Nature, I reflected as I bounded down a mountain trail last week, does not talk back. I can yell out over a lonely mountain lake and the only response I will ever get is the pingback of my own voice bouncing off the trees on the other shore. “Nature is indifferent to the survival of the human species, including Americans,” said Adlai Stevenson. (No wonder Stevenson lost both presidential elections. Evidently America was no more interested in hearing its politicians speak truth then than today.)
No, nature doesn’t talk back. Nature can kill you, or physically hurt you very badly if you get in the way of its inexorable processes, but it won’t injure your emotions the way other human beings can and do. Nature will never reject you, or leave you for another man (or woman), or be the parent that never finds you good enough, the boss that bullies you, or the child who never calls or visits.
And so for those who find emotional risk more daunting than physical risk — and I think there are a lot of them — this is a happy tradeoff. Nature can bite back, but it won’t talk back.
But what of the misanthropic nature lover, who loves nature precisely because it is not human — an impulse I’ve danced with a time or twelve in my own lifetime. What happens when the natural world becomes a place to hide from our humanity and the work we need to do with ourselves? Misanthropy can be nothing more than self-rejection, as we are all a mess of the best and worst impulses offered by a big forebrain still held hostage by its primitive, wild hindbrain. We all have within us the potential to do the things we hate and judge. We are our own lowest common denominator.
The happiest experience of nature is when it leads us toward ourselves, toward growth and kindness, toward responsibility and openness — toward, ironically, our developed brain, the one that holds in check our wild, primitive, natural brain. Paradox is so lovely, and it’s everywhere.
If I could sit around a fire with the long-gone Edward Abbey, who bluntly understood himself to be a misanthrope, I’d relish the opportunity to discuss my thesis: It won’t be the separatist misanthropes who halt humans’ abuse of the earth. The only way to do right by nature, I fear, is to engage with humanity in all its terrible messiness, with understanding of our limitations, with equal measures of hatred and understanding.
The truth is, the parts of us that are “natural” — the parts that bite back but don’t talk back — those parts give us humans our marching orders toward horribleness, toward ravage, waste, and pillage. And the developed brain helps us execute those orders with such breathtaking efficiency. But it’s those same developed parts that allow us to ameliorate those tendencies.
Nature doesn’t get a pass. The same primitive part that reminds us we’re part of the earth’s dirt is the same part that harbors the urge to conquer it.
Straight misanthropy, unalleviated by any contrary understanding — is too easy, too utterly lacking in complexity. That’s how you know it’s not wholly truthful.