The Control of Nature

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6 minutes of reading

John McPhee is one of the great science journalists of our time—and by “our time” I mean, more or less, my lifetime, because McPhee’s career with The New Yorker started in 1963, the year I was born. In his eighties now, McPhee is still plying his craft and has another fascinating essay in the March 5, 2018, issue of The New Yorker. It is about his desire to see a black bear from a window in his house, which is in Princeton, New Jersey.

Like all of McPhee’s writing, it overflows and then floods with details: the number of bears in New Jersey in 1966 and today, the names of the streets near McPhee’s house, how in 1980 a bear wandered into New Jersey’s Hunterdon and Mercer counties and was killed by a police officer, municipality policies on stray bears, several more bear stories, advice on what to do if a bear charges, and finally a story revealing that McPhee has still not seen a bear from his window. And as with much of McPhee’s writing, it’s not at all obvious why the piece was written—what its underlying point is, or if it has one. What are all his details accomplishing? Yet there seems to be a point; the writing is picayune and riveting at once.

I find the essay to be a sophisticated reflection on the human relationship to nature. The essay is titled “Direct Eye Contact,” and the title, along with the small tag line that appears above the title and ostensibly identifies the category or department to which the essay belongs, are the best hints to the reader of what the essay will accomplish. The tagline is “The Control of Nature.”

The text does not directly address the control of nature, however; it moves through and around it. We learn that bears were very rare in New Jersey in 1960—almost locally extinct—and that they have rebounded remarkably well. We learn that standard government practice in 1960 was to shoot a bear that wandered into any municipality, and that today, standard practice is to leave them alone. However, with the population growing, bear hunts have been reinstated. We also learn that, just as people are trying to figure out how to live with bears, bears seem to be trying to figure out how to live with people—swiping food from kitchen counters when they can, but keeping out of sight for much of the day and becoming active at dawn and twilight, when they are less likely to encounter humans. They can maim and kill people, but mostly they are desperately afraid of people and run away astonishingly fast. (Don’t try to outrun a bear.) McPhee has for many years wanted to see one from his house, but he never has and probably never will. But a couple of years ago, his wife did, and she took pictures: “This bear was not afraid of anything. Rolling its shoulders, flexing, shrugging, soaking up the sun, it groomed itself. It sat there and groomed itself (!!!).”

“Nature” is painfully difficult to parse. Many philosophers, following the nineteenth century empiricist John Stuart Mill, hold that the concept of what is natural is of no use in making decisions about what we should do to ourselves, other people, other organisms, or anything else in the world around us. It gives us no ethical standard and besides, there is nothing “natural” in our world. We—we humans generally, that is—have already done so much to change the world that it is impossible to distinguish what is unaffected by humans from what is. Simply by living we affect everything around us, thereby humanizing nature.

But the bear that McPhee’s wife saw—rolling its shoulders, flexing, shrugging, soaking up the sun, grooming itself—suggests otherwise. Bears have been affected by humans; not only the bear population but also bear behavior is different from what it would be without humans around. Bears have become wary. McPhee tells us that they are active at sunrise and sunset, laying low through much of the day, not because that’s been typical bear behavior for hundreds of thousands of years but because it lets them escape unwanted notice from humans. They live amongst us: we can aspire to see them from our own homes. They are, in a sense, controlled. And yet they remain bears—wild animals, not human creations. They should be treated with caution. It is wise to leave them alone. McPhee wants to make eye contact with one but might never have a chance to do so—and if the chance were to arise, then, depending on the circumstances, should perhaps decline to seize it, as a matter of personal safety. Bears are not controlled.

A similar yes-but kind of account could be offered of many other things in nature—the oak trees whose acorns bears feed on; the storms that knock the trees down and put the acorns in reach of bears; the forests in which the oaks trees are found; the fields that used to be forests; the Kittatinny Mountain, which is the best home in New Jersey for black bears; and what McPhee calls the larger, “very long mountain that runs, under various names, from Alabama to Newfoundland as the easternmost expression of the folded-and-faulted, deformed Appalachians.” Some of these things are probably so deeply and continuously affected by humans that calling them natural is misleading. Many of them are intertwined with humanity. But to dismiss the term “natural” is itself misleading. Some of these things are affected by humans but still seem to count as natural.

Dismissing the term “nature” is easiest when we try to consider nature as an overarching, undifferentiated realm. Perhaps nature is then only a world that belongs to the past (the McPhee book title Annals of the Former World, about the geology of the American West, comes to mind). Looking instead at particular instances of possible nature—creatures, species, places, patterns, systems—leads away from blanket responses and into the history of those entities and phenomena. This history will often have an on-the-one-hand-and-then-on-the-other-hand structure, at the end of which—often enough—a plausible case for saying something is natural can be made.

Identifying what we ought to do about nature is also difficult. When we talk up the value of natural things, we sometimes make fools of ourselves. We are inclined to contrast “natural” and “chemical,” for example, as if natural objects were not also made up of chemicals, sometimes of particularly unwanted chemicals. Some of the most powerful poisons are natural. The idea of nature gets particularly mangled and misused in corporate hands, where it becomes a sometimes-absurd marketing tool. (Would anyone like some “all natural” 7Up?). Critics see this resulting silliness as reason to abandon the concept of nature. But the silliness shows the enduring importance of nature: “nature” can be put to corporate uses because we genuinely care about it. And the term is no worse off in this regard than many other terms. “Pure” and “healthy” are subject to similar misuses.

So what should be done about the New Jersey black bear population? McPhee gives no arguments, but the details he gives us point toward various considerations. There are reasons to keep the bear population under control. Bear hunting may thus have some instrumental value. But many people are adopting a more accommodating, more preservationist mindset. Municipalities try to leave black bears alone. McPhee’s chief ambition when it comes to bears is to achieve direct eye contact with them—from his window. The value of nature and the value of human activities are as interwoven as wild animals and human communities are. My guess is that McPhee might be more tolerant of control of nature, and less attracted to preservation of nature, than I. In a book some years ago by the name The Control of Nature, he told awe-inspiring stories about grand human efforts to control natural processes—directing the flow of the Mississippi River, halting lava flows in Iceland, controlling floods in Los Angeles—and I do not recall that he expresses any sense of regret or loss about the control of nature. Yet he retains a desire to make simple eye contact with a wild black bear, and that such a desire is present in someone who has made a living writing about grand human interventions into nature gives me hope.

It’s important that McPhee moves in and through the question of what to do about nature, rather than addressing it head on. Is there a better way to get people to care morally about nature than to describe or depict natural things? Philosophers like myself tend to want logical arguments—and they really want arguments that go back to abstract principles. Here, that would mean an argument in defense of the value of nature, quite generally. But a story about how badly you want to see a bear, acting like a bear—wild, yet visible from your own home—is better.

  • Gregory E. Kaebnick

    Gregory E. Kaebnick is a scholar at The Hastings Center, where he writes and does research on synthetic biology and other emerging genetic technologies. He is the author of Humans in Nature: The World As We Find It and the World As We Create It.

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