Friday, November 18, 2016

Caring for the Rose: Environmental Literacy and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince

by Liam Heneghan

If you happen to crash-land on a desert island with your child—let’s say, to soften this traumatic vision, that this is a beautiful and gently undulating hot-air balloon descent—I hope that your copy Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (1943) survives the incident. Saint-Exupéry, an early aviator, was no stranger to crash-landings in deserts. Indeed, the inspiration for this beloved novella came, in part, from an airplane crash in the Libyan desert on 30th December 1935 when Saint-Exupéry’s attempted to break the speed record for a flight from Paris to Saigon. Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic, André Prévot, miraculously survived. The duo endured several increasingly hallucinatory days before being rescued by a Bedouin traveler who revived the Frenchmen. For all its gauzy fairy tale quality, The Little Prince is, nonetheless, erected upon very real sands, and if some find in it an almost unbearable inclination to fatalism, and to intimations of mortality, these too are based upon the concrete realities of Saint-Exupéry’s life. Unsurprisingly, he died relatively young (44) when on 31st July 1944, his reconnaissance airplane took off from a Corsican airbase and disappeared into thin air.

Not only is The Little Prince one of the few books that on each fresh reading resonates for adults and children alike, it has also attracted considerable academic attention. It’s not clear, to judge from Saint-Exupéry’s dismissal of the geographer occupying a little asteroid in The Little Prince as a remote pedant who “does not leave the desk,” that he would be all that impressed by his reputation among the professors. The Little Prince is undeniably a stirring tale but it is philosophically chewy besides, hence its academic reputation. As you sit beneath the palm tree (recall that you’ve survived a trauma-less balloon crash and are now on an island) and read the story to your child over and over again, not only will this reading foster tender and unforgettable moments for both of you but should it becomes necessary for your child to recreate everything important in our world once they leave the island (perhaps your misadventure portends apocalyptic times,) The Little Prince can provide the blueprints. For this novella contains in staccato a complete guide to understanding our responsibilities in caring for the world. And though Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is no ordinary environmentalist this is a book that clears a path towards comprehensive environmental literacy.

Saint-Exupéry is represented in The Little Prince as the aviator who has crashed in the “Desert of Sahara.” He is also, to some extent, the eponymous Little Prince too, though the prince is also, in part, modeled on Saint-Exupéry younger brother, François, who died of rheumatic fever at age 15. When the Little Prince passes from this world and the aviator observes “He fell gently as a tree falls. There was not even any sound”, these were words Saint-Exupéry first wrote in reference to his brother’s passing. The Little Prince whose romantic entanglements with an inordinately vain, though undeniably intriguing, rose had begun to overwhelm him, traveled from his home asteroid—B-612—and winds up on Earth, in the desert, and he appears to the stranded aviator. The aviator has no immediate prospect of rescue and works on his plane while engaging with our extraterrestrial prince.

A center-piece of the story’s charm is its dismissal of adult pretensions and of materialistic values. For all of this, it is, of course, written by an adult and the tension between the Little Prince’s impatience with “grown-up and their ways” and the fact that this message is filtered through Saint-Exupéry, a grown-up, albeit an idiosyncratic and gifted one, provides the distinctive mood of the work.  The novel is nostalgic for lost innocence: innocent ethical values to be sure, but also for unblemished landscapes, for the clarity that the desert brings, and the quiddity of all basic human needs. “It was a matter of life and death for me,” says the aviator in the story who is facing a imminent dehydration. What is it to be human? What is it to be human? Saint-Exupéry is not to first, nor will he be the last, to address the question, but this is, besides, first and foremost an ecological question.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Doctor Foster’s Disastrous Trip to Gloucester: Antipathy to Urban Life in Nursery Rhymes

by Liam Heneghan
[Dedicated to Oisín on his 21st birthday--a man with a grudging regard for a good rhyme]

Undoubtedly, the reading of nursery rhymes, some silly, some quite profound, and all generally teetering on the brink of insanity, shapes, in their early years, the environmental sensibilities of many children. Considering the supposed importance of these rhymes what should we make of the vast silence of nursery rhymes on important questions concerning urbanization and metropolitan planning?

Nursery rhymes are regularly preoccupied, in an often healthily irreverent way, with nature. Of the one hundred and seventeen rhymes collected and illustrated by Eric Kincaid in Nursery Rhymes (1990) all but twenty-three are set out-of-doors. Fully forty-three percent concern animals: dogs, cats, pigs and hens are especially prevalent. There is one rhyme in which a ship with a well-laden hull is captained by a duck: when the ship moved, this duck, predictably enough, said “Quack, quack.” (I Saw a Ship a-sailing). Many report on very strange human-animal encounters: Little Miss Muffet and her spider, for example, or the girl in Once I say a Little Bird whose ambivalence about the bird hopping on her sill resulted in it flying away. Other rhymes, ten or so, address encounters with inanimate objects, the weather and so forth. One Misty, Moisty, Morning remarks on the weather and, by-the-by, on an old man who is clad all in leather; Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and I see the Moon concern matters supra-mundane. At least one addresses, if you squint at it, the laudable virtue of family planning: There Was An Old Woman Who Lived in Shoe, who in the opinion of the rhymester at least had too many children: apparently, she didn’t know what to do.

Vegetation, in contrast to animals and inanimate nature, gets short shrift in the ditty canon. By my count in Kincaid’s volume there are only three rhymes specifically devoted to plants (or their fruit): I Had a Little Nut Tree, Oranges and Lemons, and The Hart he loves the High Wood. However, Kincaid’s illustrations more than compensate for the absence of greenery in the text of his collection of rhymes. Just more than half (60 in total) of the rhymes are illustrated with vegetation. Perhaps this just reflects Kincaid’s inclination towards green things. Just how much does Kincaid like his plants? On four occasions he adds a floral motif to wallpaper or on the curtains—Kincaid’s work is gratuitously botanical! It may be fair to say, though, that greenery is just a given in the universe of rhymes even if plants themselves do not consume the attention of the rhyme-crafters nor the children who listen to them. There is an interesting parallel here with the under-representation of vegetation in Paleolithic art—so total is the primeval mind’s preoccupation with animals there’s no plants there either.

As with plants, the number of explicit references to urban locations is very low. Nine rhymes out of Kincaid’s one hundred and seventeen either refer to specific towns, or more generically, to urban locales, or reference some aspect of urban life. These are As I was going to St Ives, Doctor Foster went to Gloucester, How Many Miles to Babylon, London Bridge, Oh, the Brave Old Duke of York, There was a Girl in our Town, This Little Pig Went to Market, Yankee Doodle Came to Town, and To Market, To Market. By my count there are an additional nine rhymes that are clearly set in towns of some size. Examples of such rhymes include Wee Willie Winkie, a rhyme that is, if one lingers on it, the very stuff of nightmares: the eponymous character runs about town in his night-gown yelling at children through their locked doors. Seemingly, they should be in bed.

Perhaps we should shrug off the paucity of references to metropolitan life in nursery rhymes as not necessarily a slight to urban living. But unlike what we saw to be the case for plants, this time Kincaid does not supplement what is missing from the doggerel with illustrations. Very few pieces are set in the wilderness, A Man in the Wilderness, being one, most of them are set in rural locations: in the countryside or in hamlets or small towns. Nursery rhymes record the madcap trials and tribulations of rustic life. Views of big city living just don’t make the cut.
In trying to come to terms with the absence of urban rhymes two questions come to mind. Why is this so and what are the implications? The first is quite easy to answer; the second is a matter for cerebration.

Many nursery rhymes are quite old, indeed most circulated in oral culture long before being written down. According to The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955) by Iona Archibald Opie and Peter Opie over thirty per cent of nursery rhymes predate 1600. Only 2.3 were composed after 1825. The poverty of urban reference to city life should be now be unsurprising since the proportion of the population living in cities and large towns compared to rural locations was a fraction of what it is today. That several refer to larger towns and cities might, from this perspective, actually impress us.

Over the course of time working on this short essay I’ve asked several of my students to name a favorite rhyme. None could do so without some prompting. Humpty Dumpty, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Twinkle, Twinkle and Mary had a Little Lamb all elicited some response. None could recall more than two or three, and strangely, none recalled where they heard the rhymes. “Perhaps in
band?” one speculated. If rhymes are not sung in the nursery anymore, perhaps it’s just as well: the world of the nursery rhyme is a surreal, and occasionally violent one. Oranges and Lemons, otherwise an innocuous one about church bells, ends with these lines: “Here comes a candle to light your to bed,/Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” Besides, such rhymes in describing agrarian life are inscrutable to most children.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Visit to Oz

In 1976 to celebrate the Chicago connection to the Oz stories, the city dedicated a lovely little park, Oz Park, to L. Frank Baum’s creative work. It is within half a mile of where I teach in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. In subsequent years, the city installed statues of the four immortal companions, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and Dorothy (and Toto, the dog), at various points throughout the park.

Oz Park is a very jolly affair. The statues are handsome, the landscaping very tasteful with open lawns interspersed among the trees and shrubs. A small area of wild flowers and grasses has been set aside for insects and birds, and to add a natural glamour to the scene. A large playground in the park ensures that in the daylight hours there is always the silver-toned susurrus of children’s jubilation throughout the park. Baum would have liked it, I think, for he was a man of sunny disposition.
On the afternoon when I visited not long ago, a summer rain was spilling down in buckets. The sky was gray, the leaves of the trees were gray and dripping, and the grasses were dark and bedraggled. A few people scurried through the park, their collars turned up. One of them held a newspaper over her head. On the blacktop basketball court, three grown men stripped to the waist tossed the ball about with an air of determined exuberance. From atop a rope in the playground, a young child yelled out to her mother for help.

Read on here 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Awe, despair and the annihilation of nature

Although it can be hard to discern at times, every academic subject is accompanied by a particular mood; for example, patient industry in the case of history, righteous indignation in peace studies, refined querulousness in philosophy, stolid deliberativeness in chemistry, head-spinning giddiness in cosmology, and, at first glance at least, sadness in the case of contemporary environmental science. Although gloominess may be inevitable in a discipline into whose domain falls the triumvirate of anthropogenic climate change, the radical alteration of biogeochemical cycles, and the torquing up of biodiversity loss, nonetheless historically there has been another mood, albeit somewhat muted in recent times, that accompanies the environmental disciplines, and that is awe.

See the full review of The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals by Gerardo Ceballos, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Paul R. Ehrlich: here.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Botany and Fantasy

This is generally a truth in fantasy literature: before extravagant quests, before dragons and gold, before rings of power, before strenuous heroism, comes botany. Hobbits farming the Shire, Harry Potter in the greenhouses with Professor Sprout, Ged on the mountains of Gont with Ogion the Silent learning the uses of fourfoil.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Islands as Keystone Locales in Children’s Stories

by
Liam Heneghan

Islands are a type of keystone locale, to adopt the language of the late influential experimental ecologist Robert Paine. They are disproportionately represented in children’s literature and play an undeniable role in shaping the reveries of childhood. But investigations on and of islands were also integral to formulating our contemporary understanding of how species came into being,  More recently, and more ominously, islands have shaped our understanding of how organic forms disappear. Islands are epicenters of  species extinction.

This remarkable convergence of a prevalent theme in children’s literature and in ecological and evolutionary research should not, however, be overly-interpreted.  Islands emerge as important in both literatures  for fairly distinct reasons. No children’s writer, one assumes, writes about islands because they can serve as fruitful experimental replicates for understanding the patterns of nature. Nor might an ecologist chose to study an island because it evokes feelings of comfort, security, and snugness (though she may chose  to study it because an island is beautiful—but this is altogether another matter.)

This caveat against drawing strenuous parallels aside, islands appeal to the the literary and scientific imagination alike because they are discrete, contained, manageable, exotic, quirky; islands are often wild, often subject to large natural forces, and usually navigable. An island pares things down to their essentials; islands clarify.

Ecologists and evolutionists examine islands in order to determine the forces that shape natural communities. But storytellers oftentimes inform us of how natural patterns appear to their protagonists. They describe what it is like for people to encounter islands with all their insular and uncanny strangeness. Islands contain and intensify a plot.

A significant implication of all of this is that in the hands of a skilled storyteller a island story elucidates the island environment. A child may come away from the microcosmic experience of such a book knowing a little more about her relationship with wild forces; knowing more about the world beyond the basic movement of a plot. Stories about islands are a gateway for understanding the nature of islands, the history of our interaction with them and on them. If a child loves an island, the adult she becomes may value them, and by valuing islands she may have a disproportionately beneficent impact upon the world. Islands are stepping stones to the broader world of wild nature.