I Won’t Go Back To Nature


There is this entire literature of sentimentalizing the soil, and Nature in general.  Sentimentalizing the brute labor required to fructify the soil.  Think of Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Rousseau, Emerson, Thoreau.  You know, the whole nineteenth century Romanticism of it all.  I never really liked this impulse, as it always smacked to me of idealistic falsity, of insincerity.  Those who hate the world find solace in the Stone-Age.

And modernly we have Pearl Buck, with her odes to the Chinese peasant.  Never mind, of course, that that same saintly peasant would have stank to high heaven.  There may be a Good Earth, but there is also a Bad Earth, too, and Peal Buck never wrote that novel.

No.  And why not?  We wonder.  There is just as much evil in the soil of Nature as there is good.  This was the one thing that even the Stoics got wrong:  live in accordance with Nature, but avert our eyes from Nature’s evil.

And this we cannot do.  Cannot.

Go and talk to a farmer for once, and I mean really talk to him.  Go and talk to a peasant.  And then you will understand.  There is just this gulf that separates us, and you can feel it.  If you are being honest, and speaking honestly.

It would be step backward for me, not forward, to adopt that life. Country living may be fine for short periods of time, or as a temporary retreat, but I would go bloody crazy with that life.

We can’t go back. We can’t go back in time. We can’t go back to the primitive “state of nature.” If that ever did exist, which I doubt.  The river of civilization, the forward movement of our Soul-Consciousness, surges in one direction, and one cannot swim backwards against this inexorable flow.  There is only one direction, and that is forward.  Despite all the shortcomings of civilization–and they are legion–we can’t ignore the fact that we have gained something after centuries of work and struggle. And we can’t forsake this legacy, even if we wanted to.

There is no “idealism” for me in the soil, in the mud, in the backbreaking work of agriculture. The hoe and the plow will not be glorified.  They cannot be.  Cannot.


You can try. And you can almost succeed, like the disingenuous little Mr. Thailand in his video. But Nature will consume and destroy all those who try to sentimentalize her.  Who try to glorify here.  She will have none of it.  She will eat such men alive.  You should never trust Nature.  For just when you need her most, she will betray you.

Jack London, in his The Cruise of the Snark , expected to find an idyllic state of Nature in the South Seas.  Or something of the sort.  He expected tropical lagoons, nubile natives, and his feet in the warm white sand.

But he found something quite different.  Congenital deformities, inbreeding, savage cruelty, tropical diseases, and malnutrition.  All in his tropical paradise.  Read his book sometime, and you’ll see.  The Solomon Islands nearly killed him, with its blood parasites and diseases.  There was no nobility among the savages, only one-upsmanship and chicanery.

Because you can’t really idealize brute labor.  Nature, for all its wonder, carries the seeds of just as much Evil as it carries Good.  There is no Noble Savage, as envisioned by Chateaubriand or that madman Rousseau.  Nothing noble about him, really.  Only savage.

No brotherhood between man and wild beast, either. Look into the eyes of a wild animal. And then you will know.  Timothy Treadwell, Mr. Grizzly Man, thought he could go romping with the bears in the Alaskan meadows, and somehow revert to Nature.  And for a time, he almost succeeded.

Until Nature punished him for his impertinence.  There will be no gallivanting, no pirouetting, with the beasts.  Thou shall eat, or be eaten.  

And this is what Thoreau, Rousseau, and our snake Mr. Thailand can never really comprehend.

I don’t want to go back to “Nature.” Because “Nature” never really left me.

There is no idealism in Nature. There is, under that placid surface of chirping birds and worms oozing their way through the soil, only a relentless struggle for existence.


And the only redeeming sentiment in this struggle is the knowledge that we–all of us–are part of that eternal One, that all-embracing Oneness, that is the pantheistic whole of the Universe.  Nature, Soul, Intellect, and finally the One: the fount of all life.

It is this knowledge–the idea of the unity of all things–is what we should strive to attain, but not to sentimentalize.  Because once you sentimentalize it, you lower your guard against Nature.  And that is when she eats you.  Respect she wants, yes; but never sentimentality, which reeks of condescension.

I refuse to idealize Nature and the soil because I can’t turn my back on civilization. When I’m here, I wish I was there.  And when I’m there, I wish I was here.  Wish-fulfillment turns out to be not quite what we had expected.  Beware what you wish for, the wise man tells us.

But there you have it.  This is the way men are.  Really are, rather than what you want them to be.  It isn’t a contradiction or a paradox, so much as it is an expression of the movement of the soul through its various phases of passion.

And each of these phases must somehow find a voice, each with its own special resonance.  The music made by the activity of the soul’s phases.  So when Cicero talks about the various planets in his essay The Dream of Scipio, he really is referring to the phases of the soul’s consciousness.  And the sound that these heavenly bodies make, the “harmony of the spheres,” is another allegorical description of the activity of the soul.  It is the sound of the upward striving of the soul for knowledge and completeness.  

We ourselves don’t really hear it, or recognize it for what it is, in the same way that the denizens of the Nile Delta lose their ear for the sound of crashing waters there, disgorged into the sea.

You just become accustomed to it.  But the voices of the soul’s phases are there, nonetheless.

Each with its own special resonance.

Read Next:  The Positive And Negative Power Of Humiliation

5 thoughts on “I Won’t Go Back To Nature

  1. I would warn of another fatal condescending error, in addition to sentimentality – the tendency to intellectualize Nature.

    Perhaps Emerson and Thoreau et al really are sentimentalists at heart. Their work has often had the effect of helping many modern city-dwelling readers to *feel* that primal pulse of Nature in their blood; to remember that they are wild animals, organisms living on, in, and in dependence of other organisms (Earth, Cosmos, etc). To feel and truly know that connection. The whole hippie “back to the land” movement was at least partly inspired by this generation of writers. Goddamn sentimental hippies, right?

    However, intellectualizing Nature is just as bad as overly-sentimentalizing it. To intellectualize Nature is to become numb to that pulse of your blood, to mentally separate yourself from, and often grow to vilify and detest the very thing that gives you life. This tendency toward individualistic and ego-centric thought has its uses though, and the entire mountain of progress and technology that is human civilization is a result of it. A civilization you rightly point out that has it’s own legion of problems.

    To me, it’s like this: total separation from Nature via ego-centric intellectualization leads us to the decadent profanity of modern society with a ruling intellectual-yet-idiot class and the thrashing of natural resources.
    Total immersion in Nature leads to “savagery” and a lack of progress due to indigenous hunter-gatherer style tribal communities.

    The evidence, then, is clear to me: neither approach alone will do.

    Savagery was humanity’s thesis. Civilization is the antithesis. The synthesis will be next. The best question Thoreau asked was “Is it impossible to combine the hardiness of these savages with the intellectualness of civilized man?” I say no, it is not impossible. That is the synthesis. That is the noble savage.

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  2. Good stimulating essay, however Beethoven said most of his inspiration was found out in walks in nature. There are some things that further civilization that can only be found by, at least temporarily, escaping it.

    Pearl is misspelled “peal” in the body of the essay.

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