By: Lindsay Sementelli
An article Priscilla gave to me recently raised a lot of questions about how portrayals of nature in literature shape our views on our relationship with the earth and all of its non-human living things. In his article “It’s Time for a New Story of Humanity’s Place in the World,” Philip Loring discusses in detail the idea that throughout time, many different narratives, literary works, writers and leaders have all told us that we are at odds with nature; yes, we need it and all of its resources, but maybe it doesn’t need us. Maybe we cannot live without the natural world, but perhaps it can flourish in an even greater way without our interference.
“Climate change, overfishing and widespread environmental contamination from chemical toxicants are all creations of our own making,” states Loring. He asks, “But are we destined to create such problems? Many people believe so, and argue that our capacity for self-interest, avarice and ecological shortsightedness make us inherently unsustainable as a species.”
In other words, in our constant quest for human advancement, will we eventually just burn out? At some point, is there the possibility that we will deplete the earth, thus depleting our own successful and healthy existence? Loring’s article suggests that this way of thinking is common, but not productive. People aren’t “inherently at odds with nature.” Factors like poverty and overpopulation put us into survival mode; we have no choice but to take all we can from the earth at this point. Does this make us selfish? Not necessarily, but we need to learn how to adapt to create a more mutually beneficial relationship between ourselves and our surroundings.
This brings me to the first piece of literature that I want to relate this article to in the next few posts to come. Since it is a perennial favorite for yearbook quotes and valedictorian speeches and it is that season again, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost feels like a timely choice. The poem reads:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
I think the reason this poem is so popular is because it encourages us to be a real trailblazer, which some may take quite literally. It is often used as encouragement to become a better person, a person who is making better choices and changes for others in the future. I think it is interesting, though, to think about the differences we could make if we looked at this poem as inspiration for how we can change not just ourselves but the natural world during this walk through the woods. This piece may traditionally represent an individual’s personal struggle with decision making, but the little details can help to transport you into the woods, making it easy to envision having to choose between two paths.
In this poem, both roads appear relatively equal on the surface and the speaker wishes that traveling down both were an option. As the poem progresses, they will discover that they chose the less traveled one, so this was the better choice for personal discovery and development. We are all travelers in our own lives, wishing we could venture down all of the paths we can see, but maybe we need to accept that we cannot see and do it all. Furthermore, some things need to be left untouched by humans, and all of the untaken paths do not necessarily “want wear.” At the same time, should we choose to explore new paths, we don’t have to automatically assume that we and those who follow us will just wear these paths away to nothing. I think this is that pessimistic type of thinking Loring refers to; we do not necessarily have to destroy our environment in the pursuit of human progress as many of us may assume. This is counterproductive. We can coexist. We have the power to travel down these new paths and plant new seeds along the way. We can find ways to advance that do not cause so much destruction and be a real example to future humans. This is one way to go down the road not taken without causing harm.
Instead of making a new trail that shows other people “I was here,” we can work to replenish the old, worn down ones and that in itself is an important legacy that benefits not just the individual but also the natural world. The results of these actions would trickle down to humans too, so it would be a real win-win situation! These scenarios do not necessarily reflect the ideas the author had in mind when writing the poem, but they are new roads to consider traveling down to make “all the difference” in how we relate to the earth today.
You can read Loring’s full article at: http://ensia.com/voices/its-time-for-a-new-story-of-humanitys-place-in-the-world/ . Keep these ideas in mind for my next post!