"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Sex And The Single Bird Watcher–Nature Is Not All That It Is Cracked Up To Be

Brenda Cousins had been a nature lover ever since her father, a longtime member of the Audubon Society, had introduced her to the Great Blue Heron on the tidal marshes of the Chesapeake.  It was a magnificent bird, elegant, graceful, and patient.  It waited for its prey – minnows, tadpoles, or small frogs – without moving; slender and immobile – until its eye caught movement in the reeds, and then it stabbed and came up with its prey.  The heron was more than just a wading bird to be spotted, photographed, and chronicled; but an icon of The Movement – a perfect representative of the natural world, endangered and threatened, and emblematic of the entire ecosystem.  It was cause, purpose, and dignity.

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She was an environmentalist until she met Doug, a deadbeat from Gaithersburg, Maryland.  Why she was attracted to this stringy son of union tradesmen, far from the tony Northwest Washington neighborhood where she was born and brought up, was a mystery to her parents, both K Street lawyers who had assured her admittance to the best Washington private schools and set her course to the Ivy League.  Doug ‘turned her head’, as her grandmother used to say – distracted from her prescribed path by a rude young boy with no future.  “What is it about bad boys”, her grandmother wondered, “that is irresistible to young girls?”.  The old Mrs. Cousins had had her flings with across-the-tracks Johnnies, but always came home to sanity and manners.  Why was Brenda so determined to stray?

Neither an early affinity for herons, wildlife in general, and the environment; nor the lapse into adolescent sexual crises are anything new.  What is surprising are the bookends.  Most girls have fallen for bad boys; and tens of thousands of parents have brought up their children to respect and defend the environment; but there was no more precipitous fall from one to the other than that of Brenda Cousins.  She had been raised in the best of worlds – a sensitive, aware, woke world of respect for others and the environment – and left it entirely for the likes of Doug Fenwick.

It was on Cape Cod where Brenda and her parents were on holiday that she had her epiphany – South Wellfleet to be exact, one of the most untraveled bits of the peninsula, especially in the offseason.  Near the ocean, the Cape Cod National Seashore, the Bay, and numerous fresh water ‘ponds’, it was the go-to place for New Yorkers who wanted salt sea air without leaving New York completely behind.  Mac’s Shack was the perfect blend of Down East localism and city feel – oysters, clams, and New England fried dinners with NY service and a lively bar scene.

It was there that Brenda made her choice between the ecological life of the Wellfleet oyster, the survival of the Bay, the livelihood of the Great Blue Heron, and Environmentalism; and Deadbeat Doug and chose the-boy-with-no-future.

What was the point of walking the Skaket Beach flats? Taking the Fort Hill walking tour? Or following the Audubon Trail?  What were blue herons, plovers, petrels, and  nesting turtles compared to sex with Doug Fenwick who could ‘bone with the best of them’?  For that matter, what did marshes, swamps, tidal pools, and long beaches have anything to do with anything?  It was one thing for them to exist, but to be fawned over as the last, best place on earth before climate change ruined everything, was another.  Brenda felt choked by the sanctimony, bored to tears by endless walks on the marshes.  Doug Fenwick might not have been the best of the best, but better him than the cold salt flats of Skaket Beach; better sex with Deadbeat Doug than peering at the Cape Plover, the Short-legged Tern, the Lakeside Dove, or the Pileated Owl.

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From that pointless vacation on, she never returned to the Cape, Paradise Valley, or the Appalachian Trail.  She had had it with nature, nature trails, birding, tidal pools, nature preserves, national parks and seashores, the lot.  It was the sex that did it.

Of course such a radical departure from the norm couldn’t have been just about the sex.  Brenda had become increasingly bored with the intensity, cant, and sanctimony of her parents and their friends.  Dinner table conversations all ended up with commiseration about sea level rise, the desiccation of the Midwest, and the plight of the Chesapeake oystermen.  Although each dinner brought something new – the capitalist greed that drove industries to pillage, pollute, and disregard the landscape; right-wing Republican ignorance; and the military-industrial complex – it was essentially the same.  There was an unholy alliance among politicians, Wall Street, and corporate America to assure wealth and prosperity for the few at the expense of the many and their land.  These humorless, soulless dinners left Brenda fatigued.  As much as she loved her parents, her respect for them was in play.  Why couldn’t they change the subject?

“Why aren’t you in bed with your girlfriend?”, replied a gas station attendant when Brenda’s boyfriend had asked directions to Devil’s Septum, a rock face in the Southern Catskills.  An impertinent question, Brenda had thought at the time, a time when she was still under the influence of her father and his ‘lure of nature’, before Deadbeat Doug, and before Cape Cod; but on reflection, not many years later, it was the question.

“Because it’s there”, says Louis in James Dickey’s Deliverance to a Georgia mountain man who asks him why he wants to canoe down the  Cahulawassee.

“It’s there, alright; and once you get in it and can’t get out, you’re going to wish it wasn’t”.

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The Ecotherapy Movement promotes the improvement or restoration of the ‘human-nature’ relationship, and by so doing aims to rebalance our lives.  Americans spend between 85-99 percent of their time indoors, advocates say, thus distorting the psychological, spiritual, and physical balance we once had in an earlier, more pastoral age.

“Ecotherapy” refers to healing and growth nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth…Ecopsychology, the study of our psychological relations with the rest of nature, provides a solid theoretical, cultural, and critical foundation for ecotherapeutic practice.This perspective reveals the critical fact that people are intimately connected with, embedded in, and inseparable from the rest of nature. Grasping this fact deeply shifts our understanding of how to heal the human psyche and the currently dysfunctional and even lethal human-nature relationship.

Advocates of Ecotherapy recommend the following:
  • Inreach: receiving and being nurtured by the healing presence of nature, place, Earth.
  • Upreach: the actual experience of this more-than-human vitality as we relocate our place within the natural world.
  • Outreach: activities with other people that care for the planet (loc.cit.)

The movement is popular because it unifies spiritual longing, psychological health, and commitment to the environment.  Environmentalists are too outward-directed, and religious ascetics too inward-looking; but Ecotherapy fully integrates the spiritual nature of man with the spiritual nature of the Earth.  In marketing terms, it has found a vacant consumer niche; created a strong brand image which signifies commitment, idealism, and purpose; and developed a sales strategy which includes products, services, and technical support. Perhaps most importantly, like all New Age movements before it, it taps into vast reservoirs of personal insecurity, providing an institutional home which is both alternative and strong.

The Environmental Movement has this profoundly religious sentiment as its foundation.  The natural world is not simply an environment, one to be lived in, managed, and developed; but a holy place, separate and distinct from human beings who have intruded.  For Thoreau and other 19th century American utopian romantics, nature was not only unique but sanctified – pure, ennobling, and spiritually promising.  Modern progressive environmentalists are the heirs of Thoreau.  Walden Pond is theirs.

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To Brenda’s chagrin her mother became involved in Ecotherapy; and if the dinner conversations had been tedious, and spiritless before her conversion, they were impossible afterwards.  Her family had turned the corner, were no longer mainstream but extremist, and she couldn’t wait for the day she went off to college, although it meant separation from Doug.

Not surprisingly, she found boys as sexually adept as Doug, but far brighter and with a far more promising future.  Bad boys were few and far between at Harvard.  The parameters for bad behavior had shrunk enormously in a driven, ambitious student body.  In fact, there were no bad boys at Harvard.  They were features of the white working class – undereducated, under-performing, street-corner boys with limited ability and no motivation.   Sex with bad boys was payback for all the propriety and moral niggling of overprotective, ambitious parents.

Nevertheless Doug Fenwick had indeed ‘turned her head’.  The sex, the Ecstasy, and the underground mega-raves in Baltimore were as un-sanctimonious and as free from cant, principle, and overlords as possible.  No moral posturing there; no grief over anything; no deliberateness; and no stations of the cross.  Life after Deadbeat Doug would never be the same.

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Thanks to Doug, because of her oppressive liberal upbringing, and thanks to her intelligence and sociability, Brenda became an investment banker  - the least sanctimonious and the most amoral profession in the economy.  Buying and selling without moral judgment, an unforgiving economic contract of supply and demand, a Wild West individualism, and as close to a pack of bad boys as she could imagine was perfect for her, and she prospered.

Her parents had a tough time explaining what had happened to Brendie; how a girl with such dedicated, principled, and moral parents could possibly have gone so far off the deep end and worse, joined enemy ranks.  They found morsels of hope within their daughter’s portfolio – buying and restructuring failing companies, after all, led to their financial health and in turn created more employment and generated more benefits – but such tales of her ‘success’ were only cold comfort.  They and their friends knew that they had failed.

Brenda made millions, married well, had two children who from the earliest age were taught the lessons she had never received – strength, ambition, individualism, and willful purpose.  Their favorite vacations were to the Gulf – the Emirates, with their showy wealth, urban glitz, and unabashed luxury were for them.   Her life had come together nicely, and as far from the marshes of Wellfleet and semipalmated plovers as one can imagine.

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