Nature in narratives and our role as storytellers

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Cronon prompts an interesting discussion on the role of nature in narratives, one that I think Koppes lacked, and that is: although nature, in and of itself, is not always linear, why and how do we fit it in to a narrative structure? “Environmental history sets itself the task of including within its boundaries far more of the nonhuman world than most other histories, and yet human agents continue to be the main anchors of its narratives.” This problem of framing the role of nature is especially tricky when we think about nature in a nonlinear sort of way. Sometimes things in nature are cyclical and at times random, so how do we condense nature into a narrative structure?  Should we? And moreover, we tend to talk about nature in terms of its instrumental value at the sake of its intrinsic value, which creates an interesting problem when we try to determine its importance.

One of the things I think we need to be especially wary of is the tendency to reduce nature’s implications to binaries such as good vs. bad, helpful vs. harmful. Because if postmodernism has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be skeptical of our epistemological lenses. And yet, this fear shouldn’t stop historical inquiry. I think Molly wrote it best when she said, “He believes that ‘historical storytelling helps keep us morally engaged with the world by showing us how to care about it and its origins in ways we had not done before’ (1375).  Even if narrative histories are malleable, they help humans today stay morally engaged.  Historians’ efforts are not futile, even in a postmodernist society.”

I’m particularly concerned with ensuring that nature in an objective form is represented in history. But this is difficult when “Nature is unlike most other historical subjects in lacking a clear voice of its own” while simultaneously being anything but silent. We interpret nature’s meaning from our own human values and we can’t always stay true to the facts that are presented. This is why Bonnifield and Worster came to such different conclusions. But as Molly said, this may not always be bad if we can keep humans today morally engaged.

Depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer

And this got me thinking about the current discourse surrounding the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer. It is a shallow water table aquifer located under the Great Plains that depleting rapidly as a result of agricultural irrigation and drilling for oil and natural gas. The dilemma here, and like many other environmental issues, is how do we frame this event so that we as humans can understand the potential ecological damage? Of course here we are framing different problems, but Cronon’s article can be helpful in thinking about how we construct discourse today. Our human voices place value on nature, but activists who call for change should also implement strategies other than narrative; narrative only takes us so far. Resources such as maps, art, and hard science reports can animate nature’s important position as a stakeholder.

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