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Jedediah Purdy on "the politics of nature in a time of political fear"


At the n+1 website, Jedediah Purdy, a constitutional and environmental lawyer who teaches at Duke University, writes about how “re-encountering” nature can serve to illuminate our alarming political times. He turns to Henry David Thoreau to understand how nature is not an escape from the social but instead an integral part of it. Here’s an excerpt:

There must be as many ways of caring for the self as there are human temperaments or forms of life. I kept on with Thoreau for his version: asking whether attention to nature could be part of a repertoire of dissent and resistance, and a way to cultivate the freedom of mind that that these need.

Thoreau took solitude as well as social life with utter seriousness because he believed both were at once necessary and impossible. Alone, you were in the company of received ideas, condescending self-judgment, anxiety that you were not doing your part; in company, you were alone in your strange mind—and everyone’s mind is strange—throwing words like stones into the pools of other people’s minds, disturbing their smooth surfaces. No wonder he wanted words that had life in them. No wonder he said the great miracle would be to see through another’s eyes for a moment. He repeated that drama of recognition with his pond, imagining himself asking of the deep pool, “Walden, is it you?”

I have been hungry, too, for naïve responses to nature, as I have been for naïve political lucidity. These days, when I see a flock of birds in synchrony, I feel as if a dimension of awareness has opened that is not occupied territory. I feel this other site of consciousness, this fast-banking incipient intelligence, is a rip in the curtain drawn between the world and me.

Thoreau’s responses to nature are not naïve, but they do not reject what is alive and instructive in the naïve response. We might find, in the next four years, that we need to recapture the living kernel in those ideas that seem to be clichéd husks. In my world of academic lawyers, only schemers even pretend to believe that the Constitution simply means what it says, or that we could stand to live by it if it did. But it will soon be time to defend constitutional limits on the President’s power, or limits on the power of the police, as if they were divine commandments (as if there were divine commandments). I come to this as a constitutional lawyer, and also as a teacher. The artificiality of facts is one of the main things the humanities, and the law, have to teach our students, but it is time to defend facts against lies, categorically and with utter clarity. This is a return, at the center of a mostly necessary labyrinth of equivocation and qualification, to something non-negotiable.

Image via n+1.