I was in a discussion the other day about Melville’s leviathan. The question at hand had to do with what Ahab thought of the whale, and I became pretty thoughtful on this myself.
What I concluded was less relevant to this log than what occurred to me as part of that conclusion. To wit: Ahab feels he can enter into a contest with Nature, as represented by the whale.
This belief, of course, is not rational at all. Yet look at our world – some of us do believe we have enjoined the battle, and that we will somehow “win” against Nature. It reminds me of “anti-environmentalists.” The term itself is absurd. How can someone be “against” protecting their own environment from destruction? Yet so many on the right profess this very notion in their philosophies. They see the environment as a foil, something standing in the way of their goals. It is an outside force that, more often than not, mucks up our plans.
Much of what has gone on in the world of nation states in the last couple of hundred years or so has contributed to this notion of the universe consisting of “us” and Nature–us and “everything else.” You don’t see that division in native societies. You don’t have all of this effort to remove people physically from their environment, to externalize the earth, trees, grass, rocks as “outside.” Certainly no one in such a society has ever contemplated the relative merits of “saving” the environment versus “gaining” personally from poisoning or destroying it. They could not have conceived it: nature was not that place outside their home–nature was their home.
This removal is evidenced to me in how the two main categories of fact reported about a natural “disaster” are deaths and injuries and the “damage” in dollars. It’s reasonable that that is what we see as the “news” of the event. But the implication one can perceive is that nature “did” a tsunami to us, rather than Nature “is” a tsunami even though we “are” as well (though we “are” in a less significant way hierarchically).
That’s the thought that struck me – Nature “is” a tsunami. I hadn’t really thought in these terms before. I of course realized that Nature is capable of producing a tsunami, an earthquake, a cyclone, an ice age. But I had not before escaped the cause/effect chain that humans are so fond of in analyzing events. Discovering the “cause” of a natural disaster provides some satisfaction. “Oh,” we think, “it’s OK because now we know why it happened.” But what we call the cause–the plates shifting, the asteroid falling, the disease spreading, or whatever–is no cause at all. It “is” Nature. The asteroid falling is Nature, the plate shifting is Nature. I don’t think there’s any point in trying to distinguish what Nature “does” from what it “is.”
To anthropomorphize nature is to denigrate it, to demystify it unjustly, to bring it down to the level of one of its mean components–us. The key elements are hubris and the perceived dichotomy of Man/Nature. It takes an irrational amount of exaggerated self-importance to place oneself outside the confines of Nature; or to relegate Nature to a mere equivalence, something “other” and possibly opposed to our interests or even hostile to our existence. It takes a kind of mass insanity to perceive Nature as anything at all separate from us.
We “are” Nature, but Nature is much more than us. Yet ironically, its purpose is less complex than the “causes” and effects we describe in it, the “actions” which we erroneously assign to it. It simply is. It is all. All days and nights, all centuries, all people and their ambitions, all matter and all motion.