Nature’s Eloquent Speech in Charles Frazier’s novel Nightwoods
Terry Gifford, Bath Spa University, UK and Universidad de Alicante, Spain
[This is a draft submitted for publication, Mississippi Quarterly, 30 October 2013.]
Theories of natura loquens, or nature speaking, might be prompted by the mountains of North Carolina since its seasons are so strongly defined and its literature so referential, so listening, so loquacious about the biosemiology of seasons: “ice-storms,” “first dogwoods,” “rhododendrons,” “leaf-looking” speak of the four seasons in these mountains, volcanic as each of these constructions is in its effect upon those who hear them and also know them. Charles Frazier (whose first novel was Cold Mountain) speaks for these mountains, and their values and effects in his third novel, Nightwoods, as natura objectiva and as natura subjectiva, as will be explained in this paper. But rather
than deploying a binary of separation in his narrative, Frazier proposes that a deep subjectivity is actually defined by an objective natura loquens. Those characters who maintain binaries self-destruct. The deepest human experience of love embraces a listening to human nature (in this case autistic children) and indivisibly the nightwoods, their weathers, plants and creatures, in a self-sustaining, deeply enriching mode of human life at the edge of survival in a capitalist culture. This recent novel is a fable for our times and is discussed by the ecocritical method of “narrative scholarship.”
Terry Gifford wrote an ecocritical essay on Frazier’s first novel Cold Mountain in the Mississippy Quarterly LV.1, Winter 2001-02, later collected in his book Reconnecting With John Muir: Essays in Post-Pastoral Practice (2006). He is the author of seven collections of poetry including Al Otro Lado del Aguilar (2011), plus Green Voices: Understanding Contemporary Nature Poetry (second edition 2011), Pastoral (1999) and an ecocritical study of Ted Hughes (2009). He is Visiting Professor at the Centre for Writing and Environment, Bath Spa University, UK, and Senior Research Fellow and Profesor Honorifico at the Universidad de Alicante, Spain.
Charles Frazier’s complete ouvre consists of three very different novels, although each of them is a historical novel located largely in western North Carolina and the narrative of each one turns upon the ability of humans to read, survive and some senses be at home, not just in an intimately known land, but in the larger natural world that includes, through the night sky of turning star systems and phases of the moon, the cosmos itself. However, each of these novels is set in a distinctly different period and culture, whilst Frazier’s narrative voice shifts from that of the biblically inflected allegorical in the first, to a personalised fatalistic character in the second, to something closer to that of the psychological
thriller writer in the third. The narrator of the Civil War novel Cold Mountain (1997) had clearly been influenced by the voice and allegorical ambition of Cormac McCarthy.1 The narrator of Thirteen Moons (2006) was Will Cooper, a surprisingly non-judgemental personalised voice based upon the nineteenth century historical character William Holland Thomas who was adopted by the Cherokee Nation and attempted to negotiate against their removal from the mountains of North Carolina to the plains of Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears. Nightwoods (2011) is narrated from inside the heads of its central characters in a 1950s backwoods plot-driven thriller
that is also much the shortest of the three novels.2 It could be argued that these shifts in narrative voice represent an artistic progression. In Cold Mountain the author’s voice could at times be heard speaking too strongly through the novel’s narrator.3 Will Cooper, in Thirteen Moons, has the author trapped in a pessimistic fatalism from which he can finally find no escape. Only in Nightwoods does the author achieve the unity of convincing and coherent psychological perspectives of individual characters that he has sought in the earlier two novels. But there are other
voices speaking from the land, its organic inhabitants, the weather and the skies in these narratives.
Each of these narrators also evokes within each novel the voice of localised nature and, indeed, the larger voice of the cycle of the seasons. In an earlier article on Cold Mountain in the Mississippi Quarterly I argued that Inman’s ability to read the terrain and attend to the voice of nature – the “signs and wonders” learned from his Cherokee friend Swimmer – was, he knew, the test of his character as he undertook the “journey that will be the axle of my life.”4 Just as Inman learned from Swimmer, whilst Ada learns from Ruby, how to read the bioregional signs of nature in Cold Mountain, Will Cooper in the second novel
absorbs Cherokee wisdom from Bear, his adoptive father figure. Throughout the novel the narrator indicates the seasons by the thirteen moons of the Cherokee year. In Thirteen Moons a long Cherokee cultural tradition of listening to the changing voices of the seasons informs the narrator’s sense of his own life’s seasons. But early in the novel, the narrator, as he remembers from the perspective of old age the early days of his getting to know Bear and his people, implicates the whole society in the loss of these skills:
Many of them were busy taking up white ways of life that baffled them. With every succeeding retreat of the Nation and every incursion of America, the old ways withdrew a step farther into the mountains, deeper up the dark coves and tree-tunneled creeks. It was not any kind of original people left. No wild Indians at all, and little raw wilderness. They were damaged people, and they lived in a broken world like everybody else.5
The loss of traditional knowledge gained from listening to nature in North Carolina’s mountain coves and creeks is simply regretted here in a fatalistic manner that is characteristic of a deeply unsatisfactory second novel that has no tension in its plotting and rather peters out in an unresolved ending of lost opportunities. It might even seem somewhat patronising to claim that this nation, with its particular heritage and two centuries history of “brutal loss,” lived “like everybody else” in a broken world. The narrative turns upon the fact that both the narrator and Bear think that by buying land in the new ways of white capitalist America they can avoid the government’s determination to remove the Indians from North
Carolina. Some people in nineteenth century America are obviously more broken, in certain respects, than others. The failure of the narrator and Bear’s strategy seems to result in the failure of the narrative to find any redeeming sense of an ending at its conclusion. In his third novel Frazier not only has a sharper momentum and rationale to his plot, but offers insights into the keys to hearing nature speak and the consequences of not doing so. Further, it is a novel which might be read through the frames of recent ecocritical theory to the mutual benefit of both text and theory
In Charles Frazier´s Nightwoods, Luce is the forgotten housekeeper of a dilapidated grand unused Lodge on the far side of a lake from an unnamed town. It is at the foot of the forested mountains of North Carolina and partly enclosed by them. Happily living alone very simply in her isolation, Luce has retreated from human contact following her rape as an unworldly young woman in her first job after school. As the only traceable relative, she accepts the care of her murdered sister’s twins who have been traumatised into autism by some unspecified action of their now absent father, Bud Johnson. So now they all three sleep around a fireplace in the large furnished lobby, ignoring the rest of the house that is slowly
decaying in the humidity of the South. A passage from early in the novel demonstrates how Luce responds to her new responsibility and something of the challenge she faces:
Clear and moonless, an hour before sunrise. The children woke and rattled around the lobby [...] Luce eventually quit pretending to sleep, but she’d be damned if she was going to set the precedent of cooking before the sun came up.
She took the children out into the dark dewy yard and pointed at groups of stars. Particularly Orion, visible briefly before dawn for a few weeks during late summer like a portent of winter. When Dolores and Frank both looked at Luce’s finger instead of the sky, she moved behind them and aimed their eyes with her hands against the sides of their heads.
Just talking, figuring maybe a word now and then might register, she said, There, rising just above the ridge. Broad shoulders, narrow waist. The Hunter. He’s chasing that little patch of stars up ahead of him. The Seven Sisters. People with good eyesight can count them. Twenty-ten. Everybody sees a few lights shining through haze. There’s a story that goes with them.
Luce had gotten well into the narrative when she realised that the sisters’ suicides were coming up soon. Editing on the fly, she told it so they turned into stars without having to die first. (51)
Early in their relationship Frazier presents Luce’s sense that these children need to be tuned in to nature, clearly inviting an ecocritical reading of the book. Such readers will be aware of the anthropomorphism of her method here, the “natureculture” integration that this represents, the equality of her sensitivity to the season for seeing Orion and to the children’s recent traumatic experience, and the writer’s poetic style in that opening verbless sentence. There are many dimensions to natura loquens – nature speaking - being enacted, mediated, and interpreted here which raise many questions for a theoretically up-to-date ecocritic. So at this point in this essay I was going to follow critical convention
by selecting one of the latest turns in ecocritical theory to provide a frame for discussing the implications, and perhaps even evaluating, this novel. And then I read this in a review in ISLE of two recent collections of ecocritical theory from my colleague at Bath Spa University, UK, Richard Kerridge:
It is alarming how standard a certain method of putting together an essay has become. Commentary upon a body of theory is paired with a brief reading of a text. If the theory comes first, the text is assumed to illustrate the theory, to translate it into life. When the text comes first, the theory follows as explanatory interpretation. Sometimes this strategy extends both text and theory, as many essays here demonstrate. But sometimes there is anticlimax. The theoretical argument doesn’t connect with enough in the text for the theory to come to life, yet the particularity of focus shuts out other possibilities of the text. We get neither the elucidation
of the theory nor the surprises of reading.6
These wise words should encourage more subtlety, sophistication and reconnection in our practice of reading, sharing and meditating upon the experiences that put mud on our boots. Kerridge calls for theorists to “tell more stories of their own” that might ground their theory in lived experience, thereby leading me to the conclusion that “narrative scholarship” was one of the much unpractised great leaps forward in ecocriticism that should not be regarded as the private domain of a few macho mountaineers. The originator of the idea of narrative scholarship was ecocritic Scott Slovic who coined the term in an unpublished conference paper in 1994.7 It
was not until his 2008 book Going Away to Think: Engagement, Retreat, and Ecocritical Responsibility that Slovic himself defined his notion of connecting theory, text and real life:
Ecocritics, to do something genuinely meaningful – something more than propping up their own careers by producing endless unread and unreadable commentaries about perfectly lucid and even eloquent literary texts – must offer readers a broader, deeper, and perhaps more explicit explanation of how and what environmental literature communicates than the writers do themselves, immersed as they are in their own specific narratives. Crucial to this ecocritical process of pulling things (ideas, texts, authors) together and putting them in perspective is our awareness of who and where we are. Our awareness literally, of where we stand in the world and why we’re writing. Storytelling, combined with clear exposition, produces the
most engaging and trenchant scholarly discourse. 8
Acknowledging Slovic’s unpublished paper, the pioneering exponent of narrative scholarship is Ian Marshall, whose most recent exemplar of the mode recounts walking the International Appalachian Trail whilst undertaking a scholarly study of haiku in order to inform his own writing about the hike in haiku form.9 In a less macho mode, the recent critical writings of ecofeminist literary critic Catriona Sandilands, that take their starting points in the complexity of her situated personal experience,10 provide another kind of model of what I have called the “post-pastoral practice”
of narrative scholarship.11 The role of storying is being reclaimed here for the exploration of abstract ideas in a manner that is aware of the dangers (and is, in this sense, “post-pastoral”) inherent in the mode.
The storying of Luce, for all its anthropomorphic sexism (carrying echoes of her own rape), is one way of mediating the possibility of nature speaking to the children in her care, from which they are so far removed as to look at her finger instead of the stars. And the voice of nature which Luce is hoping they will eventually hear is particularly that of the North Carolina woods, the “nightwoods” of the doubly alienating (or possibly, to ecocritics, doubly seductive) single word title. The unfolding narrative will demonstrate that their survival will depend upon a certain degree of being able to be at home in those nightwoods. To find one’s way in the nightwood – the combination of two of the most difficult natural elements
for humans to read, or rather to hear speak, requires an alertness that Luce is beginning to induce in her charges through narrative engagement.
To situate my own reading of Nightwoods, I must admit that in reality the particularity of the way nature speaks in the mountains of North Carolina can be frankly quite shocking in its first effect upon a Northern European, such as myself. My own experience of living and teaching for a semester as poet-in-residence at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, at the foot of the Appalachians (in the year when Cold Mountain was published, 1997) led me to write when I was first framing an abstract for this paper:
Theories of natura loquens might be prompted by the mountains of North Carolina since its seasons are so strongly defined and its literature so referential, so listening, so loquacious about the biosemiology of seasons: “ice-storms” gripping every twig of every tree, “first dogwoods” blazing white out of winter woods, “rhododendrons” blushing forth on mountain slopes, and autumn “leaf-looking,” speak of each the four seasons in these mountains, powerful as these constructions can be in their effect upon those who hear them but also know them intimately.
And here I am, already mixing my personal emotional response to North Carolina, with Frazier’s textual significations, with a sense of eloquently vocal seasons, and implicitly with a theory of reading nature, specifically “biosemiology.”12 Indeed, it is not irrelevant to a discussion of Frazier’s work to remember that the Native American novelist James Welch visited campus to discuss his novel Fools Crow (1986) and said that he would ask the question, here in North Carolina, that he asked wherever he visited, “Where are the Indians?” Neither I, nor the mostly local students, had the least idea how to answer that question. Thirteen Moons could
now give us an answer. And telling this story of guilty ignorance perhaps illustrates what narrative scholarship can offer by way of connection, and mutual challenge, between land and life, author and reader, theory and text. Actually, there seems to be the most apt possibility for extending both theory and text, as Richard Kerridge puts it, in the case of Nightwoods.
The novel’s climax is the children’s escape into the woods when they are shocked to see their mother’s murderer show up at the Lodge. Bud attempts to find them, believing that they know the location of his secret stash of cash which disappeared after the murder. (The twins carry the money as tinder for their obsession with lighting fires, which Luce interprets as “giving anger a furious voice” (114).) This hunt is anticipated in Luce’s story about Orion, which is continued thus in her narration:
But they were still pursued across the sky from early autumn into spring by Orion and his dangling sword. The important point was that for an awfully long time, even before people thought up the story, Orion and the sisters have gone around and around, night after night, and he still hasn’t caught them. (51-52)
The British ecocritic Wendy Wheeler makes a point about biosemiotics that relates to narratives about natural cycles such as this:
The understanding that all living systems are semiotic allows us to understand more clearly that human semiosis - natural in scents and some expressions, gestures and symptoms, naturo-cultural in other gestures and symptoms, verbal and nonverbal in culture - is an evolutionary development from biosemiotic nature. Understanding that culture is natural should allow productive thought concerning the ways that natural forms and patterns are reproduced in culture.13
Frazier’s joke in “even before people thought up the story” is actually about evolutionary biosemiotics and is only possible because culture is natural in this verbal appropriation of a natural form in the star system, as seen from the location of North Carolina at a certain season. But what is interesting is how biosemiotics can help us understand the way the material world, which I might call natura objectiva, can be subjectified into personal knowledge and intuition, that I might call natura subjectiva, by teaching such as Luce’s in Nightwoods. Indeed it is Bud’s urban neglect of his natura subjectiva that magnifies the obstacles of natura objectiva in his own hunt through
the nightwoods in search of the twins, with “his dangling sword,” or in this case his machete.
In a wonderfully knowing passage before the children leave, Luce Frazier brings the wet woods alive in a long paragraph that begins, “On a drizzly day toward the end of the week, Luce walked them in the woods, making water the topic of her ramble” (28). Natura objectiva is mediated into natura subjectiva by Luce’s speech to the children that is perhaps too much actually Frazier’s voice to the reader: “Life likes the wet and rewards it. Archaic forms incompatible with the modern world persist here. Hellbenders, deep in the creek beds. Panthers, high on the ridges” (29). Implicit here is what nature could be saying to the children through Luce, and through Frazier to the reader. Wheeler points out that,
organisms are biocybernetic systems of ecologies which are metabolically stabilized within a membrane, within larger less stable ecologies – both natural and socio-cultural. All share similar patterns of repetition and difference, and all are evolving: different parts at different rates. All are also communication-rich.14
What might be communicated to the children here by the bioregional presence (Frazier seems to relish an opportunity to celebrate bioregional distinctiveness like the creek reptiles called “hellbenders”) of “archaic forms” in the wetness of these North Carolina woods? What is their metaphorical function for the writer? This is a rather different question about the novelistic communication of perception. Wheeler points out:
The human grasp of the world is essentially aesthetic (from the Greek aisthanesthai, to perceive). It derives from precepts (that is, from the enworlded bodies) by which we are reaching out into the world, into alterity, which discovers itself in this encounter.15
Can Richard Kerridge’s challenge be met in reference to theory such as this? What does the presence of hellbenders and panthers communicate to the duel audiences here – the children and the reader - about those “archaic forms”? What is actually being implied about the biocybernetics in which Luce, the children, Frazier and his audiences - in North Carolina, and those beyond - all listen to nature in their attempts to turn natura objectiva into natura subjectiva? And what can this local case-study of novelistic narrative offer the theory? Perhaps the novel’s climax, Bud’s hunt for the twins, can provide some answers.
But first there is the matter of Sally the pony. If biocybernetics needed any case-study evidence, the most obvious place it can be found is in the much observed bonding between disturbed children and animals in the re-establishment of intuitive physical and emotional contact, caring and trust. Indeed, the basis for Wheeler’s biosemiotics is in the notion of intuition first developed by the American scientist and philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914) when considering how all living beings in ecology interpret each other’s sign systems. This pony is not a pet and the intuition of the twins in reading its biotic signs leads to their identification with the animal. Part of the twins’ identification with the pony
is derived from their intuition that it is a beast bred for suffering at the hands of humans. Frazier is at pains to emphasise that this is an “elderly Welsh cob,” bred to serve as a pit pony in what Frazier calls its “ancestral brutality” (116). Indeed, later in the novel, Frazier explicitly makes the link between the pony’s stoicism and the children’s ability to shut down when they have “experienced considerable pain” (227). When the twins first see the pony it is walking a circle, harnessed to a long pole, crushing cane to make molasses for its owner, Maddie, one of Frazier´s backwoods characters who retain the old songs and folkways of the mountains “from the past” Frazier says, then pointedly adds, “but not an irretrievable past”
(115). Maddie’s rough kind of kindness leads to the children learning to ride “Sally”. And it is this name, repeated by the twins when they are first introduced to the pony, that is the first word Luce hears the children utter. (She later takes the opportunity to attempt to extend their communication with herself: Favourite weather? “Lightning.” Favourite colour? “Black.” Frazier’s biosemiology is here at its most obvious, perhaps.)
So when the children immediately leave the Lodge when suddenly Bud shows up, it is on the back of Sally that they head up into the woods, letting the pony’s knowledge of the tracks and its own intuition take them deeper into the mountain forest at night:
A watcher would think Sally knew hidden paths through the dark woods. But she is just aware of her riders, and steps slow and steady to balance the load. Not fooled by the thick layer of new-fallen leaves, feeling for the hidden slick rocks underneath. And not going straight at all. Going the way the land requires, so that curves are the shortest distance between two points. (210)
The children stay awake in order to check by Orion and the Seven Sisters that Sally is taking them “where they want to go. Up and far away” (211). What does it mean to our reading of the novel at this point to call this “biocybernetics”? When, in Cold Mountain, Frazier contrasted the ways of knowing land in the North Carolina mountains between Inman’s survivalist intuition and Ada’s lack of it, he was only lightly critiquing Ada’s background as a refined urban preacher’s daughter. His interest was much more focussed upon what Ruby could teach Ada (and what the goat woman could offer Inman) than in what counted for civilisation at the time of the Civil War. But because in Nightwoods so much of the narrative
is taken up with 1950s urban culture in Bud’s bootlegging activities over on the other side of the lake from the Lodge and the woods, this novel is more explicitly offering a critique of the corruption and violence of small town life in America. In this sense Nightwoods is an update of the threat to the humane old values at the centre of Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons. (That it is only up to the 1950s might encourage the hope of more to come from Frazier’s writerly journey if it is to further echo that of Cormac McCarthy, his Western, more austere, elder.) The biocybernetics evidenced in Nightwoods thus becomes more of a matter of implicit choices available to readers (rather like the image of the
brooktrout that concludes The Road).16
And here it might be possible to “extend” the theory, as Richard Kerridge puts it, by asking to what degree biosemiotics may be used as a critique, or at least as a pointer towards choices taken? Can biosemiotics provide criteria for judging good or bad practice, or is it a descriptively neutral theory of empirical processes demanding simply more attention and more responsiveness as Wendy Wheeler suggests?17 Where does the debate about good and bad responsiveness take place? Is this, indeed, the role of ecocriticism in considering novels such as Nightwoods? The final section of Wheeler’s book The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics
and the Evolution of Culture (2006) focuses upon politics and ethics. It is too brief and too generalised to fully answer these questions and the closest Wheeler gets is in her critique of capitalism’s drive for “short-term market innovations” depriving citizens of a culture in which “the importance of time and human process was properly understood and accommodated,” as in Luce”s storying for the children.18 Wheeler suggests that “an ethos of responsiveness in which all signs matter” (emphasis in the original) would lead to a redefinition of responsibility for others “intimately related to you in the natural and socio-cultural web”
to be “set against the material and emotional environmental damage your irresponsibility and unresponsiveness will effect.”19 Out in the nightwoods Bud’s “emotional environmental damage” is reflected in the way Frazier demonstrates that Bud’s sense of natura objectiva becomes a disturbed, twisted and self-destructive kind of natura subjectiva in which nature and subject actually remain ultimately alienated from each other.
There is an irony in the fact that the converse is the case for the children whom Bud is hunting. In the cold nights on the mountain they survive by using the very skills that they have learned from suffering at the hands of an indifferent or even cruel society. If their retreat into a form of autism has led them to take a real interest in making fire – in their minds “a lovely and fragile art” (226) – they put their skills to good use (not realising that the tinder they have brought with them is the money which Bud is really seeking) as it snows outside their “cave” in a hollow tree. But Frazier suggests that, like the pony, Sally, they can survive in a harsh natural environment by deploying the same attitude that has
enabled them to survive a harsh social environment:
They are not tender babies. They have experienced considerable pain. Cold is more like discomfort, one more thing to take. Shut down, let your breath come shallow, and wait for it to be over. Then go on. No tears, no wishes. (227)
If the parallels between the experiences of the pony and the children account for their mutual affinity, the children actually desire to be like the lake in front of the lodge. In the passage above Frazier goes on to explain from their psychological perspective the rationale for their autism:
You can’t control everything that happens. You can control your mind. Make it like the lake on a still day. Don’t react any more than you can help, not to outsiders. Trust only the two of you all the way. Hoard up your love for each other and state your rage by way of things that want to burn. (228)
The children are quite aware that “until Bud erupted out of nowhere” “that had been working pretty well for them” (228). Their panic has eventually taken them to a place they recognise from Luce having shown them “an older bent tree with a pointing nose” (243). It is the place where Luce will find them and rescue them. A combination of her teaching and their earlier learning have led to the children’s ultimate survival. Their listening to the voices of their inner natures and the voices, via Luce’s, of external nature have sustained their lives in these harsh winter mountains.
Frazier has a lot of fun evoking the loquaciousness of his mountains at Bud’s expense. As a bootlegger who has moved into town, usurped the former incumbent of this role and murdered the sheriff in an impulsive knife attack, Bud represents a violent urban capitalism that simply takes nature for granted. It may be going too far to suggest that Bud’s bootlegging epitomises the market at work, or that murder for him represents short-term self-interest. Bud is shocked at the complexity of the apparently simple wild environment in which the town is located when he sets out on his hunt for the children:
From town, looking at it way in the distance, flat against the sky, the mountain seemed simple and compact. Not really that big a deal to wander around and cross paths with the kids. On it, though, the mountain encompasses more space and is way more three dimensional than Bud had imagined. The confusing landscape goes every which way. (225)
Bud’s first night out is troubled by the alien voices of natura loquens: “When he lies down to sleep, every sound amplifies and warps. Wind in the trees and creek water over rocks. Voices mumble conspiracy against him” (214). On his third night out Bud “lies mostly awake through the night, listening to all the swirling languages the nightwoods speak” (245). But by now the two murders he has committed are “the voices [...] always murmuring against him, and he’s always thinking of two quick sweeping movements. No denying the ugliness” (245). But in his mind the flow of blood from the two sweeping movements of his knife in his two murders becomes a natural inevitability that is enlarged into a view of nature itself:
“Blood. It covers the earth. Animals and humans in their billions, their skin like the membrane of a balloon or a rubber. A thin scurf trying to keep the liquid from spilling out, but doing a poor job of it [...] The flow of blood, a red bleeding heart. That is beautiful” (245-6).
The reversal of Bud’s line of thought here into a distorted “natural” rationale for violence is a direct result of his feeling of alienation from the nightwoods he has neglected in his urban capitalist living. That Bud is representative, if in an evolutionary extreme form, of the people of the town is endorsed in an amusing encounter on his second night with a group of hunters, local “old boys” who escape to the nightwoods to drink and tell hunting tales with no intention of sleeping, or serious hunting, or getting close to nature, although Frazier does allow them “religious moments of silence and clarity listening to coondogs singing in the distance” (229). Even the sheriff”s party, who feel that, for their own credibility,
they have to spend at least a night out in their search for the children, have “not made it into the woods more than shouting distance from where their vehicles are parked along the lake’s back road. Partly out of laziness [...] And also, the mountain gets weird and dangerous and scary when you climb way up on it, especially if you’re the manager of the grocery or the guy that works the recap machine at the tire store” (220). Bud also hears the voices of the woods of the future from his capitalist perspective, noting that the hand-drawn map the “old boys” have given him has place names like “Hog Pen Gap, Bear Wallow Branch, Picken’s Nose. Those fucking backwoods morons. If they wanted their real estate to ever be worth anything, instead
of its only value being to hold the rest of the world together, they’d use names like Butterfly Ridge, Wildflower Glade. Imaginary places where fairies sip dewdrops from honeysuckle blossoms. Ahead of my time, Bud thinks. But what else is new?” (241).
Against such easy satire of human presence in these mountains Frazier also clearly enjoys celebrating the richness of the history of human interaction with the woods of North Carolina. Indeed, understanding the networks of remnant pathways is one way in which Luce’s own search for the children is guided by “choosing one faint passage over another. These mountains are no wilderness. They have been lived in for thousands of years. Many old nobodies, long gone to earth, left their marks on the land, subtle or not” (248). A long paragraph traces the history of trails in these woods so that “the ground lies webbed with lines of passage” (248). Indeed, one ought to note that Frazier’s writing also celebrates the vernacular
voices of humans currently inhabiting the North Carolina mountains in phrases like “long gone to earth,” another dimension of nature speaking in this place. Typically, the human voices emanating from nature in this place that Bud hears are all malign:
Get quiet and you hear the voices. A few words in English, but mostly other languages. The ones that came before the Indians. Words the long-gone animals thought to one another. Words flowing against you. Wishing you ill [...] Creek water over rocks, wind flowing through bare trees and across dead leaves. And that’s exactly what the old speakers want you to be. Dead in the ground, exactly like them. (254)
Reviewers of Nightwoods were divided on the aesthetics of the author’s style. In the New York Times Randy Boyagoda complained about “decorous prose and rank imagery.” Of course, there is a point at which the effects of the writing can self-consciously distract from its content, although this is hardly the case in the passage above. But the form of Boyagoda’s objection is revealing: “Writing that invites this much attention, that so strives to concentrate our attention on its effects, has to achieve more than precious and overwrought evocation.”20 Writing that invites attention to bioregional distinctiveness in flora and fauna,
weather, terrain, human historical passage, land-use, folklore, food and vernacular voice, as I have been arguing that Frazier does in Nightwoods, is not only celebrating regional forms of natureculture, but demanding in the reader a responsiveness to local environment. This novel contrasts urban capitalistic modes of engagement and their results, with backwoods ways of knowing that are not nostalgic or reductive, but lived forms of meaning-making in a particular environment. Attentiveness and responsiveness are key elements in biosemiotic encounters to which ecocritical theory can attune us as readers. For example, in this localised form of culturenature Frazier shows in Bud a nihilistic, alienated, form of biosemiology that
challenges both the reader and the theory because it asks the reader to judge the quality of attention and responsiveness. Characters who hear in natura loquens only natura subjectiva, alienated from natura objectiva live self-destructive lives, or, to put it crudely, those who live by dualism die. The subjective mind and the objective mind in nature need to be listening to each other’s signs as Luce knows and Bud does not. Has a reading which leads to this point extended the theory as well as the implications of the narrative? Perhaps not. But perhaps it has clarified something of the function and process of ecocriticism itself. Wheeler puts it like this:
Encountering ourselves as semiotic animals, more susceptible than we know to a world profuse with signs, we encounter mind in all its reverberations in the world. This, surely, is the care, the non-naive responsiveness to world, that ecocritical perspectives set out to find.21
Again, Scott Slovic would demand more than a dialogue between text and theory here if we are to fully understand ourselves as “semiotic animals” seeking perspectives of “care” towards the world and each other: “Ecocriticism without narrative is like stepping off the face of a mountain – it’s the disoriented language of free fall”.22 Implicitly, this analysis of Nightwoods reads the novel as challenging readers to consider their own ability to listen to nature and how their sense of natura subjectiva informs their lives – to consider, in the method of narrative scholarship, their own narratives of attempting to listen to nature
speaking. So, in the hope of avoiding “the disoriented language of free fall”, as Slovic puts it, perhaps this essay should conclude with a narrative of a semiotic animal seeking perspectives of care.
I fell off the face of a mountain in North Carolina. This was partly due to my failure to read the signs in the rock in front of my nose and partly due to my physical inability to respond to them. It gave me a unique moment of listening to that eloquent wilderness, whilst turning slowly on the end of a rope, that I later wanted to try to translate into healing words for a friend in grief.23 Howard Mast played a crucial role in this story. He was an employee of the only outdoor store in town who befriended me and took me rock-climbing on Sundays. I later found out that he had run out of local partners who would be ready to go at 7am on a Sunday
morning and I was a willing victim as a new boy in town. Howard lived in a cabin deep in the woods that his grandfather had built. He spent his day off work “cording wood”. He washed his truck before going climbing. I was unfamiliar with the natives’ uses of tobacco at that time, but in his immaculate truck interior he kept a little Styrofoam cup that he raised to his lips from time to time. Also new to me was the habit of having breakfast on the road to the crag where I was soon introduced to the delights of grits and gravy. Howard knew the ways of the North Carolina woods – at just which point in ascending the mountain we abandoned the truck, the feint trail through the trees along the edge of Shortoff Mountain on the rim of
the Linville Gorge (home to the Eastern black bear), the tricky descent gully that still held dirty patches of ice on that sunny March day, and the start, under a tree where a rock dagger was embedded to its left, of a route called “Maginot Line”. On the third rope length up this vertical wall Howard led directly over a little overhang where, I was later to discover, an easier alternative zigzagged around it. It was here, when my turn came to follow, that I fell back into the air of the Linville Gorge. Upright Howard Mast, safe and reliable as a maker of the textbook three-point belay, held me easily from above, so I was not in “free fall” for more than a second or two. It was necessary for me to relax, listen deeply to all the voices
of natura loquens, and re-engage with those voices and signs – to swing back into the rock and start climbing again. Later, I tried to work out what transferable learning I had derived from the experience that Howard Mast and Shortoff Mountain had given me. As I did so, I sensed that a better poet – probably a haiku poet, like Ian Marshall, or the great master Bashō – might be able to do this in less than three 10-line stanzas:
What Bashō Could Say in Three Lines
In the stillness of North Carolina’s Linville Gorge
the river’s roar rises to the walls of Shortoff Mountain.
It is always there, cutting, grading, taking and giving
to Lake James. Only the bear hunters know it closely
in this cold season. I hear it when I look down, turning
slowly on the rope-end like a chrysalis on a thread under
the overhang I’ve finally fallen off. I rest, let the river in,
then turn my mind to ways of butterflying out of this
dead-end. Lowered to a crack off left and I’m flying
on a different course, fumbling to find a state of grace.
How our lives are measured by love songs as we travel.
in the truck, country singers try for images of “flowing
like a river from the mountains to the sea”. They know
their clichés give a playful sense of control. They sing,
“How can I miss you if you won’t go away?”
Rednecks ready to redefine a dead-end, moving on
without that butterfly stuff. I’ve moved away a while
and I miss you. It’s your birthday and I’m a continent away.
You call back when you’ve opened my present, a mountain
painting. No need for us to say “I love you” and we don’t.
A friend picks me up to drive to dinner at the home
of a woman who hugs me as I hold out my hand.
On the drive home suddenly my friend is saying,
“to hear the words ‘I love you’ from your life’s partner –
that’s what I haven’t heard for two years, since
my wife died. It’s hard, you know?” And I find myself
struggling to respond, wanting to say something
of what a mountain learns from a cold river, what a river gives
to a humbled mountain, how the bear senses flash floods
and how the river finds its way onward, onward, onward.24
Frazier, Charles. Nightwoods. New York: Random House, 2011.
Frazier, Charles. Thirteen Moons. New York: Sceptre, 2006.
Frazier, Charles. Cold Mountain. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997.
Gifford, Terry. “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and a Post-Pastoral Theory of Fiction.” A Contested West: New Readings of Place in Western American Literature. Eds. Martin Simonson, David Rio and Amaia Ibarraran. London: Portal Education, 2013: 55-57.
---. Reconnecting With John Muir: Essays in Post-Pastoral Practice. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006.
---. The Unreliable Mushrooms: New and Selected Poems. Bradford: Redbeck Press, 2003.
---. “Terrain, Character and Text: Is Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier a Post-Pastoral Novel?” Mississippi Quarterly LV.1 (Winter 2001-2): 87-96.
Kerridge, Richard. Rev. of Ecocritical Theory: New European Approaches and Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century. ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19.3 (Summer 2012): 597-8.
Marshall, Ian. Border Crossings: Walking the Haiku Path on the International Appalachian Trail. Danvers: Hiraeth Press, 2012.
Sandilands, Catriona. “Landscape, Memory and Forgetting: Thinking Through (My Mother’s) Bodies and Places.” Material Feminisms. Eds. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008: 344-373.
Slovic, Scott. Going Away to Think: Engagement, Retreat, and Ecocritical Responsibility. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2008.
---. “Ecocriticism: Storytelling, Values, Communication, Contact.” Unpublished paper presented at the Western Literature Association annual meeting, Salt Lake City, 5-8 October 1994. Cited in Ian Marshall. Peak Experience: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003: 245n13.
Wheeler, Wendy. The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2006.
---. “The Biosemiotic Turn: Abduction, or, the Nature of Creative Reason in Nature and Culture.” Ecocritical Theory: New European Perspectives. Eds. Axel Goodbody and Kate Rigby. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011: 270-282.
---. “Captivation: Biosemiotics, Animal and Human Mind and the Question of Abduction.” Unpublished paper.
1Cold Mountain also exhibits at least four significant differences from McCarthy’s work that I discussed in the Mississippi Quarterly, LV.1 (Winter 2001-2): 93. Reprinted in Terry Gifford. Reconnecting With John Muir: Essays in Post-Pastoral Practice. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006: 137-8.
2 Random House were reported to have lost $5.5 million on their $8 million advance for the follow-up novel to Cold Mountain, Thirteen Moons having sold only half of its initial print-run. This must have focussed the mind of Frazier as he considered the form and mode of his third novel. http://nymag.com/news/media/50279/index7.html. 30 Oct. 2013.
3 For example: “An observer situated up on the brow of the ridge would have looked down on a still, distant tableau in the winter woods.” Frazier. Cold Mountain. 353. This formulation (“A watcher would think ...”) is also used in a Nightwoods passage quoted below where it is less self-consciously static and more in tune with the psychological mode of the narration.
4Mississippi Quarterly, LV.1 (Winter 2001-2): 87-96. Reprinted in Terry Gifford. Reconnecting With John Muir: 133-140. Cold Mountain: 55.
6 Review of Ecocritical Theory: New European Approaches and Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century. ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 19:3 (Summer 2012): 597-8.
7 “Ecocriticism: Storytelling, Values, Communication, Contact,” Western Literature Association annual meeting, Salt Lake City, 5-8 October 1994, cited in Ian Marshall. Peak Experience: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003: 245n13.
8 Scott Slovic. Going Away to Think: Engagement, Retreat, and Ecocritical Responsibility. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2008: 34.
9 Ian Marshall. Border Crossings: Walking the Haiku Path on the International Appalachian Trail. Danvers: Hiraeth Press, 2012. For further clarification of narrative scholarship, and discussion of Marshall’s early work in this mode, see the chapter, “Walking into Narrative Scholarship” in Gifford. Reconnecting with John Muir: 105-118.
10 See, for example, “Landscape, Memory and Forgetting: Thinking Through (My Mother’s) Bodies and Places.” Material Feminisms. Eds. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008: 344-373.
11 For “post-pastoral” see Gifford. Pastoral. New York: Routledge, 1999: 146-174 and for “post-pastoral practice” see Gifford. Reconnecting with John Muir.
12 See Wendy Wheeler. The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2006, and her essay “The Biosemiotic Turn: Abduction, or, the Nature of Creative Reason in Nature and Culture.” Ecocritical Theory: New European Perspectives. Eds Axel Goodbody and Kate Rigby. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011: 270-282.
13 Wendy Wheeler. “Captivation: Biosemiotics, Animal and Human Mind and the Question of Abduction.” Unpublished paper (with acknowledgements to the author): 8.
14 Wheeler. “Captivation: Biosemiotics, Animal and Human Mind and the Question of Abduction”: 1.
16 For more on this, see Terry Gifford. “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and a Post-Pastoral Theory of Fiction.” A Contested West: New Readings of Place in Western American Literature. Eds. Martin Simonson, David Rio and Amaia Ibarraran. London: Portal Education, 2013: 55-57.