Last week we went to visit my husband’s parents in Beius, Romania, a relatively small town just across the Hungarian border, about a four hour drive from Budapest. Now, there are people I know who hate the outdoors – who, for example, refuse to go camping or anywhere without a full-size bed, private bathroom, and make-up, hair and personal care supplies. I was never one of those people, and must admit, I even felt some degree of pride in not being that bad. I always loved my version of “roughing it,” which usually consisted of camping, canoeing, and/or hiking trips. Sleeping bags, tents? No problem. Outhouses? I can deal with the smell. Western amenities? Don’t need them.
Or do I? See, every time we travel to Romania, I morph into that cliche, spoiled western girl that I had tricked myself into believing I wasn’t. First, my allergies kick in. In the United States and Sweden, where I live now, I hardly notice them anymore, but in Romania, no matter the season, my nose turns into a faucet and I can’t go anywhere without a package of tissues with me. When we visit my husband’s grandparents, who live in an even more remote, rural area than his parents, I am reduced to sitting in the house with a Kleenex held to my nose. Next, my husband or someone in his family will inevitably ask for the English word for any number of old, obscure gardening, needle/yarnwork, cooking or other tools, and my complete ignorance as to the work involved is betrayed by my answer: “I have no idea. I’ve never seen something like that before.” And let’s not forget the subtle glances exchanged when I try to politely decline or am simply unable to finish my serving of chicken or pig brain, liver, or heart, or react strangely when I’m told that the egg his grandmother is offering me is a delicacy because it was never laid, but rather an undeveloped egg found inside the hen when it was cut down. Once, on a trip to a neighboring city about an hours drive away, I suggested we try eating out at a restaurant. That suggestion was quickly declined, as they explained that restaurant food was over-priced and much, much worse than anything prepared at home by my mother-in-law. Then, there are the shocked gasps when I try to throw out, for example, milk that has been sitting out all day that my toddler son never drank. (My father-in-law stopped me, and then consumed the curdled milk the next day, explaining that it was no different than yogurt). And I swear my mother-in-law is silently reproaching me every time I get out of the shower for having consumed way too much hot water. These are just a few of the stark cultural differences I was struck by before.
This visit I kept noticing how goal-directed my behavior was, and how this aspect seemed to have a surprising effect on my relationship to nature. During our visit, I always wanted to know ‘what the plan was:’ where were we going, how long were we going to be there, etc. I found myself getting quite impatient when I didn’t know the answers to these things, which was almost always. I usually consider myself a flexible person, so I was surprised how much it bothered me to leave the house with only a very vague idea of what I would be doing or how long I would be gone. For an example of a typical outing with my in-laws, consider what happened on the way home from our last visit to my husband’s grandparents. First, we stopped by a neighbors’ so my son could play with a particular dog which had run up to the car to greet us. Then we realized we forgot my son’s jacket, so we went back to get that, and once again stopped to see the dog. My father-in-law then spotted a tree along our route with some flowers that could be used to make a medicinal tea, so we stopped to pick some of the flowers. Next we noticed an inch worm crawling slowly along the back of one of the seats, so my father-in-law again pulled over in order to release the inch worm back into the wild. My husband saw a male pheasant, so my father-in-law stopped and we got out to take pictures. He wanted to try to capture a picture of the bird in flight, so we did some pheasant chasing in an unsuccessful effort to scare it into flying. A little later, we spotted a female pheasant, and again stopped. Lastly we stopped to take some pictures of a sad looking Romanian flag with the one of the tricolors completely sheared off. No one had bothered to replace it. After about the third stop in the chain, I began to get impatient and wanted to get on home. At the same time, I really admired the enthusiasm and almost insatiable sense of wonderment and curiosity so characteristic of my in-laws.
This experience had me wondering whether it might be possible to lose the ability to stop and smell the roses. William James drew a famous distinction between directed attention and involuntary attention, or fascination. Direct attention allows us to concentrate on task and goal oriented behavior, while involuntary attention results when we allow ourselves to be distracted by a bird chirping, twigs snapping, or the scent of jasmine in the air. Much has been said recently about the negative effects of direct attentional fatigue, and the restorative effects of natural surroundings. I wondered, however, if it was possible to have the opposite problem, and whether a learned effectiveness at blocking out distractions over my lifetime had caused me to lose my naive ability to interact with nature. That is, an interaction in which one follows nature wherever it might lead, as opposed to imposing upon it one’s own will and goal.
Just when I was beginning to admire the Romanian attitude towards nature, my husband inadvertently alerted me to a darker side. As we were admiring the strangely sole kitten his grandmother’s cat had just given birth to, he remarked that it was fortunate that the cat only had one kitten. ‘Otherwise,’ he said, ‘they would have probably had to kill the others with a pitchfork.’ Needless to say, I was absolutely horrified by this statement. It was incomprehensible to me why they wouldn’t have the cat spayed in the first place, give the unwanted kittens away, or as a last resort, at least use a more humane method of killing. My husband’s reponse was simply ‘what can I say, nature is cruel.’
Then, as we were leaving, on our drive back to the airport in Budapest, we nearly ran into a horse standing there in the dark right in the middle of the road. My father-in-law honked his horn, but he barely moved. He appeared to have a lame leg, and his ribs were visible. My husband commented that it was sad that, now that new EU regulations forbid horses and carts on the main roads, many farmers, no longer having any use for their horses, simply abandoned them to starvation.
Nature’s cruelty or man’s? Or is there a difference?