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WEEDS, BUGS, AMERICANS
John Fowles
December 21, 1970
The celebrated author of 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' takes a far-from-fictional look at the dour role of man in nature, argues on behalf of backyard laziness and places the fate of God's world in hands that want it least—our own
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December 21, 1970

Weeds, Bugs, Americans

The celebrated author of 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' takes a far-from-fictional look at the dour role of man in nature, argues on behalf of backyard laziness and places the fate of God's world in hands that want it least—our own

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One of the curses of our time is that this poetic approach has come to be ridiculed as something rather romantic. It is true that without any scientific check, such an attitude can lead into the turgid bayous of nature-corner sentiment or to the equally nauseating anthropomorphic scripts of the Disney nature films and the kind of commentary one hears at Marineland. If such cheap sentimentality were the only alternative to the scientific approach to nature, I should be all for science. But there is no more need to sec nature either sentimentally or scientifically than there is to see paintings, or listen to music, or enjoy a game or a sport in one of those two fixed manners.

And here, perhaps, there is a stumbling block particular to the American mind, with its inborn pragmatism, its demand for some immediate utility in both the object and its pursuit, and its corollary assumption that the more facts you know about a thing the more there is likely to be in it for you. Europeans enjoy appearances. Americans enjoy things better if they know how they "work"—and of course knowing that involves knowing names. This obsession with labeling and functioning, and the corresponding impatience with the quieter pleasure of mere experiencing, is an aspect of what an American friend of mine once described to me as the single deepest fault of the national culture. He called it a lack of poetry, and then amplified the phrase by saying, "We try and turn everything into machinery." Over the years I have come to see this criticism as a clue to a great deal of what is unhappy in American society.

This is not the place to discuss whether my friend is right in general. But I would choose "unpoetic" as probably the best word to describe the prevailing attitude to natural life in the United States, just as "poetic" best describes the great exceptions to that generalization, the Audubons and the Thoreaus. Poetry, alas, is something you can't sell. All you can do is suggest that it is out there, if people will only find the time and the right frame of mind and discover for themselves that enjoyment does not require scientific knowledge.

Myself, I regard nature very largely as therapy. It is where I go to get away from words, from people, from artificial things. It is affection and friendship, too; the recurrence, the return in the cycle of the year of certain flowers, beasts, birds and insects I am fond of. It is sounds. It is curlew on a winter's evening, as I lie in bed. It is the sparrows that chirp on my roof each morning. Above all it is the familiar natural life that lives and breeds round my house—the kind of life any rarity-hunting naturalist would not even notice, it is so ordinary. But I have trained myself, partly through reading about Zen, partly through thinking on the texts of such men as Thoreau, not to take anything in my thousand-times-walked-around garden as familiar. I'm not in the least a religious person, but I suppose the process is something like prayer. You have to work at it. I once told a Benedictine monk that prayer was incomprehensible to me. "Yes," he said, "it was to me once. It becomes comprehensible only through endless repetition."

This, I am convinced, is what practical conservation needs behind it, or beneath it, if it is to work: a constantly repeated awareness of the mysterious other universe of nature in every civilized community. A love, or at least a toleration, of this other universe must reenter the urban experience, must be accepted as the key gauge of a society's humanity, and we must be sure that the re-entry and the acceptance is a matter of personal, not public, responsibility. So much of our communal guilty conscience is taken up by the cruelty of man to man that the crime we are inflicting on nature is forgotten. Fortunately there seem to be many signs in the United States that this "lesser" crime against natural life at last is being recognized for what it is—not the lesser crime at all, but the real source of many things we cite as the major mistakes of recent history. You may think there is very little connection between spraying insecticide over your flower-beds because everyone else in your street does the same and spraying napalm over a Vietnamese village because that's the way war is. But many more things than we know start in our own backyards. Social aggression starts there; and so does social tolerance.

Nature is an inalienable part of human nature. We can never blaspheme against it alone. Exterminate, and you shall be exterminated. Don't care, and one day, perhaps too late, you or your children will be made to care bitterly. Evolution holds no special brief, no elect place for man. Its only favorite is the species that keeps the options open. The nightmare of our century is that so many of man's options are closing on him. A main reason for this is that the individual increasingly lets society and its label-words usurp his own role and responsibility. We all know that we have to get things right between ourselves and the other forms of life on this crowded planet. What we don't, or won't, know is that the getting right cannot be left to government, to the people who are paid to care. I make no apology for saying it again. Conservation can never be someone else caring. It is you caring. Now.

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