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.

Kids and Trees

Photo by Carl E. Lewis from Flickr Creative Commons

When I was small, mimosas were my favorite kind of tree. For one thing, they were just the right size. I wasn’t athletic and I’ve never had a head for heights, but I could easily “climb” into the low fork of the mimosa in our backyard and stay in my little tree nest for the longest time.

I loved playing with the bright pink flowers and palmlike leaves, too. I’d weave the individual fronds around the central stem of the leaf to create little garlands. I’d wear the flowers in my hair or give them to my stuffed animals. The flowers were not only bright and beautiful, but satisfying to the touch. Slightly sticky, with a feathery kind of feel, sort of like cotton candy.

Mimosas have cool bean pods, too, especially when they’ve dried. By late summer, the ground beneath our tree would be covered with the pale brown pods, just begging for closer examination. They were easy to dissect, peeling readily into two halves. The tiny dark brown seeds thus revealed served in their turn as interesting play objects that could be counted and lined up in various ways. Or you could leave the pods whole and shake them, enjoying the satisfying rattle of the seeds inside. All in all, it was a wonderfully tactile plant, just perfect for a small child.

Seemingly small, a trivial thing, yet I think my play with mimosas was one of the experiences that gave me a deep and abiding appreciation for nature, both its beauty and the companionship it offers.

What was your favorite tree or plant when you were a kid? And why?

Celebrate Earth Day with poet-farmer Wendell Berry

If I were looking for a patron saint for this blog, Wendell Berry would be a good candidate. He’s a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, and essays and has lived as a small farmer in Kentucky for decades. His essays explore various topics, but all are informed by a Christian spirituality that embraces social justice and a deep-rooted love for the earth.

I am most familiar with his poetry, much of which celebrates the beauty and goodness of trees. Think Robert Frost meets Gerard Manley Hopkins. That is, the rural sensibility and topics of Frost combined with the spiritual emphasis and sacramental viewpoint of Hopkins. By “sacramental” I mean a point of view that celebrates the spiritual depth of earthly things, especially nature. (I’m not accusing Robert Frost of lacking spirituality! It’s just that his sensibility is a little more pragmatic than that of Hopkins, while Berry’s is somewhere between the two.)

Here is a sample verse:

“Planting trees early in spring
We make a place for birds to sing
There is no other guarantee
That singing will ever be.”

I know it by heart because it’s one of several “tree poems” set to music in Malcolm Dalglish‘s wonderful album “Hymnody of Earth,” one of my favorites to play around Christmas and the winter solstice. It’s also a good illustration of the way Berry’s work both celebrates and exemplifies the harmony that exists in nature: the interdependence of humans, plants, and animals. Harmony in more than one sense: harmony of music and sound (the birdsong), which is dependent on the harmony fostered by a carefully tended environment. There is a message, but it is inspirational rather than preachy. Ultimately, it is up to us, up to humankind, to provide the nurture that will guarantee the continued beauty of the earth.

If you can’t get outside to plant a tree this weekend, celebrate April 22’s Earth Day by picking up a book of Wendell Berry’s. In fact, read something of his regardless of how you spend the day. If you love the earth, you’ll find a kindred spirit in his words.

Death of a Little Grove

"Arashiyama near Kyoto"photo courtesy of katclay (Flickr Creative Commons)

I took a day off from work today and for a while was in a great mood.

I wrote nearly 2500 words in my WIP, a near-record for me, then took a walk to the post office and drugstore.

It is a beautiful day, a bit on the cool side, but after the record-breaking heat of March that’s fine with me. The cherry trees are all in bloom, the tulips are up, everything is leafing out. Ah, the joy of spring.

Going back from the drugstore, I took a different route home. On my way I passed a house that had seen some changes over the last few months, changes that didn’t bode well.

Last year at this time, the house, a charming little stone cottage, was surrounded by trees. It always made me think of a house in a fairy tale, snugly tucked in its own little miniature forest. The edge of the yard that borders the sidewalk and road was planted with a little row of fir trees, and a new one or two seemed to be added each year. Beyond them, the yard was chock full of other green, leafy companions. I always smiled when I passed it; it was like a little Christmas-tree farm, and I knew a kindred spirit lived there.

A few months ago, we noticed that the lamppost had fallen down. The next time we passed, it was still there, untended. My husband and I wondered about the person who lived there: had they died, been taken ill? I thought of my parents in their last years after my father’s sudden illness. Neither my sister nor I lived in the same town and our visits were too full of care-taking to have much energy left to think about yard work. Something similar had happened here.

All through the winter the lamp post remained like that.

Then today as I passed, I saw the house laid bare. Naked, denuded, alone.

Nearly all the trees surrounding it had been cut down, including two humongous trunks that looked like they had been venerable sycamores. Stacks of wood were piled in the dirt-bare yard. A few straggling little firs were left at the border of the yard, a pitiful remnant but they may be gone, too, the next time. If trees can feel, what must they have felt to have seen the butchering of their elder brethren?

I felt like crying. The wanton destruction cast a pall on the beautiful day.

And I felt rage. I wished for an army of Ents to come down and beat up those responsible.

For laying waste such beauty.

For such blatant disregard for another form of life that gives so much to humanity.

All I can do is bear witness to their destruction.

I wonder if the owner is dead. Or in the sterile confines of a nursing home. My heart goes out to that kindred spirit who loved trees as I do.

%d bloggers like this: