Dec 8, 2013
The Conquest of Nature (and What We’ve Lost)
Posted on Mar 13, 2013
By Lewis Lapham, TomDispatch
For whatever reason, its motives presumably mixed, the monkey for the next 10 days, attentively on post at the height of my right knee, accompanied me on the path to pure consciousness, a path on which I was careful to scatter crumbs of stale chocolate and shards of dry cheese. If I was listening to the Maharishi discuss Vishnu in the meeting hall, the monkey would be comfortably settled on the corrugated-tin roof; when meals were served on the terrace, where the disciples received their daily ration of rice, tea, and tasteless boiled vegetables, the monkey perched in the vine-trellised arbor behind the refectory table, on watch for the chance that I might send in its direction an overcooked carrot or a destabilized turnip.
When for the last time I walked out in the morning from the stone outbuilding at the bamboo gate, on the way to the ferry across the Ganges, the monkey wasn’t standing in its nearby tree. Possibly it understood that my time was up, that it had done all that could be done with a pilgrim who was slow to catch the drift and didn’t know the language. On the other hand, probably it didn’t. What was certain was that it didn’t care. It had moved on, gone somewhere else, grown bored by the sound of a voice clearly not the voice of the cosmos.
A Dearth of Animals, a Plague of Pets
The Renaissance scholar and essayist Michel de Montaigne toyed with a similar line of thought in 1576 by asking himself, “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime for her more than she is to me?” The question placed Montaigne’s customary pillow of doubt under the biblical teaching that man had been made in God’s image, and thereby granted “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and for every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
“How does he [man] know, by the force of his intelligence, the secret internal stirrings of animals? By what comparison between them and us does he infer the stupidity that he attributes to them?... It is a matter of guesswork whose fault it is that we do not understand one another; for we do not understand them any more than they do us. By this same reasoning they may consider us beasts, as we consider them.”
The American writer Henry Beston revisited the questions while walking on a beach at Cape Cod in the 1920s, watching constellations of shorebirds form and reform in “instant and synchronous obedience” to some sort of mysterious command. Astonished by the spiraling flight of what he likened to “living stars,” Beston understood that nonhuman creatures eluded the definitions made for them by man, that they could not be classified as mechanisms programmed by the master software designer in the sky to hop, growl, swim, glide, roar, nest, crawl, peep, mate.
“We need,” said Beston, “another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err… They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves within the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
At the turn of the twenty-first century, what remains of the once-upon-a-time fellowship incorporating man and beast has for the most part been reduced to the care and keeping of pets. Possibly to compensate for the rapid and permanent disappearance of global wilderness species, the numbers of pets in the United States have outpaced the entire human population south of the Potomac and west of the Mississippi—70 million dogs, 75 million cats, 5 million horses, God alone knows how many boxed reptiles and caged birds. That animals are still looked to for some form of instruction, believed to possess “analogous qualities” recognized by Aristotle as being “akin to sagacity,” is a proposition sustained by the large demand for documentaries exploring the jungles of Africa and by the fact that the Internet postings of unscripted cat videos draw bigger crowds than do the expensive mechanical dolls posed in the ritualized stagings of the Super Bowl.
For 2,500 years it has been known to the students of nature that the more one learns about animals, the more wonderful they become. The observation stands confirmed by the instruments of both science and art, but the animals are most instructively perceived when they are seen, as they were by Beston from the beach on Cape Cod, as other nations complete in themselves, “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”
The environmental casualty reports filed from the four corners of the earth over the last two hundred years don’t leave much ground for argument on Montaigne’s question as to who is the beast and who is the man. Whether attempted by men armed with test tubes or bulldozers, the conquest of nature is a fool’s errand. However it so happens that the beasts manage to live not only at ease within the great chain of being but also in concert with the tides and the season and the presence of death, it is the great lesson they teach to humanity. Either we learn it, or we go the way of the great auk.
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, and a TomDispatch regular.
Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author
of numerous books, including Money and Class in America,
Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L.
Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to
Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne.
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Copyright 2013 Lewis Lapham
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Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Lewis Lapham
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