Know the world, know yourself

Nature reveals itself as ruptured, as already profaned. To rest into a landscape is to be drawn into an adulterated history.

I follow Jedediah Purdy on Instagram. His pictures give the impression that he’s in love. There’s a shot of willow oak branches, the leaves oranged in the sunset light. There’s a portrait of the sky as a reflection on a pond, with ripples encircling a clump of bur-reeds. There are countless pictures, almost daily, of leaves—on a sidewalk, on the road, in his hand, floating in a puddle. My favorite picture is a selfie with Purdy bowed down on concrete, his body bent, his head turned to the sky and camera, so his bearded face can be a canvas for a splash of color from a rainbow.

To scroll through Purdy’s Instagram feed reminds me of what it was like in high school to collect photo booth strips, folded in a wallet, of a boyfriend or girlfriend. There’s affection. There’s devotion. There’s romance. Purdy loves nature; he loves the earth. He can’t help posting his snapshots, to show us his love.

In After Nature, Purdy explores the “styles of environmental imagination” in the United States that inform our relationships with the earth in this era that is called the Anthropocene, the age of humans. He traces the development of these ideologies through varied sources—from the colonial journals of John Winthrop to recent rulings by the Supreme Court, with an assortment of material in between. Purdy’s brilliance is his ability to track conversations over time, to hear how one voice informs another, coalescing into a collective sensibility. He studies how an argument develops as one generation passes it along to the next, and he invites us to listen for how we reconfigure old ideas to make sense of our new world. To make sense of our world—that’s what fuels Purdy’s writing. To guide our sense of perception of the nature that infuses us. When he describes the credo of the Hudson River School of landscape artists in the 19th century, he might be describing himself: “The key was to learn to see, because seeing was not mere surface perception—it was insight. . . . The most successful painting would be true to vision, and would train the gaze of others.”