Planet Earth

A Matter of Respect

January 04, 2020

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A Matter of Respect

Nature, which we are taught to revere and which in Europe is relatively benign, can nevertheless sometimes be a bit of a nuisance. For example, when I returned to my house in the country after an absence of a few months, I found that the flies had taken up residence between one shutter and a window, and the ladybirds—thousands of them—behind another. There are few sensations more unpleasant than being swarmed by flies on opening a window, unless it be the cold, slimy, squishy sensation of slugs that have taken up their residence under logs for the wood-burning stoves, or of dead mice (one of them fairly recently deceased, to judge by its consistency) in the middle of the pile of tea towels. George Orwell once wrote of his time working in a secondhand bookshop that bluebottles choose the top of old books on which to breathe their last, but our mice choose tea towels and give off an odor that even joss sticks cannot disguise. Compared with this, gall wasps that construct their odorless cocoons of mud and bodily secretions in the folds of curtains are a minor inconvenience and are easily cleared.

Then the rains came. The river at the bottom of our garden burst its banks, but fortunately our house is at a sufficient elevation that even Greta Thunberg might have thought us safe for the time being from the rising waters. However, the drains along our winding and ascending drive were another thing. They had not been cleared and were full of leaves, pine cones and needles, twigs, etc., with the result that the water threatened to erode the drive. There was nothing for it but to take to the spade.

I don’t mind physical work—for about a quarter of an hour. Thereafter it bores me. I am very grateful that in my life I have had to do very little of it. Such physical exertion as I indulged in has been for the pleasure of it, and divorced utterly from any utilitarian end. I date this aversion to physical labor from my childhood, when my father, whose main interest other than business and love affairs was gardening, made me accompany him and perform tasks such as sweeping the leaves, removing stones, saving worms, etc. How I longed for a deluge, or for the sun to go down, so as to be relieved of this corvée—which, as I now realize, was hardly very onerous. But young minds have no standard of comparison, and believe their own sufferings to be the worst imaginable. It is only fair to mention that my father was an excellent gardener, who loved his plants, if not his neighbor, as himself, and had an almost mystical attachment to them. I think he may even have talked to them, as many good gardeners do.

“I am as susceptible to the beauties of Nature as the next man, in some cases more so.”

I am as susceptible to the beauties of Nature as the next man, in some cases more so. For example, unlike many, I find individual flies to be creatures of great beauty, the more beautiful the more closely you observe them. It is in the mass that they revolt me (I will draw no cheap and false analogy with humanity). But at the same time, while I stand amazed at the metamorphosis of the maggot into the fly, as almost at a miracle, I cannot but be repelled by the maggot. In other words, my response to Nature is aesthetic, more often positive than negative but not invariably so.

In my youth, I shared a house with some communists of the very old-fashioned variety. They believed in industrial production because it inevitably resulted in that finest flower of humanity, the factory worker, who would, ex officio, be a foot soldier of the Revolution. No Leonardo da Vinci or Mozart for them! They believed, rather, in the Soviet Union’s ever-rising production, or at any rate graphs of ever-rising production, of something called pig iron, which at some point would overtake that of the United States and Western Europe combined, to the enormous benefit, of course, of the indigenous people of the Siberian tundra. They couldn’t see a landscape without wanting to garnish it with a factory chimney belching smoke, the blacker the better, as a symbol of what they called Man’s triumph over Nature (early communist propaganda and iconography were full of chimneys belching black smoke). They thought of Nature as an enemy, as a malign obstacle to be wrestled with and overcome, or as an evil conscious force obstructing Mankind’s progress to a glorious and infinitely abundant future. The extinction of animal species was welcome to them, not only if they, the extinct species, were in some way noxious to Man or deleterious to his advance, such as flies and snakes, but as symbolizing his increasing mastery over the surface of the Earth. Knowledge is power, and power is what they cared about.

At the other end of the spectrum are the mystics who imbue Nature with benevolent intentions toward us. They are the type of people who are inclined to forget that wild animals are wild. There was a man not long ago who so loved grizzly bears that he went to live with them, thinking that they would one day grow to love him as he loved them. Alas, he was mistaken: They eventually killed and ate him. If one were harsh, one might see in this a disrespect for the bears, this failure to recognize that bears, or other creatures, are not to be rehabilitated, or improved, into men, or even semi-men.

At heart, both the excessive respect and disrespect for Nature are the products of sentimentality, a sentimentality that leads to a failure to make proper distinctions. Both the excessively respectful and the disrespectful suppose that Nature has intentions toward us, good or evil as the case may be. Excessive respect supposes that Nature is so benevolent that nothing in it can harm Man, provided only that he is worshipful toward it; disrespect supposes that Man knows best and can perfect not only himself but the universe.

In the meantime, I advise readers to buy a good book on flies, for example Dr. Erzinclioglu’s slender but beautifully illustrated book on blowflies. If you are not already aware of the beauty of our dipteran neighbors and cohabitants of the globe, you will quickly learn to appreciate it.

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