I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we humans come to care about the things we care about, whatever those may be: ancient monuments, endangered species, books, languages, family members, gender norms…. I was already thinking about that before I moved to Cairo last August, but living in a place where people care about different things in different ways and for different reasons than people in other places I’ve lived (all of which were in the USA) has given my thinking new intensity and tons of new material to work with.
Here I want to think specifically about how we humans come to care about two things, “natures” and “cultural traditions”–both terms that will require unpacking–and how these two forms of care are related. I’m going to do this by talking about my own experience, how I came to care about nature and classics.
My earliest sense that “nature” was disappearing, and that this was cause for serious anxiety, did not come from any story I might have heard from any environmental protection organization in the early nineties. At that time the message of such organizations was still widely ignored if not ridiculed, particularly in places like Birmingham, Alabama, where I grew up. Instead, my father and grandfather planted in me the seed of this idea by taking me on wild and wonderful adventures in the woods and telling me that in the old days, everyone lived like this every single day–waking each morning at dawn to a riotous chorus of birdsongs, building a campfire, eating the freshest, best-tasting breakfast imaginable, and then embarking on the day’s hard labor: a fishing trip or exploratory hike. Back then, though, the woods were far more expansive, the fish and wild animals were more various and plentiful, and people had the skills to live in the forest properly–that is, without using camping gear purchased at Wal-Mart, as we did).
It was perfectly clear to me, then, as a five-year-old (or however old I was when I started thinking in this way), that it would have been better to have lived in the old days. Whenever I voiced such an opinion, my mom would always say, “BUT you know what they didn’t have back then? Hospitals, bug spray, cars, McDonald’s, movies…” After poking fun at my mom’s attachment to the comforts of modern civilization, my dad would usually agree that one probably wouldn’t have wanted to live “back then” (whether in Egypt when they built the pyramids, medieval England, or the days when Cherokee Indians lived where we now lived in Alabama)–it was just too brutal, always wondering if someone from another tribe was going to come along and try to kill you. While I perceived the force of this argument and generally adopted my dad’s opinions on all things, I remained unconvinced. For after all, what did I do for fun when I was not camping but stuck at our suburban home? I went into our big backyard (which my dad considered its most important feature) and imagined that I was camping, or better yet, living in the vast forest of the olden days.
The reading material I was given as a youngster, while likewise free of (and in some cases biased against) any sort of explicit “environmentalism”, added to my sense that things must have been better when forests were larger and more prevalent: for the stories that captivated my imagination most were those set in dense, magical, perilous forests. A particular favorite told of a modern-day boy who found himself stranded in a huge forest somewhere up north. The young adult novel–I’ve forgotten the title–was a “Robinsonade”: a story that, like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), imagines a modern human rediscovering how to survive and flourish in the wild. As with all novels I deeply enjoyed, I yearned to live this story (during my Hardy Boys phase, I set up a forensics lab in my bedroom closet). But I did not know where in the world it would be possible to live such a story. Its premise required that the protagonist, like Defoe’s Crusoe, be so far removed from human society, in geographical terms, that he would not be found and reintegrated for a considerable period of time. I imagine I asked my dad if there were places where one might have such an experience today, and that he replied that there used to be many but were now only a few.
What I saw with my own eyes confirmed that over time, forests were disappearing. I remember riding around in the car, to and from school and music lessons and so on, with my mom in suburban Birmingham, and noticing patches of wooded land being clearcut for new developments–a Home Depot, a Walgreens, or something like that. Never, however, did I see a store being torn down and replaced with forest. I could only conclude that if the whole world was like Birmingham–and there were many reasons to think that at least in this respect, it was–then the total amount of magical forest on the planet was gradually decreasing, whereas the amount of Walgreens and Home Depot space was increasing. That struck me as an emergency people ought to be more concerned about.
My religious “master narrative” of history seemed to confirm that it would have been better to have lived long ago, specifically in Biblical times: for back then, God took a more active role in human affairs, showing his power more often and dramatically through miracles. While I did think it would be cool to have been present during the most important events in human history, such as the life of Jesus, I felt far less confident that I would enjoy life in the desert, which, so far as I could gather, was where all of those events all took place. I knew that life in forests was magical because I had experienced that magic with my dad and granddad; but deserts? Judging from the Bible, desert life sounded rather brutal. So I began to have doubts about Christianity on this basis–vague doubts, more aesthetic than scientific–and to wish, despite what my Christian school told me was clearly in humanity’s best interest, that Columbus and his fellow European Christians had never discovered and converted or killed all the Native American Indians.
Anyone concerned about enrollments in ancient language courses may be interested to know that my decision to take ancient Greek as a sophomore in college (at Vanderbilt) derived from my belief, which then remained unshaken, that things were somehow better in the distant past. I still looked at everything through the lens of Christianity to what some might consider an obsessive degree: it weighed very heavily with me that ancient Greek was the original language of the New Testament, and thus the language of God Himself–surely learning that was worth prioritizing (over, say, learning some boring skill that would make money)? I also felt there was some connection, one I couldn’t quite put my finger on, between my fascination with ancient Greek and my love of nature. When I found time during college to go on camping trips, I would bring an ancient Greek text out into the woods, perhaps one of Aeschylus’ tragedies, and try to read it while sitting on a rock next to a creek…my Greek was so rudimentary that I didn’t understand much, but the play wasn’t really the point: the point was being out in the woods, a ruin of an ancient forest, and reading aloud ancient poetry in an ancient language, mingling these ancient sounds with those of the creek and the birds and other wild animals.
My model for this behavior, which my family considered endearingly eccentric, was not, as you might expect, Thoreau, but rather Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel I read (in translation) the summer before my senior year in high school, during band camp; it made a deep impression because at the time, like young Werther, I was longing for a woman I could not have. Those particular romantic feelings eventually faded, but Goethe’s image of Werther accessing some magical reservoir of inspiration by reading Homer outdoors stayed with me. (Note to self: go look up and reread the relevant passages in Werther.)
From the beginning, then, my weird sort of classicism–which at the time would have to be called something like Southern Evangelical Neo-Romanticism–had an ecological component: it was an “ecoclassicism”.
The next most significant event in the evolution of my ecoclassicism was the summer of 2010, when I did the American School of Classical Studies in Athens Summer Session, visited several Greek islands, and traveled all over Turkey. I was delighted to discover that, aside from a few major tourist attractions like the Parthenon, most of the ruins in Greece and Turkey are located in gorgeous natural settings relatively free of human intruders. This made me wish that I had lived in ancient Greece: surely, I thought, that time, when people could build structures like the Parthenon and write works like Plato’s Republic, and that place, when it contained even more natural beauty, would have been the best in which to live. If I couldn’t move to ancient Greece, I wished I could at least move to modern Greece or Turkey, for of all the places I had ever visited, these seemed the closest to what I had always imagined the richer, more mysterious, more magical world of the distant past to be like.
Instead, I moved to New York City, where I lived for seven years, learning about pollution, climate change, mass extinctions, gender, and how few people shared my youthful view–which I myself had come seriously to doubt–that as one of God’s own “native languages”, ancient Greek infinitely repaid the enormous effort required to learn it. I learned that the ancient Greeks destroyed much of the beautiful natural world they inhabited, and that the Romans were every bit as awful as modern developers busy funneling “all creatures great and small” into a Walgreens-shaped Borg Cube. I learned that the imaginary link between ancient Greece and the romantic grandeur of “lost nature” was an early 19th century thing, and especially a German thing–such a German thing, in fact, that one might not want to get too close to it (if ya know what I mean). So I didn’t go around telling people I’d gotten into classics and environmentalism through The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Now, of course, I live in Egypt, which has a completely different ecology and cultural history–a topic I’ll have to leave for another post.
Where do I stand now on ecoclassicism? I now realize it’s very important not to romanticize the cultural past excessively: if it’s very hard to imagine, say, wanting to be any woman in ancient Athens, then ancient Greece was hardly some lost utopia. In terms of laws and social norms, I’d take today’s Iceland over Aeschylus’ Athens in a heartbeat. While I find the cultural past as imaginatively thrilling as I ever have–more, really, because I know so much more–I do not take it as a model for emulation except in select cases and after careful scrutiny (always subject to revision). As for the natural past, it has vanished, leaving behind only some faint echoes in the modern landscape, traces in the archaeological record, and fantasies in the literary and artistic imaginations of ancient peoples. Ancient nature can neither be preserved nor resuscitated, but its vanished riches can, I think, serve as an inspiration and guide for what this planet could bring forth once again, were we humans to learn to live wisely.