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Thinking Like a Mountain

Tom Comitta’s ecological fiction
A row of various trees against a blue sky.

The Nature Book by Tom Comitta. Coffee House Press, 272 pages. 2023.

It’s a ready-made insight to suggest a story’s landscape acts as one of its characters. Tap on the walls of a platitude to test its flimsiness: What does landscape-as-character mean, really? That the ocean is willful? That the forest is more than just a bucolic, fog-cloaked backdrop for human drama? Like so much writing on the environment, it’s vague—a little sweet, broadly interpretable, and it reveals how wide the gulf is between human language and the unwitting frogs in unwitting ponds we make its subject.

With this gulf in mind, Tom Comitta wrote The Nature Book, what they calls a literary supercut: a novel composed entirely of lines culled from classic works of fiction that describe the natural world. Some novelists who are now thought of as eco-conscious, like Margaret Atwood and Kim Stanley Robinson, make appearances. But for the most part, Comitta draws from works that don’t appear to belong in this category—David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Toni Morrison’s Beloved—with the intention of aggregating not only artistic understandings but also misunderstandings, negligence, and purplish, self-interested riffs on what’s not human.

The story that emerges from this premise is broken down into large sections based on what Comitta calls “macropatterns”—The Four Seasons, The Deep Blue Sea, The Void, and The Endless Summer. The Nature Book’s plot arcs and bends around events that usually aren’t given the spotlight in literature: a canyon brightens, a beaver spots a dark form in the water, the sun sets, the sun sets again. Each short chapter involves some mounting tension, however subtle, and across chapters, tension releases. Winter ends; the sun rises too.

Is it possible to render a landscape as its own, round character; to think, really, like a mountain?

Charles Arrowby’s effusive projections from Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea crest and tumble, then Ernest Hemingway’s old man takes the helm. Metaphors are mixed with intention; for every stunningly rhythmic clause, there’s a deliberately awkward linguistic shortcoming. Palm trees are “more palmy than palms”; coconuts watch a roiling river “with coconut eyes.” “Graygreen” water moves “like rippled silk”—and here the narrator strains, almost wincing—“with fish in it.”

In its preface, Comitta describes The Nature Book as “the story of three hundred years of rendition, how authors have distorted, praised, belittled, anthropomorphized, projected onto, and spoken through countless animals, landforms, and weather patterns. As such, there is no nature in this book; it’s all illusion.”

Language, famously, falls short: not only when inhabiting the perceptive psyche of a coconut but when inhabiting any felt experience, even or especially one’s own. It’s a painful rift between life and one’s description of it, the attempted bridging of which is the focus of a great deal of literature. This failure to describe and tendency to project isn’t typically an ethical question—is fiction, for example, not always a projection?—but through the lens of eco-criticism, it sometimes becomes one. Shading the mysteries of animal or plant consciousness with our own glee or sadness isn’t just sloppy writing; it’s a symptom of the same human-centeredness that’s responsible for the changing climate.

Why do writers anthropomorphize? And why, when I sit and behold, say, waves crashing (and why crashing?) do I feel a calm quieting of my ego—until I reach to describe that calm and can only find man-made junk, sentences gunked-up as with microplastics? (“The sea whispered in your ear,” Comitta writes. “The sea thundered like avalanches. The sea was dead silent. The sea hissed like sandpaper working on wood. The sea clinked like small change in a pocket. At its worst, the sea sounded like ghosts vomiting.”)

One simple explanation for the pathetic fallacy: culture, and especially language, is man-made, and so language is a crude means of deeply understanding or communing with what’s nonverbal. There’s not much to be done about that, artistically or otherwise, except to recognize the constraint, or to find humor, as Comitta does, in its shortcomings. (“The sky was the color of television,” they write. “Clouds brooded.”)

Another explanation: the human-centeredness of human life, the same human-centeredness that is responsible for the impending loss of what humans hold dear—namely, humans, or humans other humans know intimately, whose perceptive psyches are understood firsthand—is revealed and even proliferated by the art we make and experience. Our heroes go on journeys over hills, through bush and briar. Presumably some trampling is involved, but that’s not the point. So goes the ecologically-motivated argument of writers interested in a more harmonious, and less hierarchal, representation of man and nature, which for obvious reasons is increasingly relevant. Through this lens, the history of literature could be viewed in hindsight as an indictment, a revelation of what’s been taken for granted all along.

In 1949, American writer and ethicist Aldo Leopold wrote explicitly against human-centric attitudes in his book A Sand County Almanac. In the essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” a hunter believes himself justified while stalking and killing a wolf, a predator toward the top of the food chain; but, when looking the slain animal in its eyes, he has an epiphany about top-down trophic cascade; without wolves, won’t deer become pests, and so on? The way to avoid or remedy this imbalance is to “think like a mountain,” to consider not what a wolf’s life means for one’s own enjoyment or survival, but how a wolf’s presence affects the balance of things. “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf,” Leopold wrote, a koan that went on to inspire conservationists.

Leopold’s ecological ethics are in service of harmony and stability, presaging and even perpetuating the assumption, made popular during the environmental movement in the 1970s, that nature seeks balance, and that man’s place in it is a rude aberration, a chaos agent in an otherwise calm, Edenic world. But, as Ursula K. Heise observed in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocriticism,” since as early as the 1960s and certainly by the 1990s, “holistic notions of universal connectedness, stability, and harmony had lost much of their credibility among ecological scientists.” Struggling with the same disjunction between fact and artistic interpretation as other emergent, semi-scientific fields such as trauma literature, the environmental humanities strayed for a time from how scientists have observed the natural world firsthand.

Read with this contemporary understanding of ecology in mind, Leopold’s mountain begins to look an awful lot like, well, Leopold. Of course a conservationist who often drew sketches of the natural world outside his home would describe a mountain as a watchful, impassive eye. Leopold’s mountain—a symbol of objectivity and passivity, a keeper of balance and harmony—is yet another man-made metaphor, revealing of his own values: “safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness,” which, he writes, “we all” strive for, whether we’re wolves, hunters, or mountains.

Is it possible to render a landscape as its own, round character; to think, really, like a mountain? Some projection of ourselves onto nature is inevitable, especially in creative work, and when our choice of material—language—is a human invention. Still, is it worthwhile to try?

Plenty of writers, including Comitta, are taking on the impossible task, with this impossibility woven into their books’ premises. In the introduction to her lyric book-length essay The Second Body, novelist and science historian Daisy Hildyard lays out the aim of her project: to reconcile the work of the novelist—to embody a particular experience—with the work of the scientist—to zoom out and understand an individual’s place in a big, interlocking, and not always harmonious web. Because, she writes, “even the unconscious patient must be held responsible for the sky outside his operating room.”

But how? For Hildyard, in The Second Body and in her novel Emergency, this attempt is made not by eliminating any of her characters’ subjective experiences, but by repeatedly dramatizing the interplay between nature and curious or affected humans. A child holds a warm bunny in her palms, and the bunny’s stiff expression of fear is described in as much detail as the child’s wonder; a mother carries her daughter on piggyback as they wade through floodwaters, and the floodwater is rendered attentively as a force in itself, not only as the cause of the family’s distress. The child, the mother, the bunny, and the flood water aren’t in harmony, but they are all porous; they act and are acted upon. If the natural world is typically backgrounded and human drama the shining fore, Hildyard works to bring both closer to the middle in spontaneous interactions between equal participants.

Say Leopold and Hildyard represent two camps of ecologically minded writers. Both work toward a quieting of the human ego, a lessening of the human presence on the page—a challenge in any form of writing. But Leopold uses his natural subjects as opportunities to profess his own values, claiming to be objective and himself natural; in doing so he ironically behaves rather like a human. Hildyard, on the other hand, places herself consciously alongside her natural subjects, not professing her views or claiming to inhabit theirs, but instead showing how these actors affect one another in particular moments in time.

Comitta’s description of their project is reminiscent at times of Leopold’s attempt at objectivity. Their literary supercut “avoids disjunction in favor of cohesion,” they write, echoing the holistic views shared by ecologists of yore. There’s also some slipperiness, it seems, between a posthumanist approach to storytelling and a transhumanist approach. Comitta describes the book alternately as a novel and an archive; they invoke YouTube mash-ups and data analysis. (It’s not a stretch to imagine a modern-day Leopold, with his drive toward safety and centralization, taking weekend treks away from his work in some capacity as a techno-optimist, hoping to individually hack his way through the problem of climate change.) Then again, Comitta writes that the book is full of  “lyrical excess”—riffs, exclamations, and long footnotes—a more promising descriptor both in terms of art and the chaotic realities of ecology as scientists now understand them.

Comitta’s project is a true attempt to narratively embody an ecosystem.

Thankfully, the book itself reads nothing like a novelization of a digital humanities project; line by line, The Nature Book is much more in keeping with Hildyard’s approach than Leopold’s. Each scene is surprising and pleasantly discordant, like branches whipping in a storm. Its chapter breaks do not feel predetermined, as if structured by a ChatGPT script, but are arrived upon as tension mounts and clears, like, say, a bluing sky. (In the book’s afterward, Comitta says it was important that they “keep the narrative moving”; to this end, they could use fragments from classic novels as short as “a tall tree” or as long as a few paragraphs.) This is because Comitta’s project, like Hildyard’s, and unlike Leopold’s, shows how all its actors interact in particular scenes; it is a chorus of voices singing, sometimes badly, about nature.

These voices are clamorous. Within a single page of The Nature Book, a caterpillar is described as a “weaver,” “God,” “a rope artist,” and “a gumdrop wearing a riot-hear helmet.” The world ends; the world ends again; the world ends again. “Eternal change is the only law,” and then, there is “harmony.” Then, again, “all nature” “tremble[s], everything in panicky motion.” “One of the world’s major structural forms,” Comitta writes is “chaos.”

And yet, this is, importantly, still a novel: there is movement; there is change over time. As Comitta points out in the preface, there are cliffhangers. Individual characters—beavers, badly behaved wolves—emerge as heroes, then recede back into the mix of things. Comitta doesn’t lay claims to objectivity or even that the book, though collaged, has no author. The Nature Book has a clear voice. Comitta is alternately wry and lyrical; they often use metaphorical comparisons to cameras, videos, and other devices that allow the book to operate on a meta level. The novel is also, in spite of its historical sources, of its time: an awareness that seasons are shifting, are ominously too long or too short, pervades.

In her ecocritical guide, Ursula K. Heise quotes the biologist Daniel B. Botkin, who wrote in the 1990s that the natural world was far from unified, some objective and stable foil to human caprice. “We have tended to view nature as a Kodachrome still-life,” Botkin writes. “Much like a tourist-guide illustration . . . but nature is a moving picture show.” How better, then, to convey nature than through the faulty, all too human medium of language, than to compile all the varied subjectivities that have trained themselves on it—the maximalist, the spare, the sentimental, the dismissive, the metaphorical, the descriptive, the informed, and the imaginative—arranged, if barely, into a piece unified enough that it might be called a novel? With long asides alongside neat rhymes, with ponderous thoughts on the nature of time near light scenes showing time’s mysterious passing, with “a great nest of angry snakes” and still green apple trees, Comitta has created something a lot like an ecosystem.