Sunday, December 16, 2012

Day 16. Nicole Walker on why tiny things are good. David Hawkins' "Lorraine Nelson: A Biography in Post-it Notes" and J.B. MacKinnon's "False Idol."

I hate nature essays, which is a horrible thing, since I write them. nature essay runs the risk of a) making everything it touches precious. Oh, here’s a beautiful rock. Oh, look at this twig! I mean, I like to look at rocks and twigs and I like to write about rocks and twigs but reading about others’ love of rocks and twigs is more like being hit over the head with rocks and twigs that looking or writing about them. And then there’s b). The idea that the authentic experience exists “out there” in the wild. But JB MacKinnon’s essay "False Idyll," published in the May/June 2012 issue of Orion is the opposite of your usual let’s-praise-the-authenticity-of-the-natural. McKinnon, after situating himself in a pretty bleak, cold, violent wilderness, where “A black bear was hanging around, skinny and sickly from the bad berry crop and probably bound for death by starvation in its winter den,” writes that nature, when it is real, is not so sweet. “The idea that nature is a bittersweet and sometimes forbidding place is not, as they say, currently trending. More prevalent is the view reflected in a recent caution from the Chicago Manual of Style editors that capital-N “Nature” is to be used only to denote “a goddess dressed in a flowing garment and flinging fruit and flowers everywhere.”

We want Nature, capital N, to be this beautiful place where we should go and be one with in some religious type authenticity, where the “real” exists. But MacKinnon disabuses us of any idea that the wild we go into is in any way “real.” He catalogs the lack of abundance, the lack of wild, the lack of stuff out there. Sure, it’s easy to idealize an idyll if it’s just a bunch of safe twigs and rocks. “ Only 20 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is still home to all the large mammals it held five hundred years ago, and even across those refugia they are drastically reduced in abundance.” If nature can’t attack, then is it even really nature, or just a proxy for nature? “The second point,” beyond this taming of the wild, he writes, “is that we nonetheless have a deeply embedded psychological attachment to the living world. Having lost our daily communion with that world, our modern spiritualization of it can be seen as a kind of prosthetic—or, if you prefer, a way of turning up the volume on a signal that is increasingly faint. We have created an imaginary connection with nature because we lack a tangible one, and we carry that connection in spirit because we no longer follow it in body.” So we think about nature rather than touch it. We arrange twigs and rocks and feel that aha, now we have access to the real thing.

What MacKinnon sees as the real threat is the ecological collapse that happens when nature is rendered safe. If you take out all the danger, you also take out all the complexity. By removing the threats in nature, by making nature something easily accessed, by thinking you’re in the real wild when you’re standing on dirt rather than asphalt, even though there’s not a real bear mauling you, you flatten the thing. You make a consistent narrative of it. Nature, capital “N” is a park with lovely birds. But this lovely park with lovely birds is too easy. We've taken out the complications. We think we've adjusted it to our liking but “When fishermen’s nets fill not with fish but jellyfish; when pestilent tsetse flies spread with the scrublands once held in check by browsing elephants; when overpopulating deer eat the flower gardens of suburban America—all of these bear the markings of the ecological cascade.” The ecological cascade is a flattening out. A removal of the important details like the idea that the way to keep the tsetse fly in check was to keep the big elephants alive. It’s not the elephant, the big animal, that’s necessarily important, it is the small difference he used to make in the system that you thought you had all figured out. Now he’s gone and the little effect he had means that now you’re eating spoonfuls of flies with your breakfast cereal.

But to me, as a writer, it’s not just the collapse of the world that troubles me. I patch over that with a glass of wine and a commitment to Facebook. What seems equally true, psychologically, in exchanging fish for jelly fish, is the complexity behind the picture. It’s not so much that I go into the nature to find the authentic, but that I go into the nature to see the complex, the constant metamorphoses that occur in front of my eyes that remind me what authenticity can be—a constant reshuffling of what we think we see. A combination of perception and thinginess that is so impossible it’s almost magic, but then, there it is. A stump that looks like a bear. A twig that moves into the s of a snake. The bird that flies light right into your eyes. These are the small things. These complicated shifts that, in the white space between what you think you see and what there is to see, the real slips by.

Which is why David Hawkins short book written on short Post-it notes which has nothing to do with nature at all exemplifies this lovely slip. His pamphlet-book, “LorraineNelson: A biography in Post-It Notes” (you can read an excerpt by following the link) from The Cupboard, a press that devotes itself to tiny volumes, is printed as a book on pages just about the size of Post-it. At first glance, you think you’re going to read a book about this woman named Lorraine. But how can you get a whole life on a Post-it note? Nature and the lives of big mammals like humans have one thing in common: they’re too big to get into a book. So, instead of the whole thing, the whole life, we get snippets. Post-it sized snippets that allow in the page turning that same sort of action that happens in the wild. The synaptic surprise that happens in the wild where you thought we were looking at a tree and instead now you realize you’re looking at a bear happens too when we read about our narrator, Hawkins, working at a Foot-locker but flip the page and now he’s talking about Plato’s Cratylus and James Joyce. Finnegan’s Wake for Foot-locker? The language is slippery. Both start with ‘f.” Why not connect them? Where is this Lorraine person anyway and did she work at Footlocker too? No, the narrator, says quickly, flip the page, taking us instead to a company called DDS where he worked later, after Foot-locker, to proofread direct mail for primarily “proprietary schools—computer techs, HVAC training centers, business institutes, nursing programs.” These are not the kinds of schools like the one Hawkins attends (grad school. Phd. Lit. Creative Writing), who take great pleasure in the slips of language. These are the kind of schools that would like things simple and straight forward. Lovely birds, these schools.

But Hawkins does like the slips. The funny slip in the typo here: “Have you ever dreamed of eating your friends’ pets?” Not eating. Treating, it is supposed to read. But the slip leads Hawkins on a complicated imagination tour that ends with the image of “the photo of a handsome young woman in a white lab coat cradling beneath one arm a bushy Pomeranian like a Thanksgiving Day ham seeping into their dreams (18).

It’s in the slip that imagination comes. It’s in the slip where the typing and the idea behind the typing lead to a delicious Pomeranian, real in our arms, if not on our tongues.

White space is the domain of nonfiction—the way it lets the essay open up. That’s where the shift happens in Hawkins book. Every short moment has its own integrity but, under this rubric of “Lorraine” and “Biography” and “Post-it Notes” we begin to gather his point. Between the Post-it notes there is electricity. Each note contributes just a bit of information but it’s only in the tiny things, the twigs and rocks, that we begin to approximate anything like real, or nature, or authenticity, or Life, or Lorraine. “There’s only so much you can cram on a Post-it note” (31) but you can cram this:

Lorraine Nelson
322 Palm Beach Blvd.
Pompano Beach, CA 90525

You can also cram this: “Language is continuously on the move. For this reason it can be a tough bird to land, hard to gauge. We groan when someone trips on the proverbial trave, stumbles over some old saw, but our reactions are reflexive, self-conscious. Perhaps, these bunglers, like the punsters who parody them, too-well remind us of our own tenuous grasp on the language” (37).

As MacKinnon laments in “False Idyll,” the ecology collapses when it becomes static—placed perfectly for our occasional traipse through it. For a thing to truly be wild, it must always be on the move.

In “Lorraine Nelson,” we don’t even discover who Lorraine is until page 54. She is no one. She’s just a name, an address, a “stand-in, a proxy for the insignificant, faceless hordes who receive DDS’s pamphlets, brochures, and surveys. Where they would eventually appear, she stood, holding their place.” Lorraine is the white space, the slip, the absence of a real body. Like our current unreal Nature, she is that ephemeral holding pattern occupying a sacred space where there is no physical connection. But in the flicker between Post-it Notes, when the lighting is just right, and the twig suddenly moves and the rock purrs and the tree stump trudges toward you with a kind of danger, “for all irreal essence, she had become for me more substantial, more final than any of the actual person or daily activities that populated my office day.” She is the chimera in the forest. The chimera is the real. Maybe if you blink often enough, she will shift into focus. The world is complicated enough if you look through it with a strobe light.

It’s these little details that maybe only are interesting when there is no Facebook and no Direct Marketing that make nature still a wild place, slippery as language. As MacKibbon notes, it’s not beautiful, but it is small and confusing, that’s where the good flips by like Post-its.“Instead, the challenge comes from the wilderness’s countless mortal shocks, from maggots teeming in the brainpan of a dead deer, to the steady watchfulness required of life among large predators, to weirdly disturbing realizations such as that adult mayflies have no mouths, no digestive tracts, no anuses. Yet another memory from this past year’s visit leaps to mind: a strange preponderance of bleeding tooth fungus, Hydnellum peckii, which weeps transparent beads of red liquid across the white pulp of its mushroom cap. If the bleeding tooth fungus is the answer to any question, that question could only be, “Why?” The gross and the tiny. The small, irritating, weird-looking, weirdly-named bitey mushrooms.

If authenticity and the real only exist in the flip of pages, in the white space of essays, in the impermanence of sticky notes, then perhaps there are only real questions left. And perhaps we can only get near those questions in the tiny spaces between tiny things like “blood and shit and electrons and birdsong.” And those lovely birds may slip into the real to be tiny and slippery and elephantine for real. Nature, just as language is made up of tiny words, is made up of tiny things, —birds and rocks and twigs. It adheres together with the weak bond of the sticky Post-it substance. Flick through it. Somewhere in the adhesive, between the flipping of the notes, the whole, real thing appears.


NICOLE WALKER’s nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the 2011 Zone 3 nonfiction prize and will be published next year. She is also the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, which will be released by Continuum Press in 2013. She’s a nonfiction editor, with T. Clutch Fleischmann, at Diagram. She received her PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it just snowed 18 inches.


  1. I'm reminded of Brian Doyle's "The Greatest Nature Essay Ever," also published in Orion: