The Cruelty of Nature

For a genre as broadly stereotyped in the public view as environmental writing is, there is great diversity in the subject’s leading voices. Some writers’ scientific backgrounds are highly apparent. Some writers work reads less like “nature writing” and more like the work of a social critic. Some are poetic while others read like an entry in a technical journal. Still, there are some threads that can be tracked across multiple—perhaps most—writers. One of these unifying themes is that nature does not plan “creation of all for the happiness of one” (Muir, pg  87); in particular, not for the happiness of humans.

This assertion seems to form a central argument for Annie Dillard. Her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek poses the question of nature’s “purpose” and then largely fails to resolve it—at least in human terms. The essayist and conservation pioneer John Muir, in “Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” relays this same sentiment, though he grapples with the topic less as a question, and seems far more ready to accept the irresolvable nature of it. These approaches demonstrate a fundamental difference between the two authors. One is still contending with the fact that nature does not exist for the benefit of all in it, while the other seems ready, not only to accept this, but almost seems to revel in it.

This difference is very apparent right from the outset of the two works. In the very first chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard relays an encounter she had with a giant water bug, a large aquatic insect that predates many small vertebrates, by liquefying their innards and sucking them out. She describes being “bewildered and appalled” (pg 8) by what she witnesses, and uses her tumultuous emotions so pose the very question of the purpose of nature’s very cruelties. Quoting from the Quran, she asks “The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest” (pg 9). The way she sets up the passage, it might be easy for the reader to assume that this question relates solely to the giant water bug incident, but in reality, this passage, not even ten pages into the book, reveals her mission and her purpose, and the horror that prompts her to state this as her mission sets the tone for the rest of book.

Muir, too sets his take on this question to paper early in his writing. He writes that “the world, we are told, was made especially for man—a presumption not supported by all the facts” (pg 86). He states this following a tale as violent, or more so, than the one Dillard relayed—a story of an alligator grabbing and devouring a man’s dog after the man tried to kill the creature by wrestling it down with a knife. He then relates how alligators are frequently viewed as the works of the devil, along with all manner of other creatures and plants and elements that are harmful to humans. This prompts his observation that nature cannot truly be for the benefit of humans—a comment which he then broadens by suggesting that nature is not really for any one aspect of nature. “The venomous beasts, thorny plants, and deadly diseases” exist for their own sake, and nature does not care if they harm the rest of the world in their existence, because nature does not care about the rest of the world.

In Dillard’s writing this grappling with the purpose of nature becomes the focal point of her book in the chapter “Fecundity”, in which she openly declares “that nature is as careless as it is bountiful” (pg 162). Dillard runs parallel to Muir in some ways here, in that she starts out by describing those living things which she does not find harmful—the plants. Whether for their frequent use by humans as crops, and therefore the familiarity of a field full of them or because “primitive trees can fight city hall and win” (167), as she says when relaying how they strangle water pipes, plants do not bother her in their abundance. Animals, is where she begins to truly launch her attack against nature.

She begins by stating how “acres and acres of rats” (pg 167) is far less fear-inducing than describing as many tulips. She builds on this, by first describing the abundance of many species and their essential identicalness, as a way to showing how grossly unnecessary nature’s efforts at reproductive success are. She then moves on to focus on species that eat their own eggs and young—“anything can happen, and anything does” (pg 170), she says.

While this is, fundamentally true it is also important to bear in mind that Dillard is picking and choosing her examples carefully. She never discusses the abundance of such creatures as domestic cats, or eagles, or other species that humans have a tendency to be highly attached to. She chooses rats and insects and fish and beef steers. And she contrasts them, not with weeds or thorny or poisonous plants, but with tulips and sycamores and fields of wheat. Dillard purposefully overdramatizes to make her point, and she purposefully fails to address species in which this super-abundance does not happen. I say this not to take away from the argument she is trying to make, which is at least partly valid, but to ensure that it is clear that this is not the whole story, and that it is easy to take this section too seriously.

While Muir also makes allusion to species of help and harm to human, he does not pass such a clear judgement on the good or bad of them, as Dillard does. Nor does he make the division at plant or animal, but rather at those capable of harming humans or not. He refuses to pass judgement on them, and instead passes judgement on humans—he relays a parable of sorts, saying that “When an animal from a tropical clime is taken to high latitudes, it may perish of cold, and we say that such an animal was never intended for so severe a climate. But when man betakes himself to sickly parts of the tropics and perishes, he cannot see that he was never intended for such deadly climates.” (pg 88) This short tale comes at the end of his piece, and sums up his entire argument quite nicely. He makes the argument that humans are essentially unfit to judge what is good or bad or right in nature, and that nature alone knows it’s purpose.

It might be easy to think that I myself am passing judgement—that I feel as though Muir’s view is more correct than Dillard’s. That is not necessarily what I mean. I think that Dillard’s take is just as valid as Muir’s, and which author I more agree with is not the point here. The point is that both of these writer’s address a question which I feel is classic of environmental authors—the reason for the cruelty of nature. And while neither of these authors come up with a real answer, they both address the question in their own ways. Dillard presents a compelling case for why we should be bothered by the apparent disinterest in nature’s apparent cruelty, while Muir presents an equally compelling argument that nature is neither cruel nor good as a whole, and has a unique mission in relation to every species and every organism.

 

 

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A Work in Progress

For a genre as broadly stereotyped in the public view as environmental writing is, there is great diversity in the subject’s leading voices. Some writers’ scientific backgrounds are highly apparent. Some writers work reads less like “nature writing” and more like the work of a social critic. Some are poetic while others read like an entry in a technical journal. Still, there are some threads that can be tracked across multiple—perhaps most—writers. One of these unifying themes is that nature does not plan “creation of all for the happiness of one” (Muir, pg  87); in particular, not for the happiness of humans.

This assertion seems to form a central argument for Annie Dillard. Her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek poses the question of nature’s “purpose” and then largely fails to resolve it—at least in human terms. The essayist and conservation pioneer John Muir, in “Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” relays this same sentiment, though he grapples with the topic less as a question, and seems far more ready to accept the irresolvable nature of it. These approaches demonstrate a fundamental difference between the two authors. One is still contending with the fact that nature does not exist for the benefit of all in it, while the other seems ready, not only to accept this, but almost seems to revel in it.

This difference is very apparent right from the outset of the two works. In the very first chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard relays an encounter she had with a giant water bug, a large aquatic insect that predates many small vertebrates, by liquefying their innards and sucking them out. She describes being “bewildered and appalled” (pg 8) by what she witnesses, and uses her tumultuous emotions so pose the very question of the purpose of nature’s very cruelties. Quoting from the Quran, she asks “The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest” (pg 9). The way she sets up the passage, it might be easy for the reader to assume that this question relates solely to the giant water bug incident, but in reality, this passage, not even ten pages into the book, reveals her mission and her purpose, and the horror that prompts her to state this as her mission sets the tone for the rest of book.

Muir, too sets his take on this question to paper early in his writing. He writes that “the world, we are told, was made especially for man—a presumption not supported by all the facts” (pg 86). He states this following a tale as violent, or more so, than the one Dillard relayed—a story of an alligator grabbing and devouring a man’s dog after the man tried to kill the creature by wrestling it down with a knife. He then relates how alligators are frequently viewed as the works of the devil, along with all manner of other creatures and plants and elements that are harmful to humans. This prompts his observation that nature cannot truly be for the benefit of humans—a comment which he then broadens by suggesting that nature is not really for any one aspect of nature. “The venomous beasts, thorny plants, and deadly diseases” exist for their own sake, and nature does not care if they harm the rest of the world in their existence, becaue nature does not care about the rest of the world.

Place and Space and the Environment

There is both a fantastic contrast, and close similarities  between the sense of non-space painted by Purpura, in her article “There Are Things Awry Here”, and Dillard. It would seem that Purpura is pacing a strip shopping center, and visiting the physical location, and its temporal history. The highly altered non-space creating the contrast, and the project and stream-of-consciousness of the visitation providing the similarities.

I want to start by saying how interesting it is, that we noted in class how Purpura does not necessarily consider herself an environmental writer. To be fair, this piece is full of history and starts out sounding so critical, that I suppose it could be taken as a social or political commentary. But, I still think that, the first impression from the first read is that this a text with a strong environmental tenor. Even during her discussion of the people and the air force school they lived at, repeated references to the land it happened on, draw us back to a physical and spatial context–an environmental context.

I think that maybe it is this fact that provides the greatest similarity to Dillard. In Dillard’s writing, everything always comes back to the land. Roanoke is set against a backdrop of mountains and creeks and pastureland, and all discussions, even those beginning in the human world or at the atomic level, come back to the physical environment.

To bring this out to my prior entry, on the writings of Dillard when compared to those of Elizabeth Kolbert, I think this provides a second tenant, or at the least, characteristic , of nature and science writing for the masses. If you’ll recall, the first characteristic I mentioned was a tendency to pan in and out from a broad, universal “zoomed out” view, to a very detailed detailed view, in order to show the interconnectedness of the natural world. I would propose that in this comparison on Dillard and Purpura, we see that this second characteristic is a tendency to be rooted in a sense of space or, more ironically, a discussion of how a place becomes a non-place (as in Pupura).

Picking Apart Intricacies

The outside source that I have chosen to incorporate is The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, written by Elizabeth Kolbert. The basic premise of this book may, at first, seem to put it slightly at odds with Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but there are some remarkable connections that can be drawn between the two—indeed, I almost feel as if they are in the same class, the same subgenre, of environmental writing. While Dillard is heavily focused on the explosion of life around her, Kolbert is, by necessity of her topic, focused on the snuffing out of that life. Yet, they both end up addressing the same themes of intricacy, and the sublimity of nature (if they approach this concept differently), and they are both books that strike me as science written for people who may not be scientifically literate. This is not, in any way, a knock against either of these books, but simply an observation about what the target audience seems to be (and is stated to be, in the case of Sixth Extinction).

A recurring theme in Kolbert, and one that is established early, is that everything is connected. Some passages hearken to Dillard’s discussion of the goldfish tail before scaling out to the connection of all the atoms in the world. Only Kolbert starts big in many cases, and then scales in. In her discussion of coral reefs, she begins by talking about the ocean as a single chemical, physical body, before beginning to zoom in on the corals themselves, and then the individual, microscopic organisms that, in their mass-living arrangement, comprise the corals. This is a common theme in a variety of writings on the natural world, and really, it can be traced back to Leopold and, perhaps most notably, Muir, who once wrote that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”. Even Thoreau discussed versions of this tenant, though I think he never put it quite as eloquently as Muir did. This hitched togetherness is what Dillard identifies as intricacy, and discusses in the context of her goldfish and the leaves that she investigates down to their toothed edges and branching veins.

I think it is the focus on this that, in some ways, characterizes science writing for the masses of people who may not be familiar with scientific concepts. If it can be effectively imparted that everything is intricate on its own level, and that when you scale either in or out, there are still more layers of intricacy, then people begin to get a sense of the true size and scale of the natural world and it’s intertwining threads, without having to understand the exact connections. And once a person is hooked and ready to accept this premise, it’s a lot easier to begin to unravel these threads to show the incredible personality and human drama of the natural world (in Dillard’s case), or the extreme peril presented by picked apart this web of interconnectedness (in Kolbert’s case).

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction : an Unnatural History. New York :Henry Holt and Company, 2014. Print.

The Cruelty of Nature

Dillard creates a remarkable sense of contrast in the middle part of her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by using the chapter “Fecundity” to upend the reverent tenor that had dominated the book, up until this point. Throughout the book, Dillard has appeared as a sort-of translator. She takes scientific principles and weaves them into an engaging and richly poetic book that makes them accessible to all. And generally, she takes a tone of wonderment at the complexity of nature. She spends pages marveling at the complex veining in a goldfish’s’ fins and she depicts the life and death of a male praying mantis as though from a romance novel, thus giving a powerful surge of emotion to what might otherwise be dry topics.

But then she enters the chapter titled “Fecundity”, and I almost want to say that the wheels come of the train here, but I suppose that isn’t quite fair. In this chapter, the reverence for the complexities and intricacies of nature seem to be replaced with something akin to pure contempt. She writes how:

“I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that bird and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, ad that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives, Henle’s loops and all. Every glistening egg is a memento mori” (162).

I find the obvious change in tone to be jarring, as a reader, and interesting, analytically. Jarring, because it occurs with little preamble or warning; interesting, because the “miracle” of new growth seems to be one of the things least likely to cause someone marveling at the processes of life to lose faith in the process. I have a hard time imaging Thoreau or Leopold or Muir declaring the death of older generations and the birth of new ones to be anything but another perfect example of the sublimity of nature.

I understand, in a sense the turn that she makes, and the place from which Dillard comes when she makes these observations. But I find it interesting to see the human emotion on such raw display in this chapter. She has tended to walk a line where her own emotions are portrayed as awed—even over terrible and unfair events, like the great Virginia floods. She also takes her personification of nature further in this chapter than previously, describing it as careless, cruel, and uniquely unkind.

This chapter leaves me with many questions; I wonder why she went to such great lengths to change the feeling of reverence Dillard had built up to this point—after this chapter, she largely returns to her prior attitude, describing instances of connection with nature, and deep insight into the scientific workings of the world. So what was the point? I wonder how she wanted to reader to feel. I was left feeling almost as though she did the topic a disservice. I’m one who is usually in favor of a level of anthropomorphizing and characterizing animals and nature, but this seemed extreme and lacking context to me. I’m curious whether, as the book resolves, this topic will reappear and it will begin to make more sense to me.

Do the Mountains Still Call?

This week’s medley of readings, with the exception of Emerson, consisted of writers who became prominent in the years and decades following Thoreau’s death. Of these writers, I will focus on three—Emerson, Muir, and Leopold. Emerson and Muir have in common, along with Thoreau, that they are amateur naturalists, and their writings are celebrations of the awe-inspiring sublimity of nature. Leopold is a trained scientist, and his writings do, in some ways reflect this, often investigating specific aspects of the natural world and how they are connected.

The obvious questions are how Emerson, Thoreau’s contemporary, compares to him and how environmental writing seems to have developed since these two earlier writers. In some ways, the answers to these questions seem just as obvious. Emerson shares some notable similarities. His discussion of the stars and of the ownership (or lack thereof) of land are remarkably reflective of some passages out of Walden. Leopold is markedly different in content, being far more scientifically bent. In terms of subject, he is less philosophical than Thoreau or Emerson—he is tangible and rooted in the physical, measurable world. Muir falls somewhere between these two, in my estimation. He begins to move towards Leopold in statements such as his declaration in My First Summer in the Sierras, that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”. This is a clear allusion to the interconnectedness of nature, a key principle in the natural sciences, from ecology, to cell biology, to biochemistry.

So the differences are apparent and obvious. However, if you’ve been paying close attention to the brief discussion above you have probably already noticed that the differences highlighted are mostly derived from the content the authors write about. In other areas, their writings are actually quite similar. Thoreau by far, uses the most intricate and convoluted literary conventions. His sentences are long and winding and his writings are deeply steeped in metaphor and symbolism. But other stylistic and tonal aspects are held in common between all four writers—particularly Emerson, Muir and Leopold. Perhaps the most obvious of these traits is the tendency to use vivid, powerful imagery. Even Leopold is high descriptive in a way that is far more poetic than we would probably associate with scientific writing today. How many evolutionary biologists have you heard saying or writing “the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution”? Few, if any, I would imagine.

In many ways, I feel like the deep interconnectedness between celebrating and studying nature, and poetic, engaging writing is lost on many researchers today, who bemoan that the public is losing interest science and discovery. They expect the facts and innovations they uncover to speak to the general public in the same way that the scientists themselves view them. By now, we should be learning that it doesn’t work this way. I firmly believe that a large part of bringing science back to the forefront of the public’s mind is returning to a way of writing about the natural world that has been left behind. The mountains are calling, but unless a new Muir or Leopold tells us, there’s no way most of us will ever know.  

The Wildness of Simplicity

It is easy to think of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a celebration of complete wildness—after all, it was Thoreau who penned the now-famous saying “in wildness is the preservation of the world”. On first glance, or after only a cursory reading, Walden can seem filled with similar sentiments. It cannot be ignored that the book catalogues season upon season spent away from regular human company. Upon closer inspection, however Walden can be read a different way; a way that contains a far more complex message.

The scenes of nature and wildness throughout Walden are tempered by references to a more human and conventionally unnatural presence. In Jedediah Purdy’s 2013 blog piece for the Huffington Post, he reflects on this observation, saying: “The book’s key passages do not just acknowledge the damage and breaking of the landscape: they seem to begin from them, to depend essentially on them.” The ways that Thoreau does this are myriad. In almost every chapter that includes scenes of ecological observation or pastoralism, there is an accompanying reminder of human interference—or, to use Purdy’s word, profanation. Some of these references are more powerful, more visceral, than others. One of the most striking comes from the chapter “Spring”. Thoreau writes:

“At the approach of spring the red-squirrels got under my house, two at a time, directly under my feet as I sat reading or writing, and kept up the queerest chuckling and chirruping and vocal pirouetting and gurgling sounds that ever were heard; and when I stamped they only chirruped the louder, as if past all fear and respect in their mad pranks, defying humanity to stop them. No you don’t—chickaree— chickaree. They were wholly deaf to my arguments, or failed to perceive their force, and fell into a strain of invective that was irresistible.” (230-231)

The cursory read of this passage might seem quite wild—Thoreau is among the animals, after all. His house is among them and he depicts himself as wholly powerless to impose his will upon them. How many of us, born in cities and suburbs, or even in farm country, have even found ourselves in the presence of red squirrels, let alone witnessed their breeding season antics? In today’s world, this rust-colored, thick-furred relative of our familiar gray squirrel is often as much a hermit as Thoreau thought of himself. They stay away in the deep pine woods of New England and only venture south along the wild spine of the Appalachians, where humans are much fewer and further-between.

But then one reads more closely. Thoreau records the cheerful, if odd, music of squirrel courtship and then, if the narrative can be trusted, attempts to quiet the sound. He stamped to disturb them, to see if he could convince them to quiet themselves, or at least to continue their amorous activities elsewhere. Furthermore, the only reason that Thoreau is a witness to the scene is that he has placed himself among the squirrels. They are under his house, one has to assume, since there had been no house there for years. The newcomer is Thoreau, not the squirrels, and it is his presence that causes the tension and drama that is portrayed. When taken in context with the rest of Walden, Thoreau’s presence among the squirrels is, in this reading, the harbinger of the coming suburban sprawl. Thoreau is but an early intruder into the squirrel’s world, simply the member of human society that has struck out furthest from the village first, and will soon be followed by many more.

It is not surprising that this reading is not popular among some. As I write, I can hear generations of self-declared environmentalists and conservationists before me crying foul—how can the great the environmental and ecological saint that is Henry David Thoreau be forerunner to the tremendously destructive building practices of today? And I have a response to those who say this, or rather Thoreau does. In the same breath that he uses to describe his efforts to quiet the squirrels living below him, he says, almost wondrously, that the neighbors were beyond his ability to silence. He goes so far as to describe how they seemed to curse him with their “strain of invective” (pg 231), and pronounce their irreverent tone towards him as being irresistible to hear. The significance of this would be that even as humanity creeped into the woods at Walden Pond, nature was pushing back—thus the wilderness that Thoreau praises is not truly wild because of its purity. Instead, it is wild because it manages to retain a touch of wildness despite the impending violations at the hands of the human world. And in Thoreau’s world, a creature as small and seemingly inconsequential as the button-eyed red squirrel is the focal point of the natural world’s rebellion against the looming threat of human oppression. A Thoreauvian metaphor if ever there was one.

Perhaps only slightly less famous than Thoreau’s proclamation on the crucial nature of wilderness is Thoreau’s proclamation on simplicity. In Walden he declares, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail” (69). This declaration has probably been taken at face value, just as the statement on the necessity of pure wilderness has been. The reader who is unprepared for the commitment and deliberation needed to read can read that statement and assume that they have read all they need to know about Thoreau and simplicity. However, I would argue that there is as much room for conflict in this proclamation as there is in any other Thoreau wrote.

And yet, Thoreau betrays his truer purpose. He does not truly believe in simplicity as we would be expecting to understand it. He may not even truly believe that simplicity is simple. In “Conclusion”, he writes the following of the person who is willing to engage in an experiment as he did with his stay at Walden Pond:

“He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.” (241)

He presents simplicity as being the gold standard and a pure thing in one line, and in the very next explains how the act of complicating one’s life is what allows for simplification. The ideas he plays with here—the “expansion” of former knowledge, a newer more “liberal” set of ideals, a “higher order”—these are not the words to describe that which is classically thought of as simple. These words describe deep and complicated thought and reflect what the reader knows to have been long and tumultuous meditation during his time at Walden Pond. Furthermore, the ideas that solitude is not truly to be alone and that poverty is not truly impoverishment are not ideas that are easy for anyone to wrap their heads around. Yet Thoreau claims that these experiences are the signs of having reached a true simplicity in life.

And here lie the ironies of Thoreau; complexity is the key to living simply and understanding plainly. Similarly, wilderness is not truly about being pure and untouched by humans, but about how the wilds of the world push and pull against the encroachment of the human world. The fact that Thoreau presents these two facts in terms that are almost paradoxical is, I think, the saving grace of Walden. In our world, it is easy to be lost in the complexity of the world, and to view our place in that world as hopelessly muddled. It is easier still to decry the loss of wilderness as the greatest crime of our era, and in some way these things are both true. But then Thoreau steps in to remind us that, in order to preserve wildness, the must be something to preserve it against. Without complexities beyond measure to wade through, we can’t reach a simpler understanding of the world.