By Dave Mance III
It’s often implied, especially this time of year,
that nature is a cruel, cold place. With the leaves
gone we can see tree boles fighting for light
– their branches smashing against each other
to clear space. Summer greens have become
frost-scarred and snow-crushed, the natural
world feigning death before regenerating
after winter’s violence. The hills still echo with gunshots.
These images feed the “red in tooth and claw” idea of
nature that many of us grew up with – the woods as a horror
show where self-interested plants and animals are locked in a
desperate fight for survival. And yet it’s just as easy to look at
nature and see the spirit of cooperation that imbues everything.
Above ground the trees might be fighting for light, but below
ground they’re partnering with mycorrhizal fungi, through
which they’re potentially sharing nutrients, and receiving them,
from the other plants in the neighborhood (including the ones
they’re supposedly fighting with). Studies in recent years have
shown that birds, mammals, even fish recognize the alarm
calls of other species and use this information to stay safe
– something to think about the next time that chickadees are
chickadee-dee-deeing by your deer stand. The oak tree uses the
squirrel and the squirrel uses the oak tree and the tree farmer
uses the tree and the squirrel and the acorn; everything touches
this way, or is separated by just degrees.
We can let either of these perspectives inform our
interactions with nature. We can cut, and then spray, and then
plant the trees we want in our forest in an attempt to impose our
will on the woods, or we can let nature dictate the composition
and work with that – acting less like a god and more like a partner.
Next summer’s vegetable garden can be a cold, calculated war
on bugs, on weeds, on herbivores, a harvest gained through
attrition. Or it can be an exercise in cooperation, where we
build up the soil to make it more resilient, encourage beneficial
insects to deal with unwanted pests, plant extra as a means of
making peace with token loss. One approach seeks to dominate,
the other to nudge things in our self-interest.
It’s been fashionable at least since Li Po was writing poetry for
naturalists to wrinkle their noses at the domineering approach
and celebrate the holistic one, but rather than separate people
into camps, I think it’s more productive to acknowledge that this
tension exists in each of us. These competing visions are a part of
both human nature and nature nature. Most of us live in homes
built to keep the natural world at bay, travel on paved roads that
defy the landscape, advance our self-interests through control;
No way to say what’s in the heart. Never.
at the same time, most of us also value cooperation, selflessness,
and the outdoors as a place where we can lose ourselves and be
humbled by forces outside of our control.
Do we use the glyphosate? Do we kill the porcupine? Do
we subdivide and build the house in the forest? Each of our
lines falls in a different place, but we’re all struggling with some
version of the same question.
Title from “The Exile’s Letter,” by Li Po (699-762 AD)