And now I’m for dying,
I know not to cry,
For the value of sixpence, I’ve erred on mankind.
Never was given to rob or to steal,
All the harm that I’ve done was chomp the heads of green kale.
From The Hare’s Lament, Trad. Irish arr. John Doyle
I recently read Peter Rabbit to my son for the first time in a while. This book had been a childhood favorite of mine to the point that my parents had staged a puppet show production of the story (complete with handmade, furry puppets) for my third birthday. But we don’t have a paper copy ourselves, so we read it infrequently. My son has just turned five, and has a blossoming interest in trying to understand what is right and wrong, moral and immoral—sometimes in more abstract ways than I’m prepared for. I’m not sure that the plight of Peter Rabbit had ever been understandable to him before—Beatrix Potter’s Victorian English and sardonic reserve probably obscured the fact that Peter Rabbit is the tale of a son nearly meeting the same early death as his father—to be killed and eaten by a gardener in retribution for his transgressions in the carrot patch. With his new five-year-old ability to hone in on plot, though, my son was now quite shocked at Mr. McGregor’s cruelty, and pronounced the most damning of kindergarten judgements; “that wasn’t very nice of him!”
For my part, I felt that I needed to stick up for Mr. McGregor. I totally get where that guy’s coming from. My community garden patch has been decimated by gophers on a fairly routine basis for the four years we’ve worked it. Last spring the most recent marauder took a fancy to gnawing through the base of my corn plants—not eating anything, really, but just trying it out for taste (and killing the entire plant in the process). Driven to the edge, I set traps, and caught the criminal by the foot. When I dug it up, it was frozen in a state of terrified rigor mortis, seeming mostly to have died from fear or cold rather than from the injury it sustained. Though I had long claimed that upon killing it I would also put it in a pie, a la Ms. McGregor, I found that I didn’t have the heart for this, and ended up burying it in its own tunnel (as a bit of a warning). My summer garden proceeded unmolested for another six months.
So I took the side of Mr. McGregor in this debate. After all, Peter Rabbit was a thief, and had stolen from the McGregors, and really did deserve to die. I illustrated my defense with elements from our own experience—each plant we fed to the gopher was one less plant for ourselves. I was somewhat blindsided, then, when my son retorted that we were actually the ones who were in the wrong. “Gophers are a part of nature—you took the land where he lived, so what else was he supposed to eat?” *Yikes!* Thought I, this is all true! I tried to stall while I thought about how to answer this. In college I took one environmental science class, a portion of which was dedicated to a historiography of the term “nature,” wherein we asked ourselves a lot of circular questions about whether humans were part of nature or somehow outside of it, and so on. I considered lording it over my son by trotting out this argument—we’re nature too!—but it felt disingenuous to do so. So I ultimately said “Well, you have a good point. I suppose that wasn’t very nice of me.”
In a quieter moment after this conversation, I tried to sort through why it had felt disingenuous to claim the “humans are also nature!” argument.
I mean, in so many ways, this is true. What seemed to me at age 19 to be a rather pointlessly academic line of pursuit has subsequently metastasized into a topic that I roll over in my thoughts with some regularity. Do we humans really have anywhere near the control (of ourselves, of our environment) that we imagine ourselves to have—or, at the end of the day, are we no different than a force of nature, expanding ourselves and our ecological niche to the greatest extent of our most-of-the-way-smart capacity until our population inevitably must collapse? Each time I entertain these thoughts, I come to the same conclusion, which is that we are the saddest of animals—we are the only ones that seem (so far) to have the ability to stand outside of the game of nature and understand its tragedy, but to also realize that we are bound by its rules. We are lemmings that will write poetry as we fall off the cliff. I guess the reason that I didn’t want to use the “humans are part of nature” argument with my 5-year old had something to do with not wanting to disclose the whole story. Lady nature cooks up some crazy experiments, and we know ourselves to be one of them.
I’m also afraid to head down this path with my morally-obsessed kid, because I feel like it would expose me as something of a fraud. My own moral convictions would have dictated that I shouldn’t have had a child at all—more space for gophers!—but I couldn’t be happier with the accidental five year old in my life, and part of me is seriously contemplating staging another “accident.” The dichotomy between what I intellectually know to be right, and what my biology longs for continue to be one of the central conflicts in my life. Given that accepting moral failure seems to be the primary characteristic of adulthood, I suppose I can wait awhile before I pull back the curtain and let my son see me for who I am—see us for who we are. I’m a bit troubled that, young as he is, he keeps peeking around the edges.
We were reading a book about penguins—his favorite animal of the moment. He is particularly fond of one, pictured in a den with its fledgling chick, known as “The Little Blue Penguin.” The book has a lot of text—giving me lots of opportunities to edit on the fly so we can get through it a bit faster. But one day when we’re reading the third time through, I find that I start reading anything I left off before to take the edge off the repetition. On the last page, I read out loud “Penguins are threatened by the troubles in our oceans… everything from the dumping of toxins, to the overharvesting of fish. “ “What?” He says. “They don’t have enough fish?”
“Yes.” I say. “We take so much fish, there’s not enough for penguins.”
How did we get here? I look for someone to blame. For many years I tried to ask family members who lived through the construction of the Federal Interstate Highway System if they’d ever had doubts about the plan to cover the nation in freeways. What I heard in response was that they either weren’t paying attention (raising kids, working hard, fighting more pressing battles), or thought it was great (family vacation!) Though the world I live in is predicated on this reality, it’s hard not to view it as a catastrophically bad decision—and to want to hold everyone who let it happen without questioning it at least a little bit responsible. But it seems that even under the best of circumstances, where we have a vote, a voice, a newspaper to keep us informed, that we are often so busy living the animal details of our lives—the beautiful space of eating, sleeping, cultivating, raising, that we never find a way to step back and check the trajectory of where we’re going. And so many of us living that way every day seems to have accelerated us into a future that I wish I didn’t have to explain to my son, or teach him how to live in. At the same time, how can we do anything else? We are nature.
“I’m not eating fish anymore” he says. But he had some for dinner last night, and I think he’s forgotten.