I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
-- William Wordsworth, Lines Written in Early Spring
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law–
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed–
Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam
I am on vacation here in Southern California, an escapee from the cold and stormy May weather at home. Staying in the South Bay has been a revelation. Since I'm close to coastal Orange County, I've spent several days exploring beach towns south of L.A.: Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Corona del Mar, Laguna Beach. While it might appear that I've had nothing more on my mind than a determination to eat my way through all the gelato shops within a hundred-mile radius, my brain hasn't been entirely idle.
The skies are blue, the waves are pounding and picturesque, and the sunshine is wonderfully clarifying, but there is still a mystery I can't wrap my mind around. What's brought this to a head is some close encounters with nature that I've had over the last few days, but I've been thinking about it for some time. The question is basically this: Is nature essentially sound and are human beings the problem, or is nature brutal and unfeeling and is human civilization an improvement over the vagaries of a dog-eat-dog universe?
I realize philosophers, theologians, and poets (among others) have pondered this question for centuries, and it's unlikely I can solve it in a few days spent idling by the ocean. Joseph Campbell said that the entire reason mythology came into being was that humans needed to make sense of a world in which "eat or be eaten" was the harsh and unalterable essence of things. That perfect cheeseburger I had last night at In-N-Out Burger was an illustration of that rule in action; the cattle I saw running from the noise of the train as I made my way westward last week elicited a stab of sympathy from me, but it didn't stop me from enjoying the cheeseburger.
Sometimes when I hear people talk about unwinding in the beauty of nature, I wonder if they are looking at the same thing I am. I know what it is to be awed; this afternoon, I was on a boat surrounded by a large pod of dolphins -- I'm talking hundreds of dolphins, swimming with their characteristic grace out toward open sea and slicing through the water underneath the boat in what looked like play. The prototypical dolphin for me has always been Flipper, a good-natured and kindly creature who was loyal and helpful to his human friends when he wasn't teasing them with his antics.
Recently, Flipper's image took a serious hit for me when I read about how dolphins sometimes attack porpoises by ramming them until they die of internal injuries. There are also instances of attacks on their own young as well as attacks on humans. I thought about this while watching the dolphins leap around the boat. Of course, we haven't treated dolphins that well either. How many of them have died unnecessarily in nets when fishermen who weren't even interested in dolphins as prey caught them indiscriminately along with the rest of their haul?
Do you want to know what I was thinking while out on that boat, watching the dolphins frolic and enjoying the feeling of the waves rolling under my feet? I was thinking how glad I was of the human ingenuity that created the boat I was on. The waters off Southern California are picture postcard beautiful when you're looking at them from the deck of a boat, but I couldn't help but think of all the predator and prey scenarios playing out underneath that beguiling surface.
Not that things are that much better on land. Take the grizzly bear I saw in Yellowstone on my first visit to the park several years ago. Spotting that bear was the highlight of my trip and the beginning of a special interest I've taken in grizzlies since then. But what was the bear doing when I saw it? Well, actually, it was feeding on a baby elk. Of course, human sprawl has hemmed the bears in so much that they, fearsome claws and all, are the beleaguered ones. I remember being horrified to hear the way some people in Idaho talked about the bears as if they were vermin. But how would I feel if I were a settler in pioneer days -- when bears were plentiful -- whose child had been killed by a bear? I feel sure I wouldn't be tacking pictures of grizzlies up on my refrigerator with magnets.
Yesterday I took a long walk near sunset in an ecological reserve renowned for its birds. At first, most of the birds were too far away for me to see them well. Ironically, the best part of the walk came near the end, when I was following a trail right next to Highway 1. A startling flash of snowy white on my left turned out to be an egret, standing in the shallows at the edge of the marsh. He tolerated my presence for half a minute or so before flying off. When I came upon him again several minutes later, picking his way through the reeds at water's edge, it was like a gift to be given a second look at such a beautiful bird.
The sight was breathtaking. At the same time, I have to admit to a few seconds of uneasiness when I noticed a group of shore birds flying toward me. Uneasiness as in, "Am I about to experience a re-enactment of The Birds?" I recently read that ravens and crows can recognize faces and apparently don't forget grudges -- not that I've given the birds of Orange County any reason to be mad at me in particular. Yet there I was, walking next to a highway that hemmed in the reserve that is there to protect the birds, in the presence of oil or gas wells jugging away in the background, pulling the fuel out of the earth that powers the machines of the humans who were whizzing by a few yards away.
My own rental car was in the reserve's parking lot, where any sharp-eyed bird could easily pick it out. If the birds did decide to take their frustrations out on someone, I would have been an easy target, and instead of enjoying a pensive walk might have ended up fending off beaks and claws.
Despite all of these dark thoughts, I admit to enjoying the beauty of pelicans in flight, the colors of butterfly wings, the streamlined grace of dolphins, the power and grandeur of the grizzly bear, and many other things I've been fortunate to see. One thing I can say about all of the aforementioned is that they have never lied to me, or stolen from me, or broken my heart to suit themselves. Maybe that's one reason, despite nature's harshness, that it continues to be so compelling. It is something wholly other than human and open for our contemplation when we get a little tired of the human scene.