The Possible Hypocrisy of Our Professed Love for Nature
I launched us off by talking about the constant tension I feel between my desire, on the one hand, to have the living world matter, really matter, for me — as a sensual experience and as a source of emotional and moral guidance — and then, on the other hand, my guilty sense that I will never stop exploiting its resources.
Don and Yann sat near me on the sofa, which is covered with the skins of multiple cows. A fire burned behind me, which happened to be fed by gas… but I confessed that I have no doubt that if it demanded logs I would happily throw another onto it when the flames grew small.
Sometimes my rapture about nature, and our insistence on our deep embeddedness in it, strikes me as… obviously hypocritical.
“Aren’t we like SS officers,” I asked, “sitting around our bunker in the death camp, talking sentimentally about how much we love the sacred singing of those inmates in House #13?” We love nature in a sentimental way, while all the time we ruthlessly exploit it.
Yann spoke up to say that this ignored the many gray areas. Yes, we exploit nature, and we always will. But as our awareness grows of our interconnectedness we can do just a little bit better to treat the living world with respect and care. The abuse of the orcas in Sea World is coming to an end in the U.S. because public awareness was raised. Many of us purchase cage-free chicken eggs, even at an increased price. We do not clear-cut forests in as many places now, but rather, like the author of The Hidden Life of Trees does in Germany, we devote ourselves to considering how best to maintain eco-systems (well, until Trump reverses all that).
“So I get it, you’re saying we are not so much SS officers,” I answered. “We’re more like… the low-level Polish guards standing in the snow. They do what they can to sneak a crust of bread into the hands of an emaciated inmate, making it just a little bit better, while still earning their pay.”
The hypocrisy still troubles me (all unfortunate Holocaust analogies aside). Which is it? Do we want to open ourselves to nature as equals, or do we want to persevere in our primate-based habit of dominance?
After all, I pointed out, we like dominance; we can’t deny it. We like scoring a winning goal in soccer. We like it sexually, sometimes (to varying degrees). We like the thrill of power when we accomplish something significant in a public arena. Would we really ever be willing to abdicate that aspect of ourselves in order to maintain a more harmonious and equitable relationship with the living world?
Death and Vegetables
Don talked of how he struggles with this question of power on a very personal level. Already a vegetarian for some 30 years, he even wonders about the ethics of eating vegetables! This started when he became aware that the needs and vitality of plants are not as different from our own as we like to think.
In response, I shared with him an excerpt from a book by Dorian Sagan, Death & Sex, (brought to my attention by Setenay) in which Sagan describes how our very mortality is bound up in our shared evolutionary history with plants. Sagan eloquently points to how we are all bound up in a cycle of birth and death, so even as Don eats a plant he can recognize that he too will be “eaten,” disposed of, turned back into humus someday. It goes back to the process of sexual reproduction, which require that the “older generation” becomes unnecessary once sperm meets egg (or archegonium, as the case may be) to create new life.
Sagan points to the earliest fossil record of sex:
“The oldest ejaculation in the fossil record occurs in the Devonian, 408 to 363 million years ago. The paleological preservation of the salacious scene is reminiscent of the erotic frescoes of erotic paintings preserved at the village of Mount Pompeii by the volcano Vesuvius. Long before humanity, the earliest preserved ejaculation took place among a member of the Rhyniophyta, a phylum that contains the first land plants, which began to diversify some four hundred million years ago. The act was caught in flagrante delicto by chert, fine crystalline quartz with an uncanny ability to preserve fossils. Algaophyton major is one of the most common plants in the volcanically preserved Rhynie Chert, named for the nearby village of Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Early in the colonization of land by plants, and before the evolution of true leaves, the fast-setting minerals preserved a host of petrified plant, fungal, lichen, and animal specimens. (Animals evolved earlier but came to land after plants.)
“Since sex usually occurs in water, it doesn’t tend to preserve well. But in one four-hundred-million-year-old silica-rich deposit local changes in pH remobilized some of the silica, leaving behind thin films of the original organic material. In the specimen the chert beautifully preserved the plant’s delicate archegonium (from goni, Hindi for ‘sack,’ akin to yoni, Sanskrit for ‘vagina’) — the female sex organ. Another sample of rock, sliced thin and observed with a microscope, shows Aglaphyton’s antheridium, its male sex organ — filled with sperm cells ready to explode. Here, preserved by chance, with neither compromised actors nor moral qualm, is a geographic equivalent of the ‘money shot’ of pornographic films — an ejaculation event 140,000 times older than Homer’s Odyssey, 400 times older than the human species, and almost as old as the appearance of animals in the fossil record.”
“The sexual reproductive cycles that got swinging not even a billion years ago, brought with them a frightening complementary motion, the switching from side to side of the Grim Reaper’s scythe. With meiosis came mortality because going back to sperm and eggs eventually meant discarding those trillions of somatic cells that, although having brilliantly served their purpose, were not directly represented in evolution. And with reproductive sex came programmed cell and differentiated body death, because evolutionarily our bodies are husks, biodegradable reserves of valuable bioelements that belong to the ecosystem and must be returned, like overdue books, after performing their natural duty of keeping going the larger energetic process. Personally, as intelligent animals, we identify as individual bodies. Although easier said than done, the mystics advocate a larger view in which we identify with the cycles of natural energy-transforming forms, as well as release from such cycles, which they call nirvana. Creeping behind the bright prospect of Mesozoic ginkgo-sniffing reptiles, primeval ejaculators, and the first fragrant flowers was that dark figure, the inevitability of their demise. A melancholy note was struck in the cosmic love machine [underlining added].”
Setenay read aloud Sagan’s conclusion that our involvement in this cycle of sex and death has a consoling spiritual aspect:
A Tibetan mystic saying goes: We are here to realize the illusion of our separateness. The spiritual sentiment has a biological cognate. Our xenotropic drive — to merge with what is not us, temporarily in sex, or permanently in symbiosis or cross-species hybrids — is more than a metaphor. But it also offers spiritual solace. When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent. In the fullness of time, we may all be linked. In the meantime, eros brings us together, making us more than we are alone. Cupid’s arrow, quivering into the heart of loneliness, kills us even as it sets us free.
Or as David Abrams puts it, in his Becoming Animal:
“As an omnivore, an eater of the flesh of plants and sundry animals, willing to taste almost anything… I find myself entwined in a great gift of economy, wherein each life partakes of other lives and gives of itself in return… If we ingest the land’s nourishment not only through our eyes and ears but also through our hungry mouths — chomping leaves, seeds, and muscles with our teeth, moistening them with our saliva, and swallowing them down into our depths, incorporating the world’s flesh into our own — it can only be so because we too are edible. Because we, too, are food.”
Does that make you feel any better, Don? The knowledge, as you chomp down on a piece of broccoli, that you will die too?
What It Takes Truly to Appreciate Nature
In talking about his own relationship with the living world, Ken mentioned Martin Buber’s writing on the value of moving from an “I-It” relationship with nature to an “I-Thou” relationship.
He had previously sent to me by email this excerpt from Buber, which I will include in full now:
I contemplate a tree.
I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air–and the growing itself in its darkness.
I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.
I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law–those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.
I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.
Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.
This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.
Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars–all this in its entirety.
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it–only differently.
One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.
Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.
This writing, in turn, made me think of something Emerson wrote in his essay, “Nature.”
Emerson insists that to unite with nature one must first be spiritually attuned to it. In other words, the inner work must precede the outer.
“The ruin or the blank that we see when we look at nature is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opaque. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself. He cannot be a naturalist until he satisfies the demands of the spirit.”
Florence talked about a night she spent with friends long ago, when she was a teenager. They curled up in sleeping bags under the stars, and as she gazed up she felt deeply connected to the living planet around her.
What are these moments? Are they simply surges in the chemicals sloshing around in our brains, feeding an illusion? Or do they represent some important truth about our connection to the natural world?
Florence said she sometimes think it is less of an emotional connection that we are talking about, and more of an understanding. The more we know about the root systems of trees, or the mating dance of moths, the more we marvel at their complexity and beauty. Knowledge is the goal, not some sort of ecstatic communion.
Do We Have a Moral Duty to the Living World?
Following on what Florence had said, I offered a thought experiment.
What if, say 1000 years from now, scientists have determined that trees, indeed, do have a complex social life. What if we knew that once we have grasped their own longer time-frame and the pattern of chemical correspondences, we can detect relationships, families, and what can only be compared to a collective consciousness in a forest.
So imagine that human beings have come to think of trees as co-inhabitants on this planet earth, in effect, a fully advanced alien civilization in our midst. What then?
Trees are not rapacious and threatening, the way we primates are. We can still easily dominate them (indeed, an interest in “domination” does not seem to factor in their existence at all.) In such a case, don’t we continue to burn wood and peel bark, and treat trees in roughly the same way we do now?
In other words, my question was: would increased awareness necessarily lead to an increased moral duty?
Florence, drawing from a book she read in French in anticipation of this meeting, spoke of the “diplomacy” required between different life forms. We may be different from trees, but we can advance our interests in a peaceful way through diplomacy — instead of advancing our interests in a way analogous to war (with bulldozers and chain-saws).
Yann pointed out, however, that in this case our species of homo sapiens is almost effortlessly dominant. And no dominant nation worries too much about diplomacy. Perhaps we need to think of increasing our empathy instead. Instead of foresters and naturalists as “diplomats,” perhaps we need to emphasize the role of artists, landscape painters, poets, as “translators,” in opening us up to caring about trees, even as we dominate them.
Yann spoke in this context of our friend Alva Noe’s review of The Hidden Life of Trees, and how Alva suggested that the anthropomorphizing tendency of the author, though misleading, may be the very trick that allows the reader to care. The poetry, broadly speaking, may be as important as the science, when it comes to caring about trees.
Technology as a Reproduction of Nature
But why should people care about trees?
I read from Emerson again:
“The useful arts are reproductions or new combinations by the wit of man, of the same natural benefactors. He no longer waits for favoring gales, but by means of steam, he realizes the fable of Aeolus’s bag, and carries the two and thirty winds in the boiler of his boat.”
We have recreated nature in our cities and our factories, and in our homes. What are cell phones but cunning reproductions of what air can do for voices — taken further than air ever could. Or what is asphalt, but smooth rocks to walk or drive on more effectively. We create reproductions of nature to serve our interests.
And with the digital world and 3D these achievements are only accelerating. Why should we put such emphasis on the original wind-and-bark technologies of the living world? Why not turn instead to our species’ improvements on them?
The group pretty much agreed that some people, urban dwellers, may feel “two with nature” — and turn their backs on the living world. And perhaps they can find similar solace and inspiration in entirely manufactured landscapes, who knows?
For most of us, though, the ineffable quality of a walk under a canopy of real leaves cannot be reproduced, at least not yet.
Back to the Quest for Meaning
I circled back to the question that lingered after the last meeting: do any of these discussions on any of these topics in the Old New Way get us closer to finding a useful, meaningful way in the world?
When I think of Walt Whitman’s ecstatic connection to nature in the opening of Leaves of Grass I feel for a fleeting moment that I might find in it a key to understanding my purpose and role in the world better. I read in The Hidden Life of Trees on the intertwined root systems and olfactory capacities of trees, and I feel a tremor of insight — for a moment. But will it ever last? Can I maintain a heightened emotional awareness of my interconnectedness? What would that mean specifically in terms of my moral commitments? My priorities? My values?
Somehow this quest always seems to fall short. We learn a lot in these discussions, we enjoy stimulating conversation and deepen our friendships, but we always seem to fall short of the ultimate breakthrough I crave.
Yann mentioned that he finds this quest of mine a persistent “disconnect” between me and him, as two otherwise close friends. He just cannot understand this part of me that longs for some breakthrough.
“Listen to what I have to say,” Yann said. “And tell me if you disagree with anything.” He went on to speak of his own outlook, which is closely tied to the new science of life-cycle assessment.
In a nutshell, Yann believes that we can quantify and put value on everything in the world, from a beech tree to a cage-free duck to a happy year. The pricing on these discrete items may be modified and improved over time. For example, our carbon footprint, once a minor issue with a small cost, is now, due to more accurate scientific forecasting, a more considerable factor in our assessment (as our knowledge of climate change increases). Progress, to Yann, is the incremental improvements made to this system. This matrix of our needs and desires, ever improved by science and information flow, is enough for him! Beyond that, Yann insists, he doesn’t need to look for some kind of “breakthrough.” In fact, such efforts by so-called mystics and guides, make him nervous.
Setenay countered. She acknowledged that science has a lot to offer, and that we can value and quantify certain aspects of experience in a way that aids decision-making. But here she pushed back on the universality of Yann’s approach. To Setenay, this kind of metric inevitably leaves much out. There are incommensurate, or even unmeasurable aspects to life that any metric like this cannot include.
“What about the experience that you have when you hear a piano concerto by Mozart?” I asked Yann. Where does that fit in your life-cycle assessment?
“It would be valued too,” answered Yann. We all wondered how it could be measured… Person by person? Measure by measure?
This led the group to talk about feeling vs. thinking, and whether this was at the core of the “disconnect” that Yann feels in his friendship with me. Perhaps I am approaching the question of meaning more as a person who feels; whereas he is approaching it as a person who thinks? Maybe the different languages we use arise from our different angles of approach?
Walden spoke of his sense that any experience of ecstasy or rapture, for that matter any strong feeling, has to be the result of work and dedication over time. It doesn’t happen just like that.
So my quest for a breakthrough, Walden insisted, would really better be conceived of as a quest for a cause to which to devote myself for a long time. He observed, smiling, that while I call myself non-religious, still in all the years he has known me he has not known anyone else so consumed with thoughts of a religious nature…
I laughed and remarked, “Yeah, watch me become a Jesuit someday.”
The tactile quality of nature still beckoned us, despite all our talking about the living world. It lay just outside the window. I was tempted to ask that we all step outside in the night air and go wrap our arms around a tree, tuck our noses into its ridges, lick it’s broken places. But it was getting late.
Still, I will say that even if we fell short of a break-through communion with nature, the community of friends, “disconnected” as we are in various ways, offered a warm resting place. It was a small gathering, but I felt a sense of calm settle over me as I looked around the room at the easy and relaxed expressions on everybody’s faces. Thanks for another good discussion, friends.
The next topic will be one where we need such friendship to be brave. We are going to look at Depression. I’ll send out reading ideas very soon.
If anybody has more nature reading, please continue to send it in and I’ll add it to the “Reading for the Fourteenth Meeting,” post hoc.