Pushcart 2013: Robin Hemley: “To The Rainforest Room” (Non-Fiction) from Orion, May/Jun 2011

"Henry Doorly Zoo" Print by Kathi Geringer

“Henry Doorly Zoo” Print by Kathi Geringer

Nature declawed, stuffed, mounted. What then do we really want from the Authentic Destinations of our imaginations? And how do our perceptions of them differ from the Real Thing? When we think of an unspoiled place, how much do we need to strip away before we reach the desired level of authenticity? Strip Hawai‘i of its inauthentic fauna and you’re left mostly with bats.

I’ll admit: when I saw another “nature” piece, I kind of cringed. Is this Pushcart’s attempt to make up for discouraging electronic literature in favor of tree-based reading?

But it’s not really a nature piece; it’s more of an exploration of authenticity via three rainforests, inspired by his earlier research into the Tasaday. And some Easy Cheese (you’ll have to read the essay, at least the first section, to get the details on that, but it dates back to an unfortunate incident in college involving a Triscuit). It’s very, very funny. And very, very good. And available online.

From time to time, I read sentiments like this: “For a few hours I lived in an alternative Africa, an Africa governed by a quiet glee and an innocent love of nature,” and I think your quiet glee, buddy, your innocent love of nature. This sentence, by the way, is an authentic quote from an actual essay that appeared in a recent travel anthology. When I read it, I could get no further. I wondered what the writer thought he was doing experiencing his quiet glee in this alternative Africa? This sentimentalization of “Primitive Man” in harmony with nature seems akin to a hunter praising the pristine beauty of an elk head he’s shot and mounted. The hunter can move but the elk can’t. The authenticity tourist can and will depart the rainforest, leaving behind his tourist dollars and those irrepressibly authentic Africans twittering their gleeful songs on their kalimbas.

Contrast this with the butterflies, with Wendell Berry. The point is made here – we are destroying ourselves – yet without the preaching, scolding, and clucking. Hemley’s just like me, like most of us I suspect – he cares about the planet, but sometimes he wants the Easy Cheese.

As I read this essay, it occurred to me that someday, assuming the human race survives a few more generations, our grandchildren will be nostalgic for Twitter and X-Boxes. After all, my parents were prone to emotional reminiscences of silent films and radio, and no Baby Boomer meeting is complete without misty-eyed discussions of black-and-white TV and duck-and-cover. When Hemley writes: “The idea of an authentic place implies an unchanging one, which also makes it an impossibility,” I realize: our very idea of what is “authentic” is rooted in our own experience, perhaps even the experience we heard our grandparents talk about so fondly when we were little – so is there such a thing as true “authenticity” or is it part of our yearning to find an ideal that may never have existed?

Hemley began his authenticity tour of rain forests in Nebraska – yes, Nebraska – and if his take on the Doorly Zoo (America’s Largest Indoor Rain Forest, complete with polyurethane trees and imported “authentic” animals who wait in the Green Room for their entrance and end their workday at 6pm) isn’t enough to get you giggling, then you just don’t have a sense of humor:

Why would anyone go to the bother of bringing the rainforest to Nebraska? It’s my theory that Nebraska has developed a severe case of landscape envy.
Arbor Day: invented by a Nebraskan.
The only man-made national forest (Halsey National Forest) is in Nebraska.
The word Nebraska originates from an Oto Indian word meaning flat water.
People of my generation will remember with fondness the weekly TV show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom…It may be the most logical thing in the world that a state as mono-diverse as Nebraska would be infatuated with exotic flora and fauna. If the rainforest is the closest thing on Earth to the Garden of Eden, to which we always hold out hope for our eventual return, Nebraskans may simply be looking for a shortcut.

I started rewriting Joni Mitchell: “They paved paradise and put up an Indoor Rain Forest.” But Hemley got it better.

Then he’s off to the Arajuno Jungle Lodge in Ecuador, created by former Peace Corps volunteer, park ranger, eco-hero and Pink Floyd aficionado Tom Larson (who, by the way, was born in Omaha). Here’s where much of the “green” of the piece is, with a clear picture of just how and why the rain forests are being destroyed. Sure, there’s greed. But there’s also survival: most of the locals who dynamite fish and build roads and cut down trees do so to feed their families. Tom Larson is doing what he can, starting with asking them, “What would it take to get you to stop dynamiting fish?” and creating a well-stocked, if inauthentic, environment for them to catch enough fish to survive. It may not be the best step, but at least it’s a step; it’s what’s possible.

A trip to the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area Rainforest and, um, Scenic Railway, in Katoomba, Australia, follows: ” I consider this a Bonus Rainforest, like an offer in which you buy two rainforests and get the third for free.” He heard about it while at a writer’s conference, though he didn’t realize at first it was a rain forest; the Australians kept describing it as “the Grand Canyon with trees.”

Hemley’s point is a serious one, made humorously, and maybe, especially when you’re preaching to the choir, this is the better approach.

Maybe everything authentic eventually winds up an exhibit. Worse, maybe everything authentic eventually winds up depicted on a shot glass in a gift shop. Maybe the very idea of authenticity implies extinction. For the record, I’m not in favor of extinction. Here’s one test: if you want to replicate it but can’t, it’s probably authentic. So maybe authenticity is something to be wished for, catalogued, but never owned. Something we can’t quite pin down, but nevertheless yearn for. Something that, for a while anyway, can keep at bay the nightmare of a globe covered with polyurethane trees and inhabited by wild animals who clock out every evening.

Maybe everything’s authentic – including polyurethane trees – or maybe nothing is. Maybe I just needed a laugh (it’s been a tough week in Calculus). And for my own ironic twist on authenticity: I loved this piece so much, I stopped reading in the middle to google Hemley and find out what else he’d written.

One response to “Pushcart 2013: Robin Hemley: “To The Rainforest Room” (Non-Fiction) from Orion, May/Jun 2011

  1. Pingback: Pushcart 2013: Ain’t More Thing to Climb* | A Just Recompense

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