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FIGURING THE ENVIRONMENT AS ENEMY: The Fight with "Implacable Indifference".


A NUMBER OF METAPHORS for land, place, and Earth have attracted the attention of critics who concentrate on demonstrating the damage done by particular metaphors.

Annette Kolodny has written about what is wrong with the land-is-woman metaphor in such phrases as "virgin land": it represents the Earth as the available, feminine, weak other to the proprietary man who controls her (pp. 177-178).

Jack Turner has criticized the land-is-economic-resource metaphor. As part of our "barely conscious consensus of beliefs, values, and ideals," he argues, our language has "wounded" land in the American West by figuring Earth as a "collection of resources" (p.52).

Susan Senecah, in a study of the rhetoric on both sides of recent environmental battles in the Adirondacks, has analyzed metaphors like "scenic gulag" that depict the Park's boundary as a line entrapping Adirondackers who face Adirondack Park Agency guidelines for development (p.107).

These authors, all assuming that metaphors powerfully reflect and influence attitudes and understanding, focus on the conceptual problems associated with particular metaphoric vehicles that reflect and mold our environmental behavior and thought.

Conceptual Source of Damaging Metaphors

My intent here is to focus on ways in which we say with metaphors that various phenomena of Earth are our enemies. It seems unnecessary to discuss the damage these metaphors promote, but it does seem worth exploring a possible conceptual source for them.

In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson discuss metaphors in which abstractions and physical objects function as if they were human beings. Lakoff and Johnson give as examples of this kind of figure: "Life has cheated me" and "Inflation has robbed me of my savings" (p.33). Such metaphors, they say, "allow us to make sense of phenomena in the world in human terms -- terms that we can understand on the basis of our own motivations, goals, actions, and characteristics" (p.34). Such metaphors are so deeply embedded in our language that we could call them dead metaphors except for the fact that they live in our minds, the fact that they "create realities for us" (p.156) and affect the ways in which we understand and interact with the rest of the world. We could call them dead except for their being the metaphors we live by.

There is a group of metaphors for Earth, for various parts of the world around us, that seems to fit into this category of dead metaphors we live by. Listen to how unremarkable it sounds to view nonhuman nature as an enemy, first in The New York Times:

Two howling northeasters in mid-winter destroyed a $750,000 beachfront home in Southampton and damaged a half-dozen others, flooded and tore up a major highway leading north from Sea Isle City, N.J., to the mainland and devoured old dunes shielding homes on the barrier islands of both states. (Hanley p.1)

Besides painting storms as howling, tearing up highways, and devouring dunes, the author of this article also describes human residents of the Atlantic coast as "feeling vulnerable to an angry sea" (p.1). Listen now to a writer in Backpacker magazine explaining his need for a return trip to Denali National Park in Alaska: "Ten days of rain, snow, bushwhacking, and bears the previous summer had chased my wife and me from the park. Denali slapped us silly, and I wanted satisfaction" (Dorn p.45).

In both of these passages we hear versions of a much-used metaphor in representations of human encounters with nonhuman nature. This metaphor figuring the nonhuman as enemy reflects one aspect of our complicated human sense of nonhuman nature; it reflects our human sense of separation from the rest of nature and our human sense that events must have humanly understandable causes. We know that literally the northeasters are not eating up the dunes to get at people's houses, that the sea has no animosity toward people living on the coast, and that Denali National Park means backpackers no harm. Still, how willing or able are we to face an unpersonified Earth?

Examples of the nature-is-enemy metaphor abound in literature as well as in journalism and everyday language. John McPhee's The Control of Nature shows the nature-is-enemy metaphor dys-functionally at work; in the three parts of his book, McPhee describes traveling to places where humans fight nature, and war metaphors proliferate: the lower Mississippi has "become an enemy of the state" (p.7), Iceland's "foot soldiers" (p.101) fight lava flows in a "war against nature" (p.96), and Los Angeles needs a "deep defense budget" to fight against debris flowing from the mountains along its edge (p.184). In McPhee's book, the metaphor shows that in calling certain efforts "war" humans make enemies of disinterested phenomena and put themselves at grave risk by fighting instead of looking for ways to accommodate themselves to those phenomena. As a conceptual alternative to seeing the Earth as enemy, McPhee shows an understanding of the Earth as boss, evident in the choice that Native Americans made along the Mississip pi to move when the river's channels moved. These residents who hunted and fished along the lower Mississippi "'moved their teepees'" when the river shifted its course and didn't try, as European Americans have tried, to build permanent cities in the floodplain (p.32).

The Enemy Metaphor

The nature-is-enemy metaphor that pervades The Control of Nature relies on conceptual steps often delicately drawn but common in wilderness travel literature. Edward Abbey hiking near the Colorado River, Henry David Thoreau traveling in Maine, SueEllen Campbell hiking on Lupine Peak, and Wendell Berry camping and canoeing along the Red River all take these steps. In each of their narratives an adventurer/author faces the chaos or, in Abbey's term, the "implacable indifference" of nature. Their similar conceptual steps turn the indifferent Earth or some part of it into an enemy, confront that enemy, and come away from the confrontation as if leaving a battlefield -- defeated, victorious, or making a temporary retreat.

In The Maine Woods after Thoreau's famous encounter on Ktaadn with "pure Nature, ... vast, and drear, and inhuman," "that Earth ... made out of Chaos and Old Night" (p.70), the famous "Contact! Contact!" encounter, he travels with the others of his party down the Penobscot River. He writes of the sensation of being very small in a big river with big rapids (p.76) and then says of having spent days on that kind of water:

After such a voyage, the troubled and angry waters, which once had seemed terrible and not to be trifled with, appeared tamed and subdued; they had been bearded and worried in their channels, pricked and whipped into submission with the spike-pole and paddle, gone through and through with impunity, and all their spirit and their danger taken out of them ....(p.77)

Thoreau has faced raw, chaotic Earth on Ktaadn; he has faced in the Maine Woods the aspect of life and death on Earth that he calls "universal innocence" in Walden in writing of the dead horse beside his path. That horse, he writes, recalls images of "tender organizations ... serenely squashed out of existence like pulp, -- tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road" (p.318), images of an Earth full of life but indifferent to the individual and totally innocent of human morals.

Within a few pages of Thoreau's facing this "universal innocence," this inhuman, chaotic Earth in The Maine Woods, he draws a figure of humans facing a "troubled" and "angry" river and subduing it with "spike-pole and paddle." Thoreau has a feeling of victory; the river has been "pricked and whipped into submission."

While Thoreau feels victorious, Wendell Berry has a feeling of defeat after an encounter with a river, but the similarity in what they write is in the shift from an image of the inhuman, indifferent-to-humans Earth to a metaphor that personifies and makes an enemy of Earth. Berry, like Thoreau, meets inhuman, chaotic, untamed nature; in his Recollected Essays he tells of this meeting while backpacking and canoeing alone in the Red River Gorge. Berry says of his campsite:

Everything looks as it did before I came, as it will when I am gone. When I look over at my little camp I see how tentative and insignificant it is. Lying there in my bed in the dark tonight, I will be absorbed in the being of this place, invisible as a squirrel in his nest. (p.235)

He imagines the proximate wilderness "mostly unknowable and mostly alien" and "oblivious of us" and the universe surrounding it as "nearly all of it a mysterious wilderness in which the power and the knowledge of men count for nothing" (pp.235-236).

In visiting a wilderness, Berry says, we learn or remember that the more-than-human Earth "does not live and change according to a plan" (p.246). Then, traveling downriver but encountering a rapid that he can neither run nor portage around, he realizes that he will have to wade and drag his canoe back up the river for hours to get out. Berry, personifying and figuring the river as enemy says, "It was as though I had been brought suddenly, ignorant of the proper etiquette, into the presence of a grand and austere personage who had taken my life into his hands. I was losing my confidence and poise. The river was defeating me..." (pp.249-250). Berry's picture of himself on a river running and flowing oblivious to him, a flowing phenomenon of the Earth that lives and changes outside of the plans and power of humans, interestingly brings him to a personifying step different from Thoreau's in its expression of defeat but similar to his in figuratively making the river human and the encounter combative.

Rivers are not the only enemies, and victory and defeat are not the only possible outcomes for this metaphor. SueEllen Campbell writes in Bringing the Mountain Home of an encounter with a lightning storm above timberline in the Colorado Rockies. She describes two hours in a drenching rain huddling below a ridge and running and sliding cross-country downslope while lightning strikes all around. It's worth noting that she quotes Thoreau's "The solid earth! Contact! Contact!" after slipping and falling during this panic-filled descent. On reaching safety, she and her hiking companions talk through what happened and how they felt, "making sense out of chaos." Her conclusion on the outcome of this encounter is not to call it a defeat or victory but a "retreat for a while" (pp.108-109).

Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire has an explanation for the underlying psychic gesture that humans perform in pulling away from Earth. Walking alone to Rainbow Bridge from the Colorado River, he stops to rest and hears only his own breathing. The silence fills him with fear -- and insight:

Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the ante-human, that other world which frightens us not through danger or hostility, but in something far worse -- its implacable indifference. (p.191)

What we are part of is too big for us to see, so our brains diminish it for us. Elsewhere in Desert Solitaire, he explains that we maintain our separateness from the rest of the Earth because our "imagination[s]" are "weak" (p.177), and he also elsewhere says, "The personification of the natural is exactly the tendency I wish to suppress in myself..." (p.6).

Abbey recognizes what we do, why we do it, and how mistaken we are in doing it; nevertheless, he makes this gesture himself. Within pages of meeting the "implacable indifference" in the desert's silence, Abbey is alone in another side-canyon of the Colorado. Exploring and seeking a shortcut, he slides over two drop-offs but is stopped at a third that is too high. He decides to try to climb back up the cliffs he has jumped and slid down, performs a climbing feat that he knows he never could have managed under normal circumstances, and at the top cries "hot delicious tears of victory" after surviving his hike in this "treacherous little canyon" (p.205). Does Abbey honestly mean that the little canyon meant to trick him or to betray his trust in it or that he has fought it and emerged victorious? Of course not; these are figures of speech, but they are examples of the distancing, Earth-is-enemy metaphor we live by.

The "Implacable Indifference" of Nonhuman Nature

Thoreau, Berry, Campbell, and Abbey face the "implacable indifference" of nonhuman nature and then personify and make an enemy of it. Abbey's discussion of our difficulty in fathoming Earth's indifference to us illuminates the conceptual source of the nature-is-enemy metaphor that lives in our language and attitude toward Earth. Ecofeminists have asked us to examine the metaphor that calls Earth a woman. Kolodny exhorts us to use metaphors to "explore the possibilities of experience" and "on a highly conscious level, call into play...our evolutionary adaptive ability to create and re-create our own images of reality" (p.178). It seems necessary as well to explore and, if possible, reframe the metaphor that figures Earth as enemy.

Susan Sontag, writing about other metaphors, the metaphors that explain illness in our culture, says, "Of course, one cannot think without metaphors. But that does not mean there aren't some metaphors we might well abstain from or try to retire" (p.93).

Acknowledge the Earth's Power

Individual voices reinforce and perpetuate the conceptual metaphors they use. Those of us who care about the environment need to be conscious of the metaphors we use for human relationships with Earth and of our ability to create new metaphors. If we cannot face the Earth's indifference to us, perhaps for our own good we may find some way with metaphor to acknowledge Earth's power and our own humble place on it.

(*.) Donna Mendelson studied linguistics at the University of Arizona and literature at the State University of New York at Binghamton. She presently teaches ESL at Binghamton.


Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

Berry, Wendell. "An Entrance to the Woods" and "The Unforeseen Wilderness." Recollected Essays 1965-1980. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981. pp.230-258.

Campbell, SueEllen. Bringing the Mountain Home. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996.

Dorn, Jonathan. "Fear Walked with Me." Backpacker 27 (February 1999): pp.44-48.

Hanley, Robert. "As Beaches Erode, a Debate on Who Will Pay for Repairs." The New York Times on the Web. Online. 20 April 1998. [less than][greater than]

Kolodny, Annette. "Unearthing Herstory." The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. pp.170-181.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

McPhee, John. The Control of Nature. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1989.

Senecah, Susan. "Forever Wild or Forever in Battle: Metaphors of Empowerment in the Continuing Controversy over the Adirondacks." Earthtalk: Communication Empowerment for Environmental Action. Ed. Star A. Muir and Thomas L. Veenendall. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999. pp.95-118.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1990.

Thoreau, Henry David. "Ktaadn." 1848. The Maine Woods. Ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

---. Walden. 1854. Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Turner, Jack. "Economic Nature." The Abstract Wild. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996. pp.51-68.
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Title Annotation:semantic usage
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Previous Article:Haiku II.

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