May 6, 2006


The Return of Nature (Eric Hoffer, 2/01/1966, Saturday Review)

All through adult life I had a feeling of revulsion when told how nature aids and guides us, how like a stern mother she nudges and pushes man to fulfill her wise designs. As a migratory worker from the age of eighteen I knew nature as ill-disposed and inhospitable. If I stretched on the ground to rest, nature pushed its hard knuckles into my sides, and sent bugs, burs, and foxtails to make me get up and be gone. As a placer miner I had to run the gantlet of buckbrush, manzanita, and poison oak when I left the road to find my way to a creek. Direct contact with nature almost always meant scratches, bites, torn clothes, and grime that ate its way into every pore of my body. To make life bearable I had to interpose a protective layer between myself and nature. On the paved road, even when miles from anywhere, I felt at home. I had a sense of kinship with the winding, endless road that cares not where it goes and what its load.

Almost all the books I read spoke worshipfully of nature. Nature was pure, innocent, serene, health-giving, bountiful, the fountainhead of elevated thoughts and noble feelings. It seemed that every writer was a 'nature boy.' I assumed that these people had no share in the world’s work, and did not know nature at close quarters. It also seemed to me that they had a grievance. For coupled with their admiration of nature was a distaste for man and man’s work. Man was a violator, a defiler and a deformer.

The truth about nature I found in the newspapers, in the almost daily reports of floods, tornados, blizzards, hurricanes, typhoons, hailstorms, sandstorms, earthquakes, avalanches, eruptions, inundations, pests, plagues, and famines. Sometimes when reading about nature's terrible visitations and her massacre of the innocents it seemed to me that we are surrounded by devouring, pitiless forces, that the earth was full of anger, the sky dark with wrath, and that man had built the city as a refuge from a hostile, nonhuman cosmos. I realized that the contest between man and nature has been the central drama of the universe.

Man became what he is not with the aid, but in spite of, nature. Humanization meant breaking away from nature, getting out from underneath the iron necessities which dominate nature. By the same token, dehumanization means the reclamation of man by nature. It means the return of nature. It is significant that humanization had its start in the fact that man was an unfinished, defective animal. Nature dealt niggardly with him from the beginning. It brought him forth naked and helpless, without inborn skills, and without specialized organs to serve him as weapons and tools. Unlike other animals, man was not a born technician with a built-in tool kit. Small wonder that for millennia man worshipped animals, nature's more favored children. Yet this misbegotten creature has made himself lord of the globe. He has evolved fabulous substitutes for the instincts and the specialized organs that he lacked, and rather than adjust himself to the world he has changed the world to fit him. This, surely, is the supreme miracle. If history is to have meaning it must be the history of humanization, of man's tortuous ascent through the ages, of his ceaseless effort to break away from the rest of creation and become an order apart. [...]

A fateful feature of the war with nature is its circularity. Victory and defeat run into each other. Just when man seems to be within reach of his ultimate goal he is likely to find himself caught in a trap. Everywhere there are booby traps and pitfalls, and nature strikes back from unexpected quarters. [...]

[L]enin's revolution...Carlyle's glorification of brute force, Gobineau's race theories, Marx's economic determinism and his theory of class struggle, Darwin's and Pavlov's zoological sociology, the dark forces of Wagner's music, Nietyzche's cult of the superman, and Freud's emphasis on the less human components of man's soul were all part of a blind striving to reintegrate man with nature. The deliberate dehumanization practiced by Stalin and Hitler was an intensification and acceleration of something that had been going on for decades. There is hardly an enormity committed in the twentieth century that was not foreshadowed and even advocated by some noble 'man of words' in the nineteenth. Even such clear-cut opposites as the fascination with science and the romantic back-to-nature movements were actually pulling in the same direction--helping to equate man with nature, and cooperating in the dehumanization of man. They who leaped ahead and they who plunged backward arrived simultaneously at the gates of the twentieth-century annihilation camps.

One of the strangest features of man's war with nature is its undeclaredness. The men who are in the forefront of the battle are as a rule unaware that they are fighting a war. They are usually animated by a hunger for profit or for spectacular action. I have not come across a clarion call to mankind to abandon war between brothers and mobilize all its energies in a titanic struggle with the nonhuman universe. You can count on the fingers of one hand unequivocal expressions of the eternal enmity between man and nature. I can think only of Hardy's 'Man begins where nature ends; nature and man can never be friends.' Thoureau, who sided with nature, recognized that "you cannot have a deep sympathy with both man and nature,' and admitted, 'I love nature because she is not man but a retreat from him.' Toward the end of his life Thomas Huxley realized that man's ascent was something different from his descent. In his Romanes lecture, in 1893, he warned: 'Let us understand once for all that the ethical progress of societies depends not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combatting it.'

There is an echo of man's first blows against nature in some myths. The Babylonian God Marduk slayed the dragon Tiamath and created arable land of her carcass. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man to compensate him for the meagerness of his physical endowments. Yet, on the whole, the impression conveyed by mythologies is of a close relationship between man and nature in which nature always has the upper hand and must be supplicated and propitiated. There is a Darwinian motif in the totemic assumption of a kinship between man and other forms of life. The whole structure of magic is founded on an identity between human nature and nature. Both the scientist and the savage postulate the oneness of man and nature. the difference between them is that the savage tries to influence nature by means which have proved their efficacy in influencing human nature, while the scientist wants to deal with human nature the way he deals with matter and other forms of life. The scientist reads the equation human nature = nature from left to right, while the savage reads it from right to left. Yet is is worth noting that Darwin, too, read the equation from right to left when he read cutthroat capitalist competition into the economy of nature.

In this as in other fields the uniqueness of the ancient Hebrews is startlingly striking. They were the first to enunciate a clear-cut separation between man and nature. Though monotheism was born of tribal pride--the desire to be the one and only people of a one and only God--it brought with it a downgrading of nature. The one and only God created both nature and man yet made man in His own image and appointed him His viceroy on earth. Jehovah's injunction to man (Genesis, Chapter 1) is unequivocal: Be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth.

As probably at least half of you, I went to K-Mart to get yard stuff today. Don't know what it's like by you, but around here there are stacks and stacks of grass seed and Turf Builder and Miracle-Gro soil inside and then, for those who mean business, wooden plats of the stuff outside. You pay inside, pull up in your truck and show them the receipt and they load you up. The K-Mart--or Walmart or whatever--is on a strip with a mess of fast food joints and other department stores and whatnot. It's a veritable Mecca of consumption. But as you look around at all those sacks and the rows of lawnmowers and the racks of rakes and coils of hose and the rest, the thought does occur that perhaps at least this one form of excess helps explain American exceptionalism. If there's much in the culture that would mystify and even appall the Founders, certainly they'd be thrilled by the notion and the sight of the vast American middle class setting out to work its property.

Consider first what a profoundly conservatizing effect it must have on people to own their own homes. Simply by virtue of being bound to a place and a bit of land aren't you likely to be more vested in the rest of the community and what's going on there--if for no other reason than to protect the value of your investment? Does anyone who mows their own lawn ever support radical change in their society?

At any rate, such idle musing were further prompted by a first bout with our new lawn. Suffice it to say, the lawn won as a rock the size of the Great Gazoo's head bent the blade of a brand new mower. Trying to plant a few lilac bushes a little later brought a dispiriting struggle with more sizable stones. If you ever want to know where New Hampshire got its Granite State nickname just pick up a shovel and start digging.

Here's another thing about New Hampshire though--our ancestors farmed this same soil. There's no more haunting experience than to wander out in the thick-grown woods around here and stumble upon a stone wall. It's easy to forget that a hundred years ago the state was pretty much clear cut. The forestation we take for granted has reclaimed old farms and homesteads. And those stone walls, well, some poor bastard once hacked away not dissimilar woods, plowed up all those stones and made walls around his property with them. Next time some nitwit is whining about how much harder we all work today than we used to go stand by a New Hampshire stone wall and ask yourself how much someone would have to pay you to restore your surroundings to farmability. City dwellers may have forgotten that Nature is something to be subdued and that it's just waiting to break loose and reclaim its own, but no one around here can forget.

Perhaps then it's no surprise that it is in the more rural Red States that we find folk who remain fiercely committed to Humanity and in more urban Blue States--and, of course, in totally urbanized Europe--that we find so many who succumb to the dehumanizing ideologies that Mr. Hoffer outlines above, which equate Man with Nature and by doing so reduce the former to an imagined malleability at the hands of intellectuals, as if men were to be hacked at, harvested, and consumed like so much undifferentiated biomass. Mayhap the recognition of Man's moral superiority to Nature requires proximity to it.

Nor should we be surprised that it is in places like New Hampshire that folk still heed the unique wisdom of the ancient Hebrews. Indeed, we consider ourselves their heirs:

We cannot but acknowledge that God hath graciously patronized our cause and taken us under his special care, as he did his ancient covenant people.

Here Jehovah's injunction still holds. Men are elevated, Nature is combatted, and lawn-mowers are nervous.

[originally posted: 05/02/04]

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 6, 2006 9:00 AM

It is ironic that now, in the 21st century, in the places where Man's conquest of Nature has been the most complete, here in the US, that Nature is faring better than it has for the preceeding 10 millenia. There are more trees in the eastern US now than there were when the Pilgrims arrived. Around 1870 or so the wild turkey was eliminated from the state of Minnesota. Nowadays I dodge them as I drive to work.

I once equated lawn maintenance to Japanese sand gardening (you know, where they rake sand into oceanlike waves and furrows). It is an esthetic of uniformity and minimalism. It is amazing the extent to which Americans exert their dominance over their lawns. I'm sure that the average American garage houses more horsepower in its lawn machines than the average automobile had in 1920.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at May 2, 2004 1:12 PM

Yesterday, the nicest day of the year so far, was the First Mow, the end of that period of idleness (the only such period known to yard owning man) that begins with the the last snowfall.

I started by shoveling the gravel that the snowplow had pushed onto the grass, then walked the yard picking up branches, pine cones and scattered toys. As happens every year, the mower blade hit the half buried rock in the back that it always hits on the first mow. Today it is raining, starting the grass on its spring growth spurt, ensuring many more weekend mornings on the mower.

In the evening, though, my wife and I sat out in the yard talking and reading, while I smoked a cigar. I had barbequed salmon for dinner, the flowering bushes and trees are flowering, the weather was perfect, the lawn (darn it) always looks best right after it is cut and the newly cut grass smell lingered.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 2, 2004 1:18 PM

The importance of property reminds me of the Arab saying: ''Rent a man a garden, and he will leave you a desert. Sell a man a desert, and he will create a garden.'' Lack of property rights in the Arab world and elsewhere is one of the things that holds backs their societies. If the local king or dictator can take your property on a whim, why bother to improve it? This also helps explain why houses in such areas often look ''inside-out'' to Americans, with their windowless outside walls but with a central open space.

Robert's comment on nature making a comeback is another example of a common pattern, a Hegelian thesis/antithesis/synthesis of development. It often goes from the initial state (everybody makes their own stuff) to a flawed improvement (early industrialization with pollution and boring standardization) to a better implementation (cleaner industrialization with many choices and customization options).

Here's another: a hundred years ago, there were many thousands of breweries in the US. Over time they consolidated, and by the '70s, there were only a handful left, most making boring beer. But then came the explosion of microbreweries.

Posted by: PapayaSF at May 2, 2004 1:49 PM

Beautiful essay, Orrin. You're making my antsy to buy a house.

Papaya, do you have any source on that saying? I'd love to use it some time.

Posted by: Timothy at May 2, 2004 2:54 PM

I came across it in an article in either Reason or the American Spectator years ago. I just tried Google and came across variations ("An old proverb says that give a man a garden with a one-year lease and he will make a desert. Give a man a desert with a 30-year lease and he will make a garden."), but no ultimate source. Sorry!

Posted by: PapayaSF at May 2, 2004 6:22 PM


How about walking in a thick NH wood overgrown for
perhaps 70 years and finding stone house foundations and old saw mills. If it could be worked before it could be worked again were it necessary.

Posted by: at May 3, 2004 9:27 AM


Yes, to walk through the woods here is to realize what nonsense the environmental and overpopulation hysterias are.

Posted by: oj at May 3, 2004 9:34 AM


anonymous was me.
Not sure how it got left off.

Actually, our ecological health would be served
by opening up some of those forest to clearcuts
when the wood reaches maturity.

The lack of true biodiversity on so-called conservation land will be a huge dissapointment
to the current environmental establishment.

Posted by: J.H. at May 3, 2004 10:21 AM


There have to be significant fire risks to our communities here from letting the trees all grow back in and not tending the resulting forests at all.

Posted by: oj at May 3, 2004 10:26 AM

OJ, less so than in the west, which is much drier and where forest fires are a natural occurrence. Fire supression strategies in the west have made the risk of catastrophic fires there much more likely.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at May 3, 2004 11:30 AM

>There is hardly an enormity committed in the
>twentieth century that was not foreshadowed and
>even advocated by some noble 'man of words' in
>the nineteenth.

And in the Eighteenth, not only "forshadowed and advocated", but acted upon.

Remember something called the French Revolution? Which set the pattern for the next 200 years?

Posted by: Ken at May 3, 2004 1:43 PM

When the soil's stony, there's no substitute for a digging bar...

Posted by: M. Murcek at May 6, 2006 9:10 AM

I planned to do yard work this weekend. Woke up this morning to a cold rain. Grass isn't growing yet. Can't do a thing for at least another week. Have to stay inside all weekend to read and blog.

We call it Canadian exceptionalism.

Posted by: Peter B at May 6, 2006 10:00 AM

How ironic.

Just back in the house from putting away the mower and the trimmer, I went to the computer to check mail and posts before hitting the gunsmith's and then the range. With what am I confronted but an essay and discussion of man's exercise of dominion over herb and beast.

It is very well taken, this celebration of human exceptionalism. A thoughtful person reflects upon the Gift of the Jews with every spray of the herbicide, trip to the market and sacrimental act of hunting and fishing.

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 6, 2006 11:36 AM

I missed this one the first time around. Good post.

I took on a third-party struggle against nature recently. A few weeks ago, before the vines started putting out again, I saved a maple tree from kudzu. Vines had gotten all the up into and on top of a 40-foot canopy. It's not my tree at all; I rent an apartment, and the tree happens to stand right next to the parking lot back of the building. But last summer it bugged me everytime I parked my car, seeing that tree smothered by kudzu.

So this spring I cut all the vines & dragged out as many as I could (with help -- one of my neighbor's dogs saw what I was doing & came over and started tugging on vines on his own part!!).

A satisfying, but completely pyhrric, effort. The vines are going again -- not into the tree, but in two or three years, they'll be back on top, and I'll be long gone from the apartment. So unless some other sap moves in willing to take the tree's side, it'll be slow death for maple.

(Of course, if I had a farm to lay out, that maple would be lumber and firewood, and I'd be burning out the stump).

Posted by: Twn at May 6, 2006 12:43 PM

Mowed the lawn yesterday, and even with a riding lawn mower, it takes me an hour and a half. This morning I cleaned the horse manure from the barn and dumped it on the compost pile. I just finished working up the old compost pile, and then the new one (with the added manure) with my tiller. I worked up a sweat. My thoughts are about beer.

Posted by: AllenS at May 6, 2006 1:32 PM

Environmentalism is based on a false premise, that not only that Nature doesn't change, but when it does it's bad and caused by humanity. The people who are farthest from Nature in their lives are the ones most likely to do more than just donate to the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society and such. It's a form of hubris. Experience a little Nature up close for a while, and you realize it'll take care of itself.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 6, 2006 3:53 PM

Hit a rock with my brand new mower today. Luckily, no broken blade. I thought so at the time. Embarrassing, nevertheless. LOL when I read of your mishap. I guess I'm not the only one who mows rocks.I'm with Allen. It's Miller Time.

Posted by: jdkelly at May 6, 2006 4:08 PM