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The Conquest of Nature

Posted: Updated:

And What We’ve Lost

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

[This essay will appear in "Animals," the Spring 2013 issue
of 
Lapham's
Quarterly
. This slightly adapted version is posted at
TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.
]

London housewife Barbara Carter won a “grant a
wish” charity contest, and said she wanted to kiss and cuddle a
lion. Wednesday night she was in a hospital in shock and with throat
wounds. Mrs. Carter, forty-six, was taken to the lions’
compound of the Safari Park at Bewdley Wednesday. As she bent forward
to stroke the lioness, Suki, it pounced and dragged her to the
ground. Wardens later said, “We seem to have made a bad error
of judgment.”

-- British news bulletin, 1976

Having once made a similar error of judgment with an Australian
koala, I know it to be the one the textbooks define as the failure to
grasp the distinction between an animal as an agent of nature and an
animal as a symbol of culture. The koala was supposed to be
affectionate, comforting, and cute. Of this I was certain because it
was the creature of my own invention that for two weeks in the spring
of 1959 I’d been presenting to readers of the San Francisco
Examiner
prior to its release by the Australian government into
the custody of the Fleishacker Zoo.

The Examiner was a Hearst newspaper, the features editor
not a man to ignore a chance for sure-fire sentiment, my task that of
the reporter assigned to provide the advance billing. Knowing little
or nothing about animals other than what I’d read in
children’s books or seen in Walt Disney cartoons, I cribbed
from the Encyclopedia Britannica (Phascolarctos
cinereus
, ash-colored fur, nocturnal, fond of eucalyptus leaves),
but for the most part I relied on A.A. Milne’s
Winnie-the-Pooh, the tales of Brer Rabbit, and archival
images of President Teddy Roosevelt, the namesake for whom the teddy
bear had been created and stuffed, in 1903 by a toy manufacturer in
Brooklyn.

Stouthearted, benevolent, and wise, the koala incoming from the
Antipodes was the little friend of all the world, and on the day of
its arrival at the airport, I was carrying roses wrapped in a cone of
newsprint. The features editor had learned his trade in Hollywood in
the 1940s, and he had in mind a camera shot of my enfolding a teddy
bear in a warm and welcoming embrace. “Lost child found in the
wilderness,” he had said. “Lassie comes home.” The
koala didn’t follow script. Annoyed by the flashbulbs, clawing
furiously at my head and shoulders, it bloodied my shirt and tie,
shredded the roses, urinated on my suit and shoes.

The unpleasantness didn’t make the paper. The photograph was
taken before the trouble began, and so the next morning in print,
there we were, the koala and I, man and beast glad to see one another,
the San Francisco Examiner’s very own Christopher Robin
framed in the glow of an A-list fairy tale with Brer Rabbit, Teddy
Roosevelt, and Winnie-the-Pooh, all for one and one for all as once
had been our common lot in Eden.

The Pantomime of Brutes

Rumors and reports of human relations with animals are the world’s oldest news stories, headlined in the stars of the zodiac, posted on the walls of prehistoric caves, inscribed in the languages of Egyptian myth, Greek philosophy, Hindu religion, Christian art, our own DNA. Belonging within the circle of humankind’s intimate acquaintance until somewhere toward the end of the nineteenth century, animals appeared as both agents of nature and symbols of culture. Constant albeit speechless companions, they supplied energies fit to be harnessed or roasted, but they also were believed to possess qualities inherent in human beings, subject to the close observation of the ways in which man and beast both resembled and differed from one another.

Unable to deliver lectures, the lion and the elephant taught by
example; so did the turtle, the wolf, and the ant. Aesop’s
Fables, composed in the sixth century BC, accorded with the
further researches of Aristotle, who, about 200 years later, in his
History of Animals, set up the epistemological framework that
for the next two millennia incorporated the presence of animals in the
center ring of what became known as Western civilization:

“Just as we pointed out resemblances in the physical organs, so in a number of animals we observe gentleness or fierceness, mildness or cross temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence, high spirits or low cunning... Other qualities in man are represented by analogous and not identical qualities; for instance, just as in man we find knowledge, wisdom, and sagacity, so in certain animals there exists some other natural potentiality akin to these.”

Other peoples in other parts of the world developed different sets
of relations with animals worshipped as gods, but in the European
theaters of operation, they served as teachers of both natural and
political science. The more that was learned about their
“analogous and not identical qualities,” the more fabulous
they became. Virgil’s keeping of bees on his country estate in
30 BC led him in book four of the Georgics to admire their
work ethic -- “At dawn they pour forth from the gates -- no
loitering”; to applaud their sense of a public and common good
-- “they share the housing of their city,/passing their lives
under exalted laws”; to approve of their chastity -- “They
forebear to indulge/in copulation or to enervate/their bodies in
Venus’ ways.”

The studies of Pliny the Elder in the first century demonstrated to
his satisfaction that so exceptional were the wonders of the animal
kingdom that man by comparison “is the only animal that knows
nothing and can learn nothing without being taught. He can neither
speak, nor walk, nor eat, nor do anything without the prompting of
nature, but only weep.”

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To the
scientific way of looking at animals adapted by the Greco-Roman poets
and philosophers, medieval Christianity added the dimension of science
fiction -- any and all agents of nature not to be trusted until or
unless they had been baptized in the font of a symbol or herded into
the cage of an allegory. In the illuminated pages of tenth-century
bibles and the rose windows of Gothic cathedrals, the bee became a
sign of hope, the crow and the goat both references to Satan, the fly
indicative of lust, the lamb and the dove variant embodiments of
Christ. Instead of remarking upon the extraordinary talents of certain
animals, the holy fathers produced mythical beings, among them the
dragon (huge, batwinged, fire breathing, barbed tail) and the unicorn
(white body, blue eyes, the single horn on its forehead colored red at
the tip).

The resurrection of classical antiquity in fifteenth-century Italy
restored the emphasis on the observable correlation between man and
beast. The anatomical drawings in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks
(of horses, swans, human cadavers) are works of art of a match with
The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. He saw human
beings as organisms among other organisms participant in the great
chain of being, the various life forms merging into one another in
their various compounds of air, earth, fire, and water. Giuseppe
Arcimboldo’s 1566 portrait of a man’s head anticipates the
conclusion reached in 1605 by the English bishop Joseph Hall:
“Mankind, therefore, hath within itself his goats, chameleons,
salamanders, camels, wolves, dogs, swine, moles, and whatever sorts of
beasts: there are but a few men amongst men.”

The eighteenth-century naturalists shared with Virgil the looking
to the animal kingdom for signs of good government. The Count of
Buffon, keeper of the royal botanical garden for King Louis XV,
recognized in 1767 the beaver as a master architect capable of
building important dams, but he was even more impressed by the
engineering of the beaver’s civil society, by “some
particular method of understanding one another, and of acting in
concert… However numerous the republic of beavers may be, peace
and good order are uniformly maintained in it.”

Buffon was accustomed, as were Virgil and Leonardo, not only to the
company of horses and bees but also to the sight and sound of ducks,
cows, chickens, pigs, turtles, goats, rabbits, hawks. They supplied
the bacon, the soup, and the eggs, but they also invited the question
asked by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1836: “Who can guess… how
much industry and providence and affection we have caught from the
pantomime of brutes?”

How the Animal World Lost Its License to Teach

Not much if the brutes are nowhere to be found. Over the course of
the last two centuries, animals have become all but invisible in the
American scheme of things, drummed out of the society of their
myth-making companions, gone from the rural as well as the urban
landscape. John James Audubon in 1813 on the shore of the Ohio River
marveled at the slaughter of many thousands of wild pigeons by men
amassed in the hundreds, armed with guns, torches, and iron poles. In
1880, on a Sioux reservation in the Dakota Territory, Luther Standing
Bear could not eat of “the vile-smelling cattle”
substituted for “our own wild buffalo” that the white
people had been killing “as fast as possible.”

And as observers, they were not alone.  Many others have noted
the departure of animals from our human world and
culture.  Between 150,000 and 200,000 horses
could, for example, be found in the streets of New York City in 1900,
requiring the daily collection of five million pounds of manure. By
1912, their function as a means of transport had been outsourced to
the automobile.

As with the carriage and dray horses, so also with the majority of
mankind’s farmyard associates and nonhuman acquaintances. Out of
sight and out of mind, the chicken, the pig, and the cow lost their
licenses to teach. The modern industrial society emerging into the
twentieth century transformed them into products and commodities,
swept up in the tide of economic and scientific progress otherwise
known as the conquest of nature.

Animals acquired the identities issued to them by man, became
labels marketed by a frozen-food or meat-packing company, retaining
only those portions of their value that fit the formula of research
tool or cultural symbol -- circus or zoo exhibit, corporate logo or
Hollywood cartoon, active ingredient in farm-fresh salmon or
genetically modified beef.

It was 10 years after my meeting with the Australian koala that I
was first introduced to an animal in a state of nature -- a gray
langur (Semnopithecus entellus, golden fur, black face, fond
of fruit and flowers). It was about two feet tall, very quick on its
feet, one of 60 or 70 monkeys of various species wandering around the
ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the shore of the Ganges River,
128 miles north of New Delhi.

The Maharishi at the time (February 1968) was at the high-water
mark of his fame as a guru, his science of Transcendental Meditation
having captured the celebrity markets in Los Angeles, New York, and
London, and that winter he was teaching the lesson of the yellow
marigold to a select company of disciples, among them the four
Beatles, who had made the journey from the decadent, materialist West
in search of enlightened well-being in the spiritual East. The ashram
was set in a forest of teak and sheesham trees at the base of the
Himalayan escarpment, and again on assignment from the American press,
I’d been advised by the editor of the Saturday Evening
Post
to listen for the voice of the cosmos under the roof of the
world.

During my nearly three weeks on the ashram I learned nothing about
the Beatles that wasn’t known to their fans, from the Maharishi
little more than the fact that at the fifth level of realization,
“Everything becomes hilarious.” But from the monkey I
learned that it was somebody else -- not a pet or a little friend to
all the world, not an allegory, a movie actor, or a laboratory
experiment. Two days after my arrival I noticed it standing in a tree
opposite the door to the small outbuilding (one room, whitewashed
stone, no window) in which I’d been granted accommodation near
the ashram’s lower gate. Another two days, and it was always
there whenever I was coming or going, and it occurred to me that it
was I who was being observed by the monkey, not the monkey who was
being observed by me.

On the morning of the fifth day, I presented it with a slice of
bread, late in the afternoon with half an orange. It accepted both
offerings as a matter of course; no sign of acknowledgment, much less
of appreciation or affection. My sense of its attitude was that
I’d been slow to pick up on the custom of the country, and later
that same evening one of the Maharishi’s principal subordinates,
a saffron-robed monk by the name of Raghvendra, validated my
impression as not wrong. In India, he said, the gray langur was
sacred. Properly known as the Hanuman langur -- Hanuman being the name
of the Hindu monkey god of healing and worship -- it was revered for
its willingness to accompany sadhus on pilgrimages, and therefore
enjoyed almost as many privileges as the cow, free to ransack food
stalls, at liberty to plunder grain shops.

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.”

The claim to the throne of the universe on the part of what
Montaigne called “the most vulnerable and frail of all
creatures,” he regarded as vainglorious impudence, man dressing
himself up in the robe of divinity, separating himself from “the
horde of other creatures,” distributing to them “such
portions of faculties and powers as he sees fit.” Amused by the
presumption, Montaigne took the trouble to ask follow-up
questions:

“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 href="http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/">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. This essay,
slightly adapted for TomDispatch, introduces "Animals," the Winter
2013 issue of
Lapham’s Quarterly, soon to be released
at that website.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on href="http://www.facebook.com/tomdispatch">Facebook. Check out the
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.

Copyright 2013 Lewis Lapham

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