Poets, writers, and intellectuals alike utilize a non-localized world of theory and imagination to transcend reductionist theories that claim humans are somehow separate from their environment. It is fact, not theory, that plants produce the very oxygen needed for the human species to survive. The energetic exchanges between humans and the natural world are measurable and inarguable. Poets and fiction writers retain a unique role in society, a role wherein they can reveal the unbecoming truths of how truly misaligned humans have become with both their internal and external worlds. With the expansion of consumerism resulting from the Industrial Revolution’s “progress,” the average human is both a conscious witness and an unconscious participant in the destruction of its global environment.
Poetry and fictional stories allow readers to bear emotional and logical witness to contemporary truths of modern living, and further unearth the flawed thinking that woefully produces human disconnect from nature. Sherman Alexie is a Native American author known for his outlandish statements against the modern and corporatized way of living common to the white American. Sarah Orne Jewett was an American writer known for her novels, short stories, and poems. Both of the aforementioned authors breathe life into their depictions of nature; Alexie demanding personification of birds in his poem, “Avian Nights,” and Jewett embracing a description of a pre-pubescent female’s energetic dance with a forest in her story, “A White Heron.” With each depiction, Alexie and Jewett announce that nature and its creatures are just as sentient as the disillusioned humans who sleepwalk right alongside it.
“Without a word, the exterminator, uses a thumb/ And finger to snap the birds’ necks-/ crack, crack, crack—then drops/ their bodies to the driveway below./ For these deaths, I write him a check” (“Avian Nights,” 10-15). These birds have necks and bodies, as do their human counterparts. This line houses an acknowledgement of having an exterminator (one who destroys or kills completely) hired for the murder of these birds. The birds need to be alive, living, breathing creatures in order to meet death. The narrator makes no effort to use a language that would otherwise describe birds as inanimate or non-sentient beings. He writes them as having necks and bodies, and of being murdered by a fellow living being. Their existence is not mere fodder for human lives, but an existence all their own. The birds are described as “father and mother starlings” and the dead offspring are referred to as “shared children” (26-7). The birds of this poem are granted the same consciousness assumed to be present among all humans. The narrator specifically calls the offspring “children,” as opposed to a more scientific definition of their livelihoods. Later, the poem reads: “The starlings mourn for three nights and three days” (61-2). For what other reason would the narrator of this poem give birds access to human emotions and empathetic capacities such as mourning if not to assert nature’s identity as a living, sentient organism? In “Avian Nights,” Alexie produces an aesthetic that might as well read: “Birds are People, Too.” Many critics of this text have compared humans killing the birds to European settlers killing Native Americans (“As if to say they could bring back the dead with bird magic”). What’s interesting in the latter portion of Alexie’s poem is his decision to use very inorganic descriptions of a human child so soon after his vigorously vivid, living word choice for birds (65-66). The narrator writes “To save our son, the doctors/ piped the blood out of his heart…via sterile tube,/ via the smooth cut/ Of his carotid, then sent his blood/ through the oxygen machine…This was new technology, and he lived” (72-9). This passage serves to highlight the dichotomy of real, natural lives of birds against the advanced, technological mechanisms of life-preservation employed by a “higher” species. “Life” becomes a term open to interpretation when one species employs exterminators to wipe out another non-aggressive species without repercussion. Alexie appears to take note of the unadulterated truth of a bird’s animalistic reaction to the death of an offspring and then reverts back to apply those same behaviors to human parents when their own child faces perilous circumstances: “Scree-scree-scree;/ we cawed and cawed to bring him back./ We attacked the walls of the ICU/ with human wings, Scree-scree-scree” (84-8). They are not so different, human parents and bird parents.
Literary devices used by Alexie are also seen employed by Jewett in her story, “A White Heron,” to personify plants and animals of the natural world. Mistress Moolly, a cow named and claimed as an entity by young Sylvia, is described by Jewett to take pleasure in playing hide-and-seek, in the act of discovering and learning as a sentient being does, and in being one half an active participant in a passionate friendship with Syliva, her human. Jewett goes so far as to announce that Sylvia herself did not truly come “alive” until she’d moved out of “a crowded manufacturing town” and “came to live at the farm.” The birds present in this tale “[say] goodnight to each other in sleepy twitters.” The birds have language; they interact with one another and share communal living spaces. Man is “the enemy,” in Sylvia’s eyes, while nature is familiar, playful, and safe. Again, just as seen in Alexie’s work, a dichotomy of civilization and the natural world exists in “A White Heron.” A male traveler, hunting for birds, “had known the horrors…and dreary squalor of that level of society which does not rebel at the companionship of hens.” Nature is something of a commodity to the modern man, who wants to “give ten dollars to anybody who could show [a white heron] to [him]” for the purpose of killing it and stuffing it for profit. Jewett’s description of the tree Sylvia climbs to find the white heron in question is the ultimate personification of an organic specimen with vivid, human-like life presence. “There was the huge tree asleep.” Sylvia notices the active, sleepy tree and chooses to interact with it, “to mount to the top.” Just as seen in “Avian Nights,” Jewett ascribes aviary qualities to the humans in her story. Sylvia has “bare feet and fingers, that [pinch] and [hold] (the tree) like bird’s claws.” Both Jewett and Alexie find more power in graciously morphing their human subjects into birds while simultaneously personifying natural creatures and environmental plants. The literary effects of this animating language espouse the presence of consciousness present in non-human life. Jewett’s tree is so conscious, “it [feels] this determined spark of human spirit wedding its way higher from branch to branch…The old pine must [love] his new dependent.” The humans are dependent on the tree in this text, not the other way around. Trees can live and survive without humans, but the human species would surely die without the contribution of plant-based oxygen to fuel their every cell.
It’s not the absence of human participation in natural life nor is it the absence of natural life in human lives that ushers readers towards understanding Sherman Alexie’s “Avian Nights” or Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron.” It is, rather, the multidimensional interconnectedness of literary devices personifying the natural world and connecting man to his environment that supports the truth these authors bring to life in the mind of the reader. There is clarity present when humans are likened to birds and vice versa; the characters of Alexie’s poem and Jewett’s story are not limited to those who speak English but include any creature that produces sound in any way to communicate. The external world described in these fictional texts cannot merely be ascribed to as “external” when the impact present on human senses is very internal, penetrating, and alive. Both authors share stories of how humans impact the lives and livelihoods of their non-human counterparts, and this perspective ultimately lays the foundation for a proper ecological criticism to take place.
© 2017 Shawna Marie Rodgers
All Rights Reserved.
Alexie, Sherman. Avian Nights. N.p.: Hanging Loose Press, 28 June 2010. PDF.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. A White Heron. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1886. HTM. Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.