Animals and objectivity in the “Nature Faker” controversy

Although I found arguments on each side of the “Nature Faker” debate compelling, I must ultimately side with Long. Burroughs and Roosevelt shared a narrow-minded Cartesian conception of non-human animals, wherein all animals “were assumed to be creatures of instinct and habit. They were described in classes, under the assumption that all animals of the same class are alike”. (Long 123) But as Long countered and study in the field of ecology since this controversy transpired helps to confirm, every sentient being experiences life from a unique perspective and therefore is endowed with some level of individuality and personality. Burroughs’ insistence upon strict adherence to some undefined standard of objectivity in nature writing was only justified in a world where humans are capable of making unbiased observations, a world that, in light of the notion that no two beings can share precisely the same viewpoint, seems not to exist.

“[T]he study of Nature is a vastly different thing from the study of Science,” claims Long. “Above and beyond the world of facts and law, with which alone Science concerns itself, is an immense and almost unknown world of suggestion and freedom and inspiration, in which the individual…must struggle against fact and law to develop or keep his own individuality” (122). Long seems to have recognized the existence of objective fact—something I personally would dispute—and yet deemed the human imagination as having an undeniable influence on an individual’s portrayal of reality. His depiction of, for example, a mother duck giving her babies their first introduction to water Burroughs dismisses because Long chooses words like “teaching” and “lesson” to describe the event, which Burroughs considers to be anthropomorphic to a fault. However Burroughs plainly subscribes to the Emersonian idea that the lives of non-human animals can act as narrative reflections of humanity. It appears at times merely a semantic issue that so virulently divides the authors in this controversy, with those in Burrough’s camp discrediting Long and his fellows over nature stories that seem too interesting to be true-to-life retellings.

Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art: Excerpts p. 26-47, 87-100, 113-147, 154-162. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001

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6 responses to this post.

  1. I agree that Burroughs and Roosevelt, Burroughs especially, are both coming out of a cartesian understanding of natural wildlife. That this informs their appraisal of Long is clear, but I think that their suspicion is well grounded given the state of nature writing at the time. I think that there needs to be a distinction drawn between what has been scientifically documented and what has been observed by a layperson (regardless of literary skill or experience). That being said, I do think that the cartesian perspective is flawed and needs to be reworked.

  2. Posted by lmc908 on December 1, 2011 at 1:42 am

    I agree with your argument. Burroughs is too narrow minded in his discussion and even contradicts himself at points. For example, when he states that Charles Warner gives “the most beautiful and effective animal story yet written” because “the line between fact and fiction is never crossed” he is completely wrong (p. 116). He is wrong because Warner is telling the story from the perspective of an animal. Unless Warner can read the animal’s mind, I do not know how his story would be free of fiction. Some part of that story had to be created from his own imagination. This would have caused him to unconsciously transfer some of his own sentiments into the story. Also, in the video we saw in class where a man raised a group of wild turkeys, it was evident that animals are capable of having unique characteristics of personalities. For instance, there was the one turkey that always loved to be caressed. I also agree that the study of Nature should be separated from the study of Science. Nature is something that is subjective and unique to every individual’s perspective. We cannot have a clear definition of it, and it inspires different sensations in every one of us.

  3. Posted by teagueoreagan on December 1, 2011 at 2:12 am

    I entirely agree with you that Burroughs is being entirely too narrow minded in his perspective although I also find Long’s convictions a bit too minded in the opposite direction. I would say that perhaps Long does go too far into anthropomorphizing the animals he is depicting to the point of negating instinctual knowledge in positing a seemingly human process of attainment where no such construct exists. This is evidenced when Long states: “I am convinced that instinct plays a much smaller part than we have supposed; that an animal’s success or failure..depends..upon the kind of training which the animal receives from its mother” (118). While there can be a limited knowledge imparted from a mother animal there is primarily instinct which constitutes the bulk of an animal’s survival skills, which Long seems to be contesting in an effort to far too closely assign a human mode of development to a wild animal. However, Burroughs’ argument is also problematic in how limiting it is. This is evident when Garrard states “…the sceptical attack on sentimental views of animals risks making it impossible to describe animal behavior at all” (138).

  4. I completely agree with William J. Long’s point of view with the “Nature Faker” controversy. After reading this selection, John Burrough came across as jealous, egotistical and close minded. Burrough views animals strictly in a scientific manner, while Long views animals with many human-like qualities. Burrough said ” after many years of watching animals in their native hunts, and especially after reading Thompson Seton, I am convinced that instinct plays a much smaller part than we have supposed; that an animal’s success of failure in the ceaseless struggle for life depends, not upon instinct but upon the kind of training which the animal receives from it’s mother (Burrough 501). Although, mothers play a significant role in the lives of their young, many animals have an innate instincts that help them survive. How does an animal know to fight when they are scared even if they are not raised by their mother? Or know exactly what foods are good for them? Similarly, I can see how Long would compare the traits of animals to human because when humans are extremely scared they can flee or fight, also known as the “flight or fight” theory.

    Burrough is too critical in the grounds of imagination. When we interpret a painting or poem, there are no right and wrong answers, just as long as we can support our argument. Authors such as Thompson Seton and Long make nature literature more interesting because we can see anthropomorphic qualities in these animals. I don’t see anything wrong with reading a inspiring story about the heroism acts of an animal. There is nothing wrong with presenting creativity to the table. Children need to think outside of the box and therefore, viewing or writing about animals with human-like qualities is not wrong.

  5. I totally agree with you and i thought some of the same things as i was reading this piece. There is not such thing as unbiased observations and for Burroughs to want them as the only way to write about nature is absurd. I also agree that Long has the most realistic idea about how to write about nature, combining solid fact and sweetening it with our own experience, or interpretation.

  6. After reading the Nature Faker controversy I agree with Long rather than Burrough and Roosevelt. Burrough, in my opinion, is too strict concerning what nature is and how it should be portrayed. Long wrote about nature in his own creative way. However, I do agree somewhat with Borrough when he says that Long should not portray his writing as fact when it is more of his opinion of nature. When an individual writes about nature, they should have their right to express what they saw and what they believe it represents without someone like Burrough criticizing ruthlessly. Writing about nature is a very broad topic, therefore there is room for more than one opinion of how nature should be written about and how human-like nature can be. Lastly, nature being portrayed with human characteristics makes the text more familiar to readers and this provides an avenue for readers to learn more about nature and understand its importance.

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