Is nature nice?

I'm thinking about it because of some very nasty nature scenes in the really very interesting movie King Kong (2005). And also because we encountered some surprisingly unnice nature in Hawaii last month--if only briefly, on the "wet" side of the big island. Contending with a heel full of sea urchin quills, the constant noxious smell of African tulip trees in the rain, and the grating sound of coqui frogs, I was ready to retire into a book...and (what's the matter with me?) I was reading a novel about a leper colony. Nature was not seeming so nice.

I was amazed to read recently that nature hasn't always been found glorious and appealing. Roderick Nash, in Wilderness and the American Mind, says that untamed nature has often been thought of as dark and fearsome. "Wild" doesn't have to connote anything positive. The idea of nature as the ultimate cathedral is a cultural invention. As a nature lover (98% of the time), that claim surprises me, but surely it must be true. Maybe it's because we live in a world with vastly too much "city" that so many of us long for "country."


Alex Chernavsky said...

"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.  During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease.  It must be so.  If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.  In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.  The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."
— Richard Dawkins (River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life)

Faust said...

"The idea of nature as the ultimate cathedral is a cultural invention."

In terms of our values: what isn't?

Dawkin's quote is apropos...in a world of "no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference" why not join the fun of the war of all against all. And lots of people do. And if all against all isn't to your fancy, may I recommend tribe against tribe?

I do have to say though...even the phrase "pitiless indifference" is pretty loaded anthropomorphism. Is it possible for a collection of interacting objects to be "indifferent?" Can an unimaginably vast collection of "atoms" swirling in "void" be "pitiless?" I suppose "they" can, though they are also for that matter "joyless," "angerless," and "without lust."

There are some exceptions though: in some very very very small portion of the space-time continuum, a very small collection a matter manages to fall in love, and gives thanks to forces unknown.

Jean Kazez said...

"Pitiless indifference" goes slightly beyond the cold, hard facts, but I love his writing. He knows how to tell a story!

Faust said...

Are facts "cold?"

Are facts "hard?"

I propose the death of all metaphor! A day without poetry! A day without the optional! Divest yourself of the inessential! Let only the "necessary" remain!

Tom said...

It's kinda hard to look at Katrina and the tsunami of 2006 (?) (not to mention lots of other incidents many of which are tornadoes that happen in these parts) and think that nature is generally benevolent. Still, when I'm in the majesty of the Grand Tetons, I tend to believe I'm in the presence of divinity (or at least its product.)