Virgin’s Tears

David Craig

  • Nature: Western Attitudes since Ancient Times by Peter Coates
    Polity, 246 pp, £45.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 7456 1655 0

What exactly is ‘nature’, this book makes us ask. When are we really in touch with it? How much of it is left for us to be in touch with? I felt in touch with it myself one afternoon, three miles from my home, when I started to climb a scaur of limestone that formed the jamb of a narrow cave. At my feet I noticed a kestrel, a young one, crouching motionless on the grass with wisps of down still clinging to its head. I looked for its parents and saw them perched on two outcrops eighty yards away, as still as their fledgling, pointing at me as intently as compass needles. True, the turf which I shared with the young bird had been bitten close by sheep. But the rock and the hawks were nature untransformed by humanity. So were the two wild billy-goats that I saw one morning on Jura in the Inner Hebrides. On a beach of shingle ramped up by the Atlantic they charged each other, clashed foreheads with a bony thump, backed off and charged again, while the nanny waited nearby, a seemingly dispassionate spectator.

Peter Coates’s study of the evolving meanings of ‘nature’, in Europe and North America, is preoccupied with the human tendency to invade nature, altering, exploiting and ‘reinventing’ it. He culls a telling image from the Guardian for 9 August 1996: ‘At Pebble Beach, California, a wind-contorted cypress clings to a rocky spit. This tree’s symbolic value is so great that a sign reads: “Lone Cypress is a trademark of quality and the corporate logo of the Pebble Beach Company. As such, the use of the tree’s image is regulated by law. It may not be photographed or reproduced for any commercial purpose.” ’ This dismaying parable epitomises Coates’s chief contention, that nature itself is something we rarely encounter now. What we pass through, and plough or chop down, and photograph or paint or write about, is almost nowhere the stuff that either issued from the hand of God or grew out of what Darwin called the ‘self-developing energies’ of the cosmos.

Many of his examples are valid. Most of the moors were not, before people arrived, tracts of bents and heather and bog-cotton: they were jungles of broad-leaved trees and conifers. Valley bottoms in the American sierras were not necessarily, before the whites arrived, a tangle of woods and undergrowth: they were a mixture of copse and meadow managed by the tribes who lived there. The point should not be overstated, however: reading Coates on Yosemite, for example, you would think that it was no longer wild at all but had been, as he puts it, ‘created by Euro-American incursion and reconceptualisation’. In fact, Yosemite, and the Tuolumne meadows to the east, are mainly wild to this day. The 3000-foot steel-white wall and brow of El Capitan; the great scooped cranium of Tissa’ack (Half Dome); the planetary granite scalps of the Tuolumne domes; the pulsing, shimmering cataracts of Bridal Veil and Virgin’s Tears; the monumental columns of the sequoias and redwoods: these have not been shaped, and barely even modified, by human hands.

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