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.