Human View of the Landscape--Literature
How do authors view the landscape, nature, or our environment through literature? Are they trying to tell us something? Do they portray nature sympathetically, tangentially, metaphorically, or with hostility? Is the environment the subject as in Majorie Stoneman, Douglas' book, The Everglades: River of Grass? Is man an integral part of the environment, or is he a hidden figure of doom as in Watership Down by Richard Adams or White Fang by Jack London? Does the work vilify man as destroyer of our environment or is the environment something to be tamed in order to survive? What is man's relationship to the environment? How does the author feel about the environment and what compels him to write about its harshness and splendor?
Love of Nature
Randy Wayne White is a Pine Island writer of numerous books that take place in southwest Florida. Randy is a former fisherman turned author. Locals favor his novels because they talk of places familiar and valued. Behind his excellent yarn of mystery and intrigue lies a love of the nature and love our area. For example, the following excerpt comes from his 1990 novel "Sanibel Flats".There was the tidal rift--a green ribbon of water that crossed the shallows--and he dropped the skiff in, following the deeper water as if on a mountain road. . . . Then the shoal: a sandbank that encircled the island like an atoll. Ford held tight as the skiff jumped the bank then settled itself on the other side. He looked immediately for the shadows of the island, backing quickly on the throttle as the bottom fell away in shafts of amber light and mangrove trees interlocked to form a cavern over the tidal creek that was hardly wider than the eighteen-foot Permit flats skiff that now rolled on its own wake beneath him.
Ford nudged the nose of the skiff onto a shell beach and killed the engine, then sat for a moment listening to the wash of waves, pleased that he had remembered the tricky cuts even though he hadn't made the run for all those years, thinking Maybe the intimacies of water and women are the only two things a man never really forgets (White 1990:9).
The author displays his awe of nature when he speaks with gentleness and affection of swimming with a manatee in this manner:He'd forced himself out of bed, did some pull-ups, dove off the dock and swam for twenty minutes, out to the first spoil island and back. Halfway in, he felt something beside him. Ford stopped, his heart pounding, but then this huge creature ascended, exhaling foul breath, looking him right in the eye. It was a manatee, about half the size of a Volkswagen, and Ford began to laugh, spitting water.
"If you're looking for romance, you're blinder than I am."
The sea cow submerged, rubbed past again, then came up behind him whoofing warm air. Ford swam the rest of the way with the manatee following, goosing him along. He got out changed his clothes, began to ready the dye and dissecting instruments, and the manatee was still there, hanging around the stilt house, stirring the water with his huge fluke tail. He's had manatee come up to his boat and rub themselves before, but never anything like this--of course, he hadn't swum with many sea cows (White 1990:63).
Intimate Knowledge of Nature
They didn't find what they were looking for Thursday, the day they killed him, so they came back yesterday for another look. A big golden-silk spider had a web across the path from the cove, and someone had walked through it. Rafe was tall enough to hit it, but he wouldn't have--he grew up in the woods. The man who walked through the web was coming from or going to his boat; probably going, because he was preoccupied, wasn't watching. It only takes a golden-silk spider about three hours to completely rebuild its web, and the spider was a little more than half done when I got there (White 1990:86).
In addition to exhibiting a knowledge regarding Florida environment, White teases us into asking more of nature's mysteries. A cohort asks Ford for information regarding his sharks in captivity, saying:"Why they always swim that way, man, that direction? Everytime I come here, those three big sharks are always swimming the same way, the same speed. It's weird, like they're police dogs or something."
Ford looked up from the cleaning table briefly. "I don't know why. Sharks in captivity almost always swim clockwise. In Florida, anyway. Not in Africa, though. It was different in Africa. They swam counterclockwise. Someone somewhere probably knows why, but I don't" (White 1990:44).
He sets up the puzzle, but he never resolves it in his book. Are you tempted to look up the information?
Concern for Species Abundance
Ford, the protagonist in the Novel, is a biologist who studies sharks as part of his research and sells shark specimens to supply colleges and schools for dissection. He sells the brains for mounts. He explains, "That way every shark gets double duty. I won't have to kill so many that way" (White 1990:34).
While the author shows concern for the proliferation of species, he demonstrates the dilemma facing most people who live off the earth's bounty: We depend upon the earth to feed us. We try to preserve, but do we know the long-term consequences of our actions? William Burns, Director, Pacific Center For International Studies, proposes that over-fishing of sharks is a threat to their survival because they are slow to reproduce. "Female sharks gestate for as long as two years, longer than any other animal. . . . Many species of sharks have less than dozen young in a litter, and some species, such as the lemon shark, have a few as two. Furthermore, sharks do not mature for ten to eighteen years, and females only produce three or four litters during their lifetime" (Burns 1995).
As a child in the 1950's I would never have entertained the thought that there would be limits on the seas bounty. Food fish and shellfish were abundant and cheap--now scarce. The sea absorbed the trash discarded from boats--now destructive and problematic. Survival takes precedent and we justify harvesting in the name of feeding people or education or medical or scientific research. Is it coincidence that White selects sharks, a mammal with a bad reputation which would be less sentimental than had he selected snook, manatee, or even red fish. Burns also recognizes the fearsome image of sharks brought about by movies like "Jaws". Shark bites at beach and horror movies do not endear sharks to public sympathy. When people speak for species conservation, do they care that animals with bad reputations are becoming extinct such as many varieties of sharks, snakes, or bats? They are part of the ecosystem. Has White missed the boat on making his protagonist a harvester of sharks for profit if he cares for survival of species?
The Novel's Setting
White adds an interesting contrast between different environments in Southwest Florida. He carefully and laconically describes his home environment on Pine Island, a relaxed place underscored with slowly paced reading:
Ford idled into the marina to get his evening quart of beer. He was tired of the talk of death; felt like kicking back and taking a good, deep bit of life for a change. Several of the women doctors had returned, looking relaxed in beach clothes, shiny hair combed just so, standing there on the dock talking to Jeth. Ford pretended to study his mooring lines until Nicholes called him over and made introductions (White 1990:77).
His ventures into the estuaries continue the relaxed and picturesque mood:
[H]e ran out onto Pine Island Sound, then cut southward toward the causeway that connected Sanibel to the mainland. When the water shoaled to five feet, he began to drift. Using a light spinning rod, he caught six small black fin sharks, enjoying the way they jumped: dark projectiles on a pale sea (White 1990:107).
On the other hand, the pace of the novel quickens as he describes the hectic SW Florida commercial areas. Notice the staccato rhythm of this description:
He drove across the causeway, then turned south onto U.S. 41, a six-lane Cuisinart where bad drivers from all over the nation gathered to tailgate and rush only to wait impatiently at the next light; unhappy travelers as driven as their automobiles. Here was the asphalt essence of everything bad Florida had to offer: a fast highway of Big Macs, furniture warehouses, trailer parks, disco drunk factories, and used car lots with pennants stretching two hundred miles from Tampa to Naples, jammed with traffic that slowed only when sirens screamed and ambulances came to strap the broken and bleeding onto stretchers and cart them away.
Ford hated it (White 1990:121).
When he moves from the waterfront to civilization we feel his distaste of the hustle of traffic. White's use of the local environment lures the reader into the thrill of the environment by using familiar place names. Local and seasonal readers relate to the visual picture of Grandma Dot's, Pine Island Sound, Sanibel, and U.S. 41.
Nature's Structure as a Metaphor
Although White concentrates on the estuarine ecosystem as a backdrop for his story he uses it as a metaphor as well. A metaphor is a word or phrase that suggests that one thing can be compared to another in likeness or analogy. White uses a biological term, "biont" to describe people in a shadowy organization involved in vague activities.
The odds were impossible because, on a formal business basis, people didn't deal with people anymore, they dealt with beings Ford thought of as Bionts. In the literature of natural history, a biont was a discrete unit of living matter that had a specific mode of life. In modern America, to Ford's way of thinking, a Biont was a worker or minor official who, joined with other Bionts, established a separate and dominant entity: the Organization. A Biont was different from on employee, Ford was seeing fewer and fewer employees around. The Biont looked to the Organization as a sort of surrogate family; depended on the Organization to care for him in sickness and in health, to provide for his recreational, spiritual, and social needs. The Organization was an organism, much as a coral reef or a beehive could be considered an organism, made up of individual creatures working for the good of the whole. When the Organization prospered, so did the Biont--a sort of professional symbiosis, with loyalty built in. A Biont might grumble about his host in private, but just let an outsider try to sneak in, ask for information, arouse suspicion, or endanger the Organization, and all the unit members would unite like a shield to rebuff the intruder. . . . He thought of killer bees (White 1990:106).
White has used the environment in a multitude of ways. The description of the estuaries and fishing demonstrate his affection for nature. He points out the dilemma of man's harvest of nature's bounty for profit and acknowledges the concern not to be wasteful. He has grown up with nature and demonstrates a complex knowledge of organisms in his environment. His portrayal of nature is relaxing and pleasing. He contrasts the style and sentiment of the bays and shoals with the noise and frenetic pace of the commercial high traffic areas. He used metaphor or analogy to emphasize the prey/predator relationship amongst organisms and his fictional Organization. His environment is not only a backdrop to carry along his story, but a integral part of his writing. The environment gives White an opportunity to ruminate on his past experience and convey a sense of respect and awe perhaps luring the reader to appreciate the SW Florida area.
To check my reading of Randy Wayne White's intent and meaning of his writing about nature, I raise several questions that I would like to ask the author himself.What does the Southwest Florida environment mean to you?
Where did you get your knowledge?
Who introduced you to the natural world and fishing? How did that effect you?
How do you work the environment into your works?
Do you actively participate in conservation efforts locally or globally? How?
Why do sharks swim in different directions in captivity in different hemispheres?
SO I DID. Here are his answers.
I met Randy Wayne White appropriately on a stormy south Florida afternoon--Florida weather in its fury. He greeted me at my car with an umbrella. Randy had agreed to answer my questions and to tape a piece from one of his novels for the course page. He bid me sit on his screened porch that cooled two sides of his house. I looked through the heavy rain out onto Pine Island Sound. The casual setting reminded me of the novel. Randy had indulged my questions with patience between claps of thunder.
Asking what the SW Florida environment meant to him was a little silly considering the rural picturesque surroundings. Randy said, "Florida is such a powerful place in terms of light and water, natural experiences like hurricanes, tornadoes and such." All his novels begin in Florida and end someplace else, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and even Vietnam. He doesn't write about places he has not visited. He wants to see them first hand. His novel "Captiva" deals with the net ban and takes the reader from Florida to Sumatra.
Randy stated that when you write about two characters in Florida, you have a third--the environment. Florida is a character just as are the other players--just as the afternoon storm, heat and humidity became the third party in our interview. Randy rejects air-conditioning, preferring to experience his waterfront property as nature intended with its moods a vital part of his writing studio.
Randy gets his knowledge from two sources, reading and his experience as a fisherman. Although he does not read novels, he reads many books for research. "Reading is one of the great wealths in this country." He praises compulsory education as a vehicle to the world through reading.
As a fishing guide, he had as many as 3000 charters. Reading nature led him to knowing where to find the fish. He learned that calm water next to rough meant shallow water to be avoided while piloting his boat. He watches for changes in the sea grass. A V shape in wake might mean red fish below. "The water is a mirror, until you learn to see it as a lens."
Randy gained an appreciation of the environment from his family experience growing up in North Carolina. His uncles were bass fishermen, but it was his mother who most vividly created his love of fishing through their experiences cane pole fishing.
Although Randy does not engage in any conservation efforts locally, his novels demonstrate the intimate knowledge, intrigue, and respect of the environment. He acknowledges that sharks have gotten a bad reputation from the few that are fierce, but hopes that others come to appreciate them. To the question regarding why sharks swim as they do, Randy laughs and explains that if he makes a mistake in a novel he hears about it. An expert on sharks wrote him after reading "Sanibel Flats" refuting the observation. Sharks to not generally swim in only one direction nor differ between hemispheres. Describing the environment accurately is even more important to him now.
Randy Wayne White on the beginning of Marco Island development, reading from Ten Thousand Islands (Real Player Required.)
Burns, William C. Mon, 10 Apr 1995 17:40:26. Shark Education Network (email@example.com). http://www.ee/lists/infoterra/1995/04/0025.html
White, Randy Wayne. 1990. Sanibel Flats. New York: St. Martin's Paperbacks.
White, Randy Wayne. Aug 16, 1999 6:30pm. Personal interview. Pine Island, FL.
Other novels by White:
The Sharks of Lake Nicaragua
The Mangrove Coast
North of Havana
The Man who Invented Florida
The Heat Islands
Read another book of your choice and compare it to "A Place Remembered" to enrich your essay. I didn't do that here, because I want you to do your own analysis of Patrick Smith's use of the environment in "A Land Remembered."