Nature, Beautiful yet Red-in-Tooth-and-Claw: Musings on Larson’s There’s a Hair in my Dirt

My last post, comparing two delightful tales of earthworms (Gary Larson’s There’s a Hair in my Dirt and Diary of an Earthworm by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss), gave rise to some more serious thoughts.

hair in my dirtAs much as I love Larson’s mordantly funny satire (and the wonderful introduction by E.O. Wilson), I have to admit that like Larson’s fair maiden, Harriet, I have a strong streak of sentimentality where the natural world is concerned.

I was struck especially hard by Larson’s take on birdsong as “mostly an array of insults, warnings, and come-ons” and his/Father Worm’s dismissal of Harriet’s appreciation of the artistry in Nature when she comes upon a field of wildflowers: ” ‘Oh, Mother Nature! What a sex maniac you are!’ may have been a better choice of words, for Harriet was actually gazing upon a reproductive battlefield.”

I know that Nature is red in tooth and claw—eat or be eaten; robin vs. earthworm; magnificent hawk vs. cute little bunny—but do Beauty and Utilitarianism in Nature really have to be mutually exclusive? After all, sex and beauty are strongly linked, whether we are talking about humans, flowers, or animals. The fact that flowers are beautiful (a proposition that surely few would disagree with) does not mean they cannot also serve their own purposes—or those of humankind.

In like manner, Larson/Father Worm derides Harriet’s description of dragonflies as “winged ballerinas,” pointing out that “winged assassins” is closer to the truth. (One assassin I have to applaud, since they eat mosquitoes!) Nevertheless, dragonflies are graceful. Likewise, birdsong serves a variety of bird purposes, but much of it is beautiful to human ears.

Whether these animals derive happiness or enjoyment from their activities is something that we humans ultimately cannot know. But humans who have spent much time around domesticated animals, at least, have a pretty good sense that many animals are capable of enjoyment just as much as humans. Dogs, for example, seem to derive much pleasure from  exercising their bodies—running, playing fetch, and the like. When they greet us after an absence, it seems to be as much an expression of pleasure in our company as expectation of being walked or fed. And there seems to be strong evidence that some higher mammals, such as dolphins, engage in pure play. So who is to say that birds don’t experience some kind of satisfaction from expressing themselves in song or taking flight through the air?

I struggle with the spiritual dimension of this, and am reminded that when Job complained to God, God finally answered him by listing the wonders of creation, including beasts such as Leviathan and Behemoth that humans of Biblical times doubtless found threatening. For me, the moral of that is: “Job, it’s not all about you. The universe is bigger than that.” (Sort of like the ending of Casablanca.)

Behemoth and Leviathan by William Blake (from Wikimedia Commons)

Behemoth and Leviathan by William Blake (from Wikimedia Commons)

True, understanding Nature is important. But love for Nature must come first, else there’s no incentive for understanding. Love for Nature, fostered by experience, but also art and story, including stories that anthropomorphize. For all his caution against painting Nature in our own image, Larson’s book is successful precisely because it also includes its share of humorous anthropomorphism (Mother Worm’s beehive hairdo and glasses; Father Worm’s pipe).

I would further argue that the Harriets of this world want to be educated, and that in this era of global warming humanity’s best hope lies in such Harriets, their love for Nature fostered alike by the science of E.O. Wilson, the humor of Gary Larson, and the “kindler, gentler” image of Nature presented by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss in Diary of an Earthworm.

Two Tales of Earthworms

I love children’s picture books, and I also love earthworms (the latter discussed in a previous post), so it’s not surprising that two of my favorite picture books feature this lowly but supremely important tiller of soil. hair in my dirt Gary Larson’s There’s a Hair in My Dirt presents a decided contrast with Diary of a Worm (story by Doreen Cronin; charming pictures by Harry Bliss). Of course part of the difference is that Larson’s book is really meant more for adults. One of my favorite bloggers, Isaac Yuen of Ekostories, wrote about Larson’s book here, providing a useful summary and thoughtful commentary.

Both books engage with plenty of humor. Some of my favorite lines from Larson include: “Mother Worm . . . . tried to make their home as cheery as possible, even going so far as always putting silverware on the table—despite the fact that none of them had arms.” And “[Harriet] was as excited as a tapeworm in a meat patty!” From Diary of a Worm there are humorous references to Junior Worm (as I call the unnamed first-person narrator) eating his homework and telling his sister that “no matter how much time she spends looking in the mirror [a puddle on the ground in the drawing], her face will always look just like her rear end.”

Along with the hysterically funny one-liners are some much needed reminders of important truths. From Larson: “As any worm with half a ganglion knows, the plants did a little more than just make the air crisp and clean—they made the air air! Every molecule of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere was put there by a plant.” My husband especially enjoyed Larson’s reminder that the grey squirrel, though “cute,” is an aggressive invader that has driven out native Red Squirrels (and attempts to invade people’s attics, as well—the source of my better half’s quarrel with them).

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin; illustrated by Harry Bliss. One of my favorite books!

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin; illustrated by Harry Bliss.
One of my favorite books!

Diary begins by informing the reader that “Mom says there are three things I should always remember: 1. The earth gives us everything we need. 2. When we dig tunnels, we help take care of the earth. 3. Never bother Daddy when he’s eating the newspaper.” Junior Worm ends his little tale by concluding: “It’s not always easy being a worm. We’re very small, and sometimes people forget that we’re even here. But, like Mom always says, the earth never forgets we’re here.”

Both books also address the question of humans and their relationship to the natural world. For Larson, this is the heart of his book, addressed in an unabashedly moral tale told by Father Worm featuring a “beautiful young maiden” named Harriet whose sentimental and well-meaning but uninformed interventions in Nature ultimately result in her rather gruesome death when she “rescues” a mouse from a snake—a mouse infected with a deadly disease. Yeah, not really a children’s book. (Although little boys may well like it because of that—as Larson reminds us, some things about biology can’t be changed.) Like the little worm, the reader is tempted to ask, “What kind of story is that?”

But Larson’s gruesome little satire is designed to illustrate a very specific moral: “Loving Nature is not the same as understanding it. . . . Connections . . . are the key to understanding the natural world.” And earthworms, it turns out, are crucial in this natural web: “We till, aerate, and enrich the earth’s soil, making it suitable for plants. No worms, no plants; and no plants, no so-called higher animals running around with their oh-so-precious backbones! . . . Heck, we’re invertebrates . . . . Spineless superheroes, that’s what we are!”

Diary‘s examples are more specific, giving the reader a visceral sense through the drawings of how a worm might respond to activities that many humans engage in without giving them a thought: “Fishing season started today. We all dug deeper.” Followed by a worm’s-eye view on the next page of child playing hopscotch, “a very dangerous game,” that nicely illustrates E.O. Wilson‘s parting words in his introduction to Larson’s book: “Just watch where you step; be careful of little lives.”

Both contain appealing illustrations, Larson’s with his trademark critters that manage to look anatomically correct even while wearing harlequin eyeglasses and a beehive hairdo (for Mother Worm), while the humans are typically Larson: goofy-looking, overweight, and rather grotesque. Harry Bliss’s drawings in Diary of a Worm strike a nice balance: whimsical without straying into cutsey—the be-spectacled worm father and baseball-capped son no more anthropomorphic than Larson’s worm family, the background details such as bottle-cap seats for the little worms in class a charming way of showing the small dimensions of the worm family in a way that relates to children’s experience.

Where Diary differs most strikingly from Dirt is its portrayal of inter-species friendship between Junior Worm and Spider. Obviously in the real world, the two seldom meet and Spider would be more interested in Worm as potential food if they did. Nonetheless, the interactions between Worm and Spider nicely illustrate how each differs from the other, giving the reader a good sense of how special and unique each kind of creature is. To quote from Wilson’s introduction to the Larson book: “We all need one another, each in our special niche.”

Each of these books does indeed occupy its own special niche, and each is well worth perusing multiple times for its richness in both text and pictures. Their minds and hearts engaged by books that teach love of Nature, future generations will be better primed to follow Wilson’s parting dictum: “Just watch where you step; be careful of little lives.”

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