Examining the Divergence of Tone in the Travel

8 August 2016

Human experience within nature is a broad, ever-expanding subject of study, wherein one is limited to either divulging personal experience or interpreting the validity of the experiences of others in order to gain insight. As such, nature writing takes innumerable forms, with each approaching the task of describing experience within nature in a unique way and each emphasizing a different intent. As a result, there exists a tendency to denote nature writing to an all-encompassing category and furthermore, to neglect the subtleties that serve to differentiate one nature essay from another.

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These nuances prove to be highly important when deciphering a writer’s tone and exposing the writer’s oftentimes overlooked intent, especially when contrasting one piece of nature writing to another, seemingly of the same topic. A shining example of this understanding can be demonstrated in an analysis of sections taken from two essays by William Bartram and Charles Waterton, respectively, which are generally sub-categorized as “nature in travel writing of two early naturalists abroad”. This description, while serving its purpose of classification, lends to the incorrect assumption that both essays convey the same intent.

Through an analysis of the writers’ respective use of descriptive language, apparent appreciation of nature, and their perception of the human species’ position within nature, it will be made evident that the two essays convey contrasting perceptions of the human experience in nature. The first point of contrast will be exemplified in their divergence in appreciation of nature, whereby purpose and acquisition underlie Waterton’s appreciation, while Bartram emphasizes an appreciation of nature by virtue of its existence.

Secondly, the essays diverge in tone through their use of descriptive language, which contrasts Bartram’s deep respect for nature against Waterton’s respect rooted in ulterior purpose. Finally, and arguably most importantly, the tone of the essays are most evidently divergent in their respective perceptions of the human position in nature. By deciphering the subtle tones within Bartram’s “Travels Through North & South Carolina…” and Waterton’s “Wanderings in South America…” one can establish this clear distinction between two nature essays that would be otherwise grouped together.

While it cannot be denied that both Bartram and Waterton demonstrate a keen admiration and appreciation of nature in all of its elements, there remains a distinct contrast between the foundations for their respective admirations. Bartram demonstrates a deep appreciation of nature by virtue of its very existence, whereas Waterton’s appreciation seems to be rooted in purpose and acquisition. Further, Bartram reveres the simplicity of natural beauty, bred by the element of surprise, in such a way that it can be seen as the basis for his adoration.

Whether in his description of a sudden procession of Ephemera, an immense and innumerable onslaught of alligators at dusk, or the powerful emergence of brilliantly coloured bands of fish from the mouth of “the Crystal Bason”, Bartram’s powerful imagery serves to demonstrate the ability of the natural world to continually inspire a sense of wonder and awe in the human species. In contrast, Waterton’s appreciation for the natural world lies in the acquisition of species deemed to be of interest by “the civilized world”.

In this way, Waterton’s appreciation of nature can be seen as objects of interest contributing to a greater purpose, as opposed to a singular occurrence through which the beauty is seen in the occurrence itself, separate from civilized interpretation. This is not to say that Waterton is dismissive of the natural world that he encounters, to the contrary, Waterton creates incredibly powerful imagery through his writing, of which only one who is deeply affected by his surroundings could convey.

What offers such juxtaposition to Bartram’s essay then, is that almost all of Waterton’s observations of nature serve, in one way or another, his own external purposes. Upon hearing the sound of the Campanero bird, for example, Waterton expresses that he “could not resist the opportunity of acquiring the Campanero” (Waterton, p. 107). Instead of beholding the occurrence with earnest fascination, his interest is vested in an ulterior purpose, which is to acquire the bird by means of killing it for sport.

The difference then, is in the respective ends to which both Bartram and Waterton aspire, which are so utterly contrasted, that they change the tone of their seemingly coinciding essays altogether. Further emphasizing the difference in tone between the two essays is each writer’s use of language as a descriptive mechanism. Whether it is his true intention or not, Bartram’s use of earnest and exploratory language reinforces in the reader a deep, and quite often neglected, respect for nature.

Most evidently, this use of language is demonstrated in his observations of the movements of bands of fish with relation to “the Crystal Bason” (Bartram, 74), of which he declares “I raise my eyes with terror and astonishment; I look down at the fountain with anxiety, when behold them as it were emerging from the blue ether of another world” (75). So powerful is his genuine emotional language, that the effect of his raw appreciation simply for the occurrence itself is plainly evident.

On the other side of the coin, Waterton’s often commanding and presumptuous descriptive language establishes an anthropomorphic tone throughout his essay, suggesting the superiority of man over nature and perhaps even further, a lack of respect for the natural world. This idea is best demonstrated through his encounters, not only with animals but also with his human companions, in which an attitude of superiority is prevalent, both intellectually and physically.

The intellectual aspect of his implied superiority is conveyed through Waterton’s interactions with his human companions, of whom he implies to be of a lower species in his referral to them as “the Indian” or “the negro”, just as he refers to “the jaguar” or “the Cayman”, for example. (Waterton, p. 111) Waterton further infers his superiority though the use of light-hearted language where it is not warranted by the often-perilous situation.

This is best emphasized in his first encounter with a jaguar, wherein he commands his companion not to shoot in self-defence and instead reasons that it is not often “that the traveller is favoured with an undisturbed sight of the jaguar” (106). This light-hearted language in the face of danger additionally serves to contrast Bartram’s description of his own reactions to similar circumstances, which is best expressed in the associative language that the two authors use in describing their confrontations with alligators.

While both respectively emphasize the power of the alligators, using descriptive words such as “monsters” (Bartram, 69) and “hideous and malicious reptiles” (Waterton, 113), Waterton uses associative words like “love at first sight” (114) to describe his encounter with the caiman and “disappointment” (109) or “doubtful” (108) when explaining his failure to lure it to him.

Conversely, Bartram expresses a much more plausible reaction to potential encounters with the alligators, through the use of associative words like “dreadful” or “apprehensions” (Bartram, 67) and “truly frightful” (70) when describing his actual encounters with them. The strikingly different use of language between the two writers when describing similar, perilous situations exhibits the style of writing that each has adopted; Bartram’s being more conceivable to the reader and Waterton’s taking on a more far-fetched quality.

The differing styles of writing that Bartram and Waterton adhere to, also serve to exemplify their own perceptions of their position in nature. As has been acknowledged previously in this analysis, Waterton’s writing style conveys an anthropomorphic tone and continually asserts his position in nature as being based around preconceived notions about the superior ability of man over other species. Contrary to this, Bartram writing style indicates that he asserts his position in nature as it occurs, acknowledging genuine reactions and emotions and acting on them as they come to him.

This idea can be exemplified not only by the description of events that occur, but also by the associated mechanisms that both writers chose to express afterthought about the associated event. In the case of Bartram’s essay, one such occurrence is in his descriptive observations of the procession of Ephemera (Mayfly) at the time of their mating. Bartram makes clear the wonder and sense of awe that these species evoke in him, upon witnessing them “particularly when they appear in the fly state” (66).

It is in his additional commentary on the event, following his description of the experience itself, that Bartram infers his perception of mans position with respect to nature. Adopting a somewhat existential tone, Bartram praises the complexity of the Ephemera’s short existence, further emphasizing his admiration for the embracing of their brief period of happiness, of which he declares, “what a lesson doth it not afford us of the vanity of our own pursuits! ” (66) The same indication of perceived human position in nature can also be found in Waterton’s essay, most apparently in his description of his conquering of the caiman alligator. In describing his experience, Waterton never alludes to the caiman evoking any fear within him or taking him by surprise, but rather emphasizes the fear that he instils upon the alligator, “[b]y the time the Cayman was within two yards of me, I saw he was in a state of fear and perturbation” (Waterton, 115). By emphasizing a complete lack of apprehension in the face of what he denotes to be a ‘‘monstrum, horrendum, informe,’ [Horrible monster, void of form’]” (114), he solidifies the inference of his own and further, man’s superiority over all other species.

Waterton makes use of supplementary inserts, as means of an external aside, to further enforce his perceived position in nature. Amidst the description of his experience with the caiman, for example, Waterton references ancient Greek mythological figures to compare his experience to, describing his confrontation as potentially “more perilous than Arion’s marine morning ride” (115). In doing so, Waterton again implies man’s dominance over other species, not based on his actual experience but by referencing examples outside of his own experience.

While the all-encompassing denotation of nature writing is often implied, this method neglects the importance of distinguishing the intents of the writer when describing their experiences in nature. The tone in nature writing, however, is often overlooked in favour of classifying the essay based on the topic that is being described. More often than not, taking the time to decipher the overall tone of an essay reveals that two or more seemingly similar topics can be approached from a vast field of differing intent.

By analyzing the subtleties in William Bartram’s essay, “Travels Through North and South Carolina” against Charles Waterton’s essay “Wanderings in South America…” it becomes evident that the two essays, while both describing nature in travel abroad, are strikingly divergent in their respective tones. Differentiating between the tone of two or more works of nature writing serves to emphasize the error inherent in classification based merely on broad topics. This commonly overlooked error reinforces misconception about the intention of the writer’s experience in nature.

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