one meets among the same so few traces of the sentimental interest, which we moderns can take in natural scenes and in natural characters. The Greek is indeed in the highest degree exact, faithful, detailed in description of the same, but yet no more and with no more excellent interest of the heart, than he is also in description of a suit, a shield, armor, house furniture, or any mechanical product. He seems in his love for the object to make no distinction between that which is through itself, and that which is through art and through the human will. Nature seems more to interest his understanding and his curiosity than his moral feeling; he does not adhere to the same with intimacy, with sentimentality, with sweet melancholy as we moderns.”

In other words, according to Schiller, the ancient Greeks, living intimately with “free nature”, did not see nature and humanity as radically different kinds of things, in the way that moderns who feel compelled to go “back to nature” do. But what does Schiller know? The ancient Greeks’ actual experience of nature and themselves is for him at best a dim memory considerably distorted in transmission; at worst, he’s just projecting his own Edenic fantasy onto them.

Be that as it may, for me this passage evokes memories of my paternal grandfather, Jimmy Earl or (to me) Pawpaw, particularly when I read it in the house he built in his early twenties and lived in all his life. In addition to this oikos (the Greek word for “house” that is a component of the word “ecology”), Jimmy built many structures typical of a technologically advancing modernity during his career in construction, including large rooms to house those gigantic early computers. He had a Promethean knowledge of mechanics that I can never hope to equal. Yet I remember him more as a guide to nature than to building. Here he is teaching me how to plant tomatoes:

Pawpaw and I plant tomatoes. Photo by Johnnie Cooper.

Though he was skilled in construction and enjoyed building and repairing all sorts of things around the oikos, he did not enjoy the construction business and retired from it as early as he could in order to garden, fish, and camp, ideally with his grandkids. He did not renounce technology; on the contrary, he always emphasized to me the importance of having the necessary tools, particularly when going onto the river or into the woods, and he always furnished his oikos with state of the art television sets and satellite antennas. But he also taught me how to see the world from the perspectives of all sorts of different plants and animals, and so to begin to feel what Timothy Morton calls solidarity with nonhuman beings. In other words, he was, at least as I remember him, rather like one of Schiller’s ancient Greeks; certainly nature seemed “more to interest his understanding and his curiosity” than to provoke “sweet melancholy”. However, I wonder what he was feeling in moments like these:

Pawpaw and I by a stream in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Photo by Johnnie Cooper.

This photo reminds me of the first sentence of Schiller’s essay: “There are moments in our life, when we dedicate a kind of love and touching respect to nature in its plants, minerals, animals, landscapes, just as to human nature in its children, in the morals of country folk and of the primeval world, not because it is pleasing to our senses, not even because it satisfies our understanding or taste (the opposite can often occur in respect to both), but rather merely because it is nature.”

Whatever it is that he (and my grandmother, the photographer and archivist) felt in these moments, I’m grateful for it.

Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

2 thoughts on “On my grandfather, the ancient Greeks, and Nature

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