And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
— William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”
WHEN THE 90-YEAR-OLD actor and comedian William Shatner, best known for playing Captain Kirk on Star Trek, returned on October 13, 2021, from his four minutes in suborbital space, he was effusive: “What you’ve given me is the most profound experience.” He was struck by “how vulnerable Earth looked from that altitude.” Tearful with joy, Shatner phrased his feelings somewhat counterintuitively: “I’m so filled with emotion with what just happened. […] I hope I never recover from this.” To recover makes it sound like an injury occurred. What exactly happened to Captain Kirk up there?
Shatner’s post-launch comments reflected a powerful, if vague, ecological awareness: “Everyone needs to have the philosophical understanding of what we’re doing to Earth.” I was struck by this claim in particular, as it resonated with a book I happened to be teaching the week of the Blue Origin launch.
In a seminar called “Ecological Thought,” my students and I were reading and discussing Douglas Chadwick’s Four Fifths a Grizzly (Patagonia, 2021), a book that promises (according to its subtitle) to offer “a new perspective on nature that just might save us all.” The book blends travel writing, basic ecology, and biology lessons with fabulous photo spreads and textbook-like informational callouts. It is a beautiful book, materially speaking — and it seems to assume that such beauty, carefully rendered and reproduced, can be harnessed to jolt the reader into a state of environmental enlightenment. It might just work. It’s a residue of that Romantic fantasy of Nature as the ideal teacher — and yet, it’s a fantasy that even the Romantics were keenly self-critical about. See Frankenstein. See Wordsworth. See Blake, whose poem “Auguries of Innocence” begins with images of natural enlightenment and sublimity, but devolves into a kind of mortal delirium.
The publisher of Four Fifths a Grizzly, the high-end outdoor apparel company Patagonia, itself feeds off Romantic tropes of extreme wilderness, solitary reflection, and sublime views. But the company is also clear about its attempts to be more modern, espousing environmental activism in place of (or at least in tandem with) rash consumerism. Even though it is implicated in advanced consumer culture, Patagonia is blunt about the fact that ecosystems are at risk around the planet, which is where Four Fifths a Grizzly ostensibly intervenes.
The thesis of Chadwick’s book: Nature is not something “out there” but intimately part of us, indeed part of everything. This perspective, while not exactly new, is in line with texts from disparate disciplines that we had studied in our class. So far, so good. Four Fifths a Grizzly is also a colossal mess. It tries to do too much, feels incredibly under-edited, doesn’t deliver on its cover promises, and is ridiculously over-designed.
One of my students noted that it was trying too hard to be a coffee-table book; another student called the book a “massive fail”; and a third suggested that it was a book for suburbanites who fly to Colorado once a year to go skiing. Another student pointed out how apolitical it was: while it professes to be intellectually interested in threats to biodiversity, there’s barely a mention of climate change or pollution, much less of our own responsibility for these things. Yet one more student pointed out that one of the photographs (on page 102) is an actual ad for Patagonia. My students are smart, and they know smarm when they see it.
I was trying to temper my students’ reactions so that they’d see how the book’s themes were basically in line with the those of the other books we were reading; the style and intended audience were just different, I opined. There are moments of good travel writing in the book, and delightful instances of scientific wonder (such as Chadwick’s extended essay on strawberries). But, on the whole, I had to agree with my students: there was something unsettlingly retro about the book, even as it is pitched as a forward-looking compilation.
On the last text-page of the book, an extended photo caption explains what readers will find on the following pages: “The aquanaut and the astronaut: the planktonic larva of a brittle star and Bruce McCandless II, making the first untethered spacewalk, February 3, 1984. Different as they might seem in some respects, both of these life forms are free-floating and both are made from the very same stuff: water and stardust.” What follows are two photographs: on the verso page a close-up of the larva of an echinoderm (related to a starfish), and on the recto page, a photograph of the astronaut floating in space.
The images echo one another: two beings with legs and arms, drifting. The implicit suggestion is that grasping nature is always a matter of scale and attention: depending on how zoomed in or out you are, you see (and appreciate) different things — and you realize that everything is interconnected. (Again, not a novel idea: Charles and Ray Eames showed this in their own way in 1977.)
We were finishing Four Fifths a Grizzly on the day that Shatner took off in the New Shepard spacecraft, a.k.a. the dick rocket, making the aquanaut and the astronaut more than an illuminating juxtaposition. It was also weirdly consonant with Shatner’s takeaway of the Blue Origin launch. Does the rarefied view from above Earth amount to the same thing as looking closely at a small organism? Can both these spectacles result in a profound ecological epiphany? Is space travel a new kind of nature writing?
To pair with Four Fifths a Grizzly, I gave my students a few excerpts from Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, a lyrical collection of “essayettes” that record daily “delights” the author encounters over a year of his life (2015–2016). Gay’s short narratives often involve fruits, flowers, and other vegetal life, which I thought might help us make real some of Chadwick’s more abstruse connections.
But Gay teaches us something different. To pay attention to the world — even when delighting in it — is also to see and take note of social problems and pernicious systems. It is to recognize deep structural inequalities and patterns of violence. It is to realize that even among all this beauty, we’re still in a mess that’s anything but apolitical.
Humans used to do or think a lot of things that most of us now consider wrong: slavery, public executions, brutally colonizing lands, wiping out entire animal populations, believing the Earth is flat, imagining stars as holes in the sky, and so on. These practices and beliefs are anathema to what it means to be a modern human in the 21st century. Today space travel has passionate proponents, and some of them think it’s our destiny: the only way for humans to survive their otherwise inevitable extinction on this planet.
Chadwick’s book holds out hope for a more sustainable form of coexistence on Earth, even as it shies away from thornier environmental problems in the present. The title, Four Fifths a Grizzly, serves as a koan for a larger lesson: all beings share life with every other entity. Space travel off Earth may seem earnest in its attempt to continue life and spread this organic world. But such launches might also turn out to be something we look back at with bemusement. What were people thinking? Didn’t we realize with every rocket that blasted billionaires into orbit, we were ignoring the very ground that sustains us? Even arguably accelerating environmental catastrophe?
After his brief visit to space, William Shatner was widely quoted saying, “Everybody in the world needs to do this.” It almost sounds like the subtitle of Douglas Chadwick’s book. But it could also be turned on its head, in the spirit of Ross Gay’s essayettes: if it’s about taking sheer delight and finding humility in the face of the planet, everybody is already able to do this. Look around. Pay attention. Take care. But you don’t need to go to space to “do this.” And however sublime, views of nature don’t absolve humans of the problems we’ve caused.
Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans. His new book, Pedagogy of the Depressed, will be published in January.