Monday, 22 April 2013

Those Ghastly Mountains

Today is Earth Day.

I am an environmentalist, though not as effective at it or active about it as I likely should be. Most of my environmentalism comes from the heart rather than the head, though, as always with me, it is greatly affected by the latter.

The truth is that I love so-called natural spaces: mountains, swamps, forests, rain forests, badlands, beaches, prairies. If I ever have the chance to visit steppes, tundra, saltflats, deserts, or dead seas, I'm quite sure I'll love those, too. I love red pines and pond scum and thistles growing out of pavement. I love pigeons and moths and butterflies and jumping spiders and centipedes and goats and giraffes and leeches and hagfish and lionfish and hoopoe. I find all of them beautiful, even those most people find ugly or creepy.

I heard a story once about Northrop Frye visiting Vancouver. Vancouver is surrounded by mountains and temperate rain forest; from pretty much anywhere in the city you can see those mountains, but of course some places have better views than others. Frye was visiting friends and sitting on their back deck, and someone said, "Look at the view of those mountains," and Frye said, "Yes, aren't they ghastly?"

To Frye, the wilderness is horrible because it is inhuman. He considers the natural world to be hostile to human efforts, but I'm sure if you pushed him on it he'd consider that it isn't really hostile, but merely indifferent. It does not care about us one way or another. Neither a mountain nor an ant acknowledges me; as far as they are concerned, I do not exist. It's not an issue of power, precisely; I could easily kill the ant, or pick it up and keep it in environments where I could manipulate its action all I like. But it would still not care at all about me. Nothing I do could make it spare the slightest attention for me. It is this which Frye finds so ghastly, but it's also what I love so much.

Animals, plants, fungus, geological formations: these are alien to me. Some have no life or consciousness at all; others have psychologies which are in some ways very similar and in other ways wildly different from human psychology. When I meet them I am meeting an Other more Other than any human could be. Such an experience is sublime (in its aesthetic sense, not the sense perverted and ruined by advertising, where it seems to mean something like sensual). But its indifference to me also forces me out of narcissism. It reminds me that much of the world does not care about me at all. I don't matter so much as I think I do. To someone as neurotic as I am, this reminder is always needed, and also always a relief.

It's that indifference that kills our Earth, though. The Gaia hypothesis is wrong in this way: if the Earth were truly concerned about self-regulating, it would be exterminating us much more vigourously. So as an environmentalist, what I seek to defend is the Earth's indifference, which by its own nature cannot make a defense for itself.

(But then, I also love dogs, who have evolved so that they can communicate with humans, and tigers, even when they are stalking humans--one of the most chilling sights, even when they're behind double-fences at the zoo--so it's obviously more than just indifference that I love.)

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