“Boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” is how Fitzgerald puts it in The Great Gatsby. Only an American would be so naïve as to think he is talking solely about an American dream. It is American only insofar as America retains the memory of contact with a wilderness that invites dreams but makes no covenant with them. The boat borne back into the past is, in its most elemental form, the corn bitten back to the stalk. The wheat beaten down by the hail. As soon as Jonah sits down under a gourd vine, a worm starts eating his shade. Earlier a whale had tried eating him.
We sense the same futility in history. The enduring cliché that history repeats itself implies a comparison to the cyclical patterns of nature. Writing in 1933 about the rising fascist movements, Leon Trotsky said, “Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth.” At the same time as the deer were devastating my hedge, President George W. Bush vetoed a bill that would have outlawed waterboarding. Torquemada redux. At our town meeting last March an angry electorate defeated a bare bones school budget for the first time in a dozen years. People said derogatory things about teachers, about children receiving special education, that I had not heard in more than twenty years. The telemarketers I’d driven back over the borders of our dinner hour resumed their evening raids. Like weeds and whiskers, everything grows back. And what you want to grow—the saplings, the school music program, some notion of a humanistic civilization—is eaten down to the root.
Several years ago I spotted two farmers squatting at the top of the hayfield behind our house, looking intently at the ground. I wondered if they had driven the baler over a rabbit or a snake. Instead, they were puzzling over the first traces of a rare infestation of army worms, so called because they advance in a line. A freak in the weather had called them out like Huns onto the steppes. They ate the hayfield from top to bottom, they ate our back and front lawns. They crossed the road, in such numbers that cars were sliding in the black and green gore of their bodies, and proceeded to eat the pastures beyond.
All is vanity, said Ecclesiastes. He planted vineyards, gardens, and fruit trees but decided that all was vanity. Anyone who lives close to the woods envies him for making as good a go of it as he did.
Futility does not excuse, but perhaps explains, the cruelty with which we have sometimes treated the natural world. In 1814 the naturalist John James Audubon watched as a farmer climbed into a pit where he’d trapped a family of wolves. He severed their hamstrings, dragged them out, and set his dogs on them. Audubon records the scene without censure. During the same winter wolves had destroyed nearly all of the farmer’s sheep and one of his colts. His vengeance was not atypical. American homesteaders burned wolves alive and dragged them to death behind horses. They wired shut their mouths and genitals and set them loose. Socialized in packs where submission bought mercy, the wolves mostly cowered.
My parents were merely efficient when the gypsy moths descended on New Jersey in my childhood. I can still see my father holding a long torch up to the ghostly tents, the black bodies writhing in the flames. Those I gathered by hand my mother dropped into a coffee can of gasoline. Out of sight under the pine tree where I played, I hung their living bodies noosed on strings like a scene out of Goya. At night, standing in the yard very still, you could hear their mouths munching the foliage, eating our trees.
Canadian subscribers add $10; All other international subscribers add $40.