April 3, 2009


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]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at April 3, 2009 6:00 AM
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