Saturday, August 10, 2013

Nature studies and kinds of reverence

"...there is a sense in which the development of Baconian or Cartesian science led us to view the world reductively, to murder by dissection, and so to give priority to death over life." Stratford Caldecott The Radiance of Being, p58 
As a boy, urged by teachers to read Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, I was irritated by the title. Even allowing for my excessive literal-mindedness, it seemed to imply something more sinister than a casual joke.

On attempting to follow my teachers' advice, the relentless flippant jocularity I found only confirmed the initial suspicion that there was a lack of reverence in Durrrell's approach. This on the one hand seemed to make no essential distinction between the funniness of humans and that of animals, while on the other - in books such as The Bafut Beagles - it made arbitrary distinctions between this knowing ironic author and those comical foreigners or natives and their quaint ways. There is an edge in Durrell wich betrays not kindly irony but rather an assumed superiority and irreverence.
The apparent exclusion of seriousness - an essential aspect of reverence - the very relentless and indiscriminate quality of his humour also seems to betray a denial of some underlying fear: the emptiness gaping beneath the smile and bonhommie of the bluff individual, leading to the peculiar repulsion that such people induce at least in me.
What transpired in his books is that Durrell was a naturalist of the old school, an adventurous collector, dissector, classifier and analyzer. A contrasting style is fashionable now: David Attenborough in his nature documentaries observes with a kind of reverence supported by exquisite production values, but marred by a distinct though no less cloying ideology.
Recently I came across a beautifully produced Dorling Kindersley book on nature study which I snapped up, as something likely to inspire reverence and wonder in my children. Later, looking through it, the emphasis on collecting, killing, bottling and analyzing left me chilled; these  discoveries led to second thoughts about letting my children see it at all. In choosing the book I had "judged the book by its cover" but would have done a better job had I read the author's name printed there as one of the key selling points: Gerald Durrell.
The production values of Durrell's The Amateur Naturalist were as lavish as those in Attenborough's nature programmes, but the reverence that might have been induced by the the stunning photography and videography is overshadowed by the underlying spirit: in the one case a deadly analytic domination which brushes beauty aside, and in the other an environmentalism that despairs of preserving beauty because of the inevitability of man's destructiveness. Neither mood is right, or desirable, for my children; even I - with my insight into the ideological roots of these works - am scarcely able to brush aside the painful and unwanted moods that they induce.

My children love to go around with sticks and "hack and rack the growing green" with them. They are not unaware of my distress at their slashing even nettles in the woods, but the tenderness for even the crushed reed that I feel and try to project does not seem to overcome that urge to destroy. Yet I observe that they also have an undeniable sense of wonder for things of nature.

Perhaps my fear is that the destructiveness will overwhelm and mar that other facet of their spirit that I so much want to foster; and I want to find works of art and reference that will reinforce the gentle and reverent side of their spirit.

The matter becomes more complicated still when I explain to them the need to kill the butterflies that lay the eggs of caterpillars which devastate our cabbages. It is a teachable moment, but I am not sure that I am doing it well. I explain that it makes me sad to bat a cabbage white from the air (with a tennis racket, which makes an a excellent butterfly swatter) and then stamp on it, but that I am not doing it for sport but only because the butterfly is an "enemy" of our vegetables and I want the necessary death to be as swift and painless as possible.
It is even sadder that the cabbage butterflies are virtually the only ones that visit our garden, thanks presumably to the devastation of insect life bemoaned by the likes of Attenborough.
Henry pinned one of the dead butterflies to our family noticeboard. It seemed the thing to do, though his motivation remains mysterious. He must have been reading the Durrell book ...
He also loves collecting skulls. One of his prized possessions is a rabbit skull we found in the woods. His sadness at the death of an abandoned nestling seemed to vanish when I told him that once the corpse had rotted a while on our compost heap he could have the skull. He kept asking me when it would be ready. A fox got to it first, probably the same blighter that ate all the gooseberries off the tree, which brings me to another death we need to arrange ...

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