Column: I’ll Take Civilization Over Nature Any Day
Unless they’re asking for spare change, people are willing to engage in conversations with folks they haven’t met before for one reason: Perfect strangers are far more likely to be charmed by our adorable eccentricities than are our loved ones. Their willingness to listen without sighing or twitching is what makes strangers perfect.
After the first decade or so of intimacy, loved ones come to loathe one another’s eccentricities. Maybe “loathe” is too strong a word; “ache to escape from” would be more accurate.
Polite new acquaintances are tickled pink by our favorite routines because we tend not to judge each other during these exchanges. You left your husband because he hated plaid? Good. Creep had no respect for your Scottish heritage. Stopped talking to your sister because she lost 34 pounds on the diet that made you gain eight? Of course.
The unwritten rule in such conversations is as follows: I’ll embrace your weirdnesses with warmth and you’ll enjoy mine.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered a subject that made people feel absolutely free to throw their criticism straight at me like a cherry pie right to the kisser: When I confess that I don’t like nature, people are clearly appalled. Even the sweetest and least critical of them look at me uneasily and instruct their toddlers to “find something to play with in another room.”
Turning judgmental and pious, they’d begin to speak about nature as if they were on its board of directors. This includes people living in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, too, meaning it’s not like they wake to gossamer dew at dawn themselves, unless Gossamer Dew is a new flavor at Starbuck’s.
Look, I’m not a fan of nature’s and, at 56, I don’t think nature is much of a fan of mine; otherwise this business with my eyelids wouldn’t be happening. But even when I was younger, I never trafficked in the outdoorsy, the unadulterated or the non-artificial.
For example, I’m short and so I like heels. Heels and a walk through a dense woodland area do not mix. I’ll take cute shoes over the chance to see a toadstool up close. Because I do like to go outside and look at the sunset, however, we’ve made this possible by making the deck larger. There is no need to step off a level structure. If it makes our yard look a little like Coney Island, fine. I’m learning to make cotton candy.
I did a radio program about my antipathy for nature. Had I suggested we might use public hangings as way to discipline students who turned in their work late, I would have received fewer outraged calls.
All I did was explain that, to me, trees were not inspiring. To me, a tree is like a telephone pole with a little extra flair, but minus a job. And no telephone poles has ever shed in the autumn and expected me to rake up its mess.
Big deal, right? So I’m not Ms. Tree Aficionado.
Except the first caller was a man apoplectic at the thought that somebody could not love foliage. I was not on the phone with Thoreau, either; this guy had a voice like gravel and an accent like Tony Soprano. “What’s wrong with you that you don’t like a tree?” he yelled. “Lady, without trees, whadda we gonna do? Build our houses outta meat?”
And that’s when I stopped taking calls.
Even nature lovers will admit that nature needs help: better to have aspirin than a fever, better to have antibiotics than pneumonia, and better to have antiperspirant than no friends.
Civilization may have its discontents but it also has heat, air-conditioning, running water, champagne and cheese snacks, none of which, I am told, occur in the wild on what might safely be called a predictable basis.
Nature gives us scurvy, rickets, buckteeth and chilblains. That’s on a good day.
But you’ll argue that civilization gives us pollution, anxiety, cavities and Duck Dynasty. Although it might be going too far to call that a product of civilization.
So I’ll stay on the deck while you walk in the woods. Naturally, we’ll both be careful when talking to strangers.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.