Monsters of God

I’m exhausted. I spent most of last night battling, or running and hiding from, Evil.

They weren’t full-fledged nightmares – I’m a lucid enough dreamer to nip those in the bud, usually by waking myself up and going to the bathroom, as I did around midnight. But it is a tribute to the hold of monsters and demons on the imagination that I returned to the same dream when I fell back asleep.

I can’t remember many of the details now, but the monsters were basically alien invaders of indeterminate form who had the power to assume human shape. You could recognize them only when they opened their mouths, literally and figuratively: their voices were strange and machine-like, and they had many rows of monstrous teeth. (This has precedent for me not only in the movie Coneheads, but also in the 14th century classic of English mysticism The Cloud of Unknowing, where we are told that the devil is anthropomorphic in every respect except that his mouth lacks a roof. Someone checking his upper jaw for cavities would see the fires of hell roaring away inside his skull – which vision would produce instant and irreversible insanity.)

And of course my dream monsters were very hard, if not impossible, to kill. I say “of course” because everyone reading this has had similar dreams, and has doubtless seen many of the same horror and sci-fi movies I have. It’s a truism to observe that the supposed Death of God has barely touched beliefs in monsters and demons; alien abduction stories fit the mold of the time-honored, nearly universal demon-possession motif. A widespread perception of wolves and big cats as vicious killers hampers well-meaning efforts to reintroduce top carnivores, despite statistics showing that attacks by domestic dogs are far more dangerous. (In terms of annual human fatalities, the deadliest animal by far is the mosquito. When was the last time you had nightmares about a mosquito?)

The very fine natural history writer David Quammen has a new book out called Monsters of God, which has been garnering very good reviews; I’ll be anxious to see what he makes of these issues. The book is billed as a report on the status of man-eating carnivores around the world, most of which are now endangered or seriously threatened by poaching and/or habitat destruction. This raises not only ethical dilemmas but epistemological issues, it seems to me. Aside from the keystone ecological roles played by top carnivores, might they be said to play a keystone role in the human imagination?

I believe it was Bruce Chatwin, in Songlines, who proposed a direct link between human evolutionary biology and mythology (I don’t have the book in front of me). He cited ample evidence that our hominid ancestors co-evolved with large, predatory cats, which became extinct (or were driven to extinction?) a scant million years ago or so. Thus, the terror of being stalked and killed is in some measure “hard-wired” into our genetic makeup, because a healthy fear of Things That Go Bump in the Night would’ve been a highly advantageous trait. Those among our potential ancestors who entertained a less fearful or more romantic view of Wild Nature would’ve achieved a mystical oneness with powers greater than themselves somewhere in the digestive track of a saber-toothed tiger.

I maintain that the continued existence of big critters than can eat us (and gladly will, given half a chance) is essential to the health of the human spirit. Large carnivores remind of us our place in the overall scheme of things; they serve as teachers and role models for the proper use of violence; and through our continued coexistence with them we learn to master fear and hatred, which otherwise can transform us into the very monsters we most hate. Let me outline each of these arguments in turn.

Knowing our place

Man-eating tigers, crocodiles, rhinos and the like help keep us humble. By humble, I don’t mean subservient to so-called higher powers. However much the dog-like dominance hierarchies of human social arrangements may suggest otherwise, in Nature, as Heraclitus first pointed out, there is no absolute high or low, no up or down. The Great Chain of Being is in fact a food web – a perfectly Deleuzian rhizomatic structure. Rather, as the Sufi thinker Idries Shah maintained, humility is a technical requirement for the advancement of understanding. At its most basic, it grows from a healthy awareness of the relative (in)significance of the individual ego and of humanity as a whole. It’s no accident that God’s “answer” to Job out of the whirlwind (itself a symbol of fearful, greater-than-human realities) culminates in lengthy descriptions of Behemoth and Leviathan. These are the archetypal Monsters of God.

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?
Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?
Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?
Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens? . . .
His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth . . .
The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold: the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon.
He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood . . .
(see Job, Chapter 41)

Note the language of covenant here. The author implies that by lording it over wild animals, man is playing God without any real sense of the responsibilities this entails. In the world of the Old Testament, excessive pride is seen as sinful because it implies the assumption of undeserved powers: see the Tower of Babel; Lucifer; Nebuchadnezzer; etc.

The scholar James Kugel, in his very accessible introduction to the Old Testament The Great Poems of the Bible (Free Press, 1999), stresses the ancient Hebrews’ quite different estimation of the importance of self from our own. “A human being just is very small, and God . . . is ‘very big.’ In other words, it is not (or not simply) that biblical man cannot conceive of the world without God for some mechanistic reason – because, for example, the world could not function without God. Rather it is first and foremost that he cannot conceive of himself without God, without, that is, some notion of how he and the rest of the little creatures down here fit into the much, much larger world. [H]is own capacities . . . extend only so far, and if he is to be able to understand anything of the world beyond them, he needs to fit himself into the world, he needs a source of reference beyond himself.”

Kugel quotes Psalm 104, that great hymn to the powers of Creation:

Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.
The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.
The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.
(Psalm 104:20-22)

This is a far cry from the modern worldview. Even those who call themselves fundamentalists are convinced of human mastery over the cosmos – in fact, they are often in the vanguard of those who call for the commercial exploitation of wilderness and the eradication of large carnivores from what they consider to be at most a semi-wild playground for human beings. Where the authors of the Bible envisioned a non-human realm filled and ordered by an essentially playful, often violent Creator and his creatures, we see frontiers, open space, resources.

Playing god, crying wolf

“But really,” a secularist reader might argue, “however you might decry it, there’s no turning back now. Humans have simply altered the biosphere too much not to play God. In fact, it would be irresponsible now to shirk our god-like responsibility to act as planetary managers. For without wise stewardship, without planning on a massive scale, there will be social and environmental chaos.”

There’s some appeal to this argument – and little doubt that the arguments of libertarians to the contrary are regularly used to downplay or excuse the crimes of the biggest despoilers of land and water and the most oppressive exploiters of human beings. But I tend to agree with the libertarians about the risks of assuming that we could ever possess the wisdom that would be required to impose a New World Order. And I wonder if true wisdom is even compatible with the kinds of judgements that are involved in running a state or managing a trans-state entity like a global corporation or the U.N.

Let’s return briefly to the Bible – although many other ancient texts and accounts from modern ethnography might serve just as well. Again and again the reader is told that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” This is, I’m afraid, one of those notions that keeps everyone but discipline-happy and obedience-prone fundamentalists from fully enjoying the Old Testament. Unless we cling to a narrow definition of wisdom as the internalization of a set of rules, how can fear possibly have any positive side effects? Isn’t God just a synonym for love writ large? How can divine love possibly inspire fear?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in God in Search of Man (Jewish Publication Society, 1959), says that the word usually translated as “fear” in this context – yirah – should actually be rendered as “awe.” Heschel defines awe as “the sense of wonder or humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery.” It is, he says, an essential prerequisite to faith. The person who simply fears punishment, in this life or the next, is “considered inferior in Jewish tradition.”

“In a sense, awe is the antithesis of fear,” Heschel continues. “To feel ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’ is to feel ‘Whom shall I fear?’ (Psalms 27:1).” I am a little skeptical that the distinction between awe and fear can be so neatly drawn. But I concur wholeheartedly with Heschel’s conclusion: “Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the great block to insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom . . . ”

The disastrous consequences of reductionist thinking, of turning the world into a market place, are all around us. To cite just a few of the latest outrages, planned or on-going: drilling for oil in the fragile arctic tundra, home to one of the last fully intact ecosystems in the Northern hemisphere; developing gas fields all along the Rocky Mountain Front; draining aquifers of fossil water to pump coal slurry hundreds of miles through the desert of Arizona; clearcutting old-growth forests to make particle board and disposable chopsticks. These examples are obvious and can easily be multiplied.

A more insidious consequence of the loss of awe is the unthinking, society-wide acceptance of the proposition that humans can and should manage Nature for their own benefit. Questions of scale and time-frame are usually tossed aside. Discussions of the ethics of new technologies such as cloning and genetic engineering tend to devolve into narrow considerations of human self-interest, sometimes expanded to include questions about what might happen to ‘the environment’ if, say, genetically engineered traits escape into the wild. But the operative assumptions are baseless fantasies: that human self-interest is an obvious, measurable and culturally neutral thing; and that it can be separated from the interests of non-human species and of the biosphere at large.

With all due respect to George Orwell, it seems to me that we are closer to the antiseptic horror of Brave New World than the slave-state of 1984. Technologies that will allow parents to pre-determine the sex of their offspring, and possibly many other traits as well, are already coming into use. To accept such decision making as normal and rational is to forego far more access to freedom than we would lose through simple tyranny, for in this case it is the freedom of Nature itself that is being infringed upon. The same argument may be made against genetic engineering, nuclear power, and the production of chemicals that have no analogue in nature and no precedent in evolutionary history. In each case we are trying to fit Creation into a container of our own making, and in each case we our courting doom.

In the Bible, as we have seen, Wild Nature is Creation at its most elemental. We in the West derive much of our sense of wilderness from the Bible, of course. Wilderness is not merely the mirror-image of the pastoral realm; it is also a source of refuge – even salvation. Moses leads the Hebrews through the wilderness for forty years to acclimate them to their new-found relationship with Yahweh; Jesus fasts in the desert for forty days before he fully accepts his own role. Fields must be rested every seventh year – allowed to grow wild – to regain their vigor. Every seven-times-seventh year, during the jubilee, land must be not only rested but redistributed equally among the people. That’s because land is not ultimately owned by human beings, but held in trust for them by God: that is to say, it is ultimately free.

In the Hebrew Bible, major infractions of the covenantal relationship with God lead to droughts, crop-destroying hailstorms, plagues of locusts – what we would call environmental consequences. And when God reclaims land, it returns to its original state of wild (i.e. willful, self-willed) freedom. In the wilderness the wild donkey roams free of the halter; storms and whirlwinds wreak their fury; young lions and baby eagles scream for blood. What might be seen as disastrous in the human realm is an integral part of the awesome grandeur of Creation.

What we know of ecology bears out the intuitions of the ancient Hebrews, which are shared to a great degree by indigenous peoples around the world. Our attempts to manage land and water for economic ends usually involve the radical curtailing of natural processes that appear inconvenient and highly destructive. Streams and rivers that regularly flood their banks must be channelized, diverted, contained by levees, locks and dams. Wildfires must be prevented. Trees felled by natural disturbances must be “salvaged.” Insect and disease outbreaks must be battled through every means necessary. In all these cases, attempts to place limits on the violent power of Nature involves us in the perpetration of far greater violence against the health and integrity of ecosystem processes.

Not surprisingly, the professionals charged with managing our public lands strongly resist any implication that their efforts might be counter-productive. Never mind that some ecosystems must burn; that regular floods, tornadoes, icestorms, insect outbreaks, etc. are part of natural disturbance regimes. Never mind that essential processes such as pollination, plant-fungus interactions and nutrient and water cycles are endangered by the interruption or prevention of those processes. Never mind that effective land management in many cases is oxymoronic, predicated upon knowledge that is fragmentary or non-existent. The notion that some areas should simply be left alone (after some minimal restoration efforts) is anathema to the managerial ethos. Indeed, many higher-level bureaucrats in the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management appear to agree with their counterparts in industry: that self-willed land has been “locked up.” Freedom is Slavery!

Wilderness advocates and opponents alike say that the distinction between humans and Nature is artificial, and so it is. Perhaps in another century or two we will achieve the wisdom that many American Indian tribes once possessed, and “wise use” will no longer be a grotesque caricature of true, thoughtful stewardship. But what strikes me about the whole wilderness debate is the absence of any recognition that wilderness – broadly defined – is not so much a realm where human beings are absent, but where larger-than-human realities are present.

Chief among those realities, of course, are the Wild Things that can Eat You Up. Kids love monsters, as Maurice Sendak understood: it’s somehow fun to be scared. Campfire ghost stories and monsters under the bed are inescapable facts of childhood. And well into their adulthood, many people here in the East (for example) remain convinced that cougars are still out there, in the semi-mythical back-of-beyond – and many people are actually excited by the possibility! “The truth is out there,” as agent Mulder says about extraterrestrials. And maybe it is.

Keystone predators

This is more than an idle dream (or errant nightmare). Recent biological research is bearing out the intuition that predation is an essential part of the natural scheme. It is not simply a matter of populations of prey species becoming too large in the absence of natural predators. In fact, populations of many species are controlled by predation, but less directly than the way we suppose. Studies of large herbivores have shown that the healthy fear of predation is much more important than the actual number of killings, which would be too small in aggregate to constitute much of an effect. This fear is healthy not only for individuals of the prey species, whose chance of survival is thereby maximized, but also for many other species in the same ecosystem.

If predators are removed from an ecosystem, large herbivores like deer and elk quickly lose their fear of browsing in the open year-round. (Hunting seasons enforce only a temporary reversion to more natural behavior.) They tend to congregate in larger groups, during daytime hours, and simply spend a lot more time feeding – leading to higher reproduction rates and population explosions. Biologists refer to this as a switch from time-minimizing to energy-maximizing behavior. Sensitive environments such as streambanks and natural forest openings are suddenly much more vulnerable to over-browsing. As populations expand, whole suites of plant species can disappear along with everything that depends upon them for food or habitat.

When top carnivores are reintroduced, the ripple effects can be far-reaching. Mid-sized predators are forced to alter their behavior along with herbivores, and their numbers will drop in a similar manner. Populations of many species of birds, small mammals and other prey of these mid-sized predators will rebound. At the same time, brushy, edge and herbaceous habitats will begin to recover, with positive repercussions for many more species and for the recovery of other ecosystem functions. Streamside alders – essential food for beavers – may successfully sprout after a century of severely arrested development: this has been the case in Yellowstone following the reintroduction of wolves. Beavers play a keystone role in the creation of wetland habitats. Even though they are directly preyed upon by wolves – which places a severe restriction on how far they can go from water, hence limiting the size and shape of their disturbances – beavers benefit enormously from the presence of wolves in the ecosystem.

Biologists still have a lot to learn: for example, how do different species of “top” carnivores, such as wolves, cougars and grizzlies, interact within a single landscape, and what might be the ecological ramifications of those relationships? The state of scientific knowledge is limited in part because of the success of bounty programs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in removing carnivores from much of North America. These programs had the blessing of wildlife managers of the time, who were heirs to a Christian or Manichaean worldview that saw herbivores as good and predators as useless parasites whose removal, it was thought, would lead to the natural equivalent of utopia. This experiment failed as catastrophically as contemporaneous movements to create a socialist paradise (though doubtless for different reasons).

Unfortunately, however, we need specialized training – not just awe and humility – simply to perceive the damage wrought by this failed attempt to play God. Humans are adaptable animals; a short memory can be a distinct blessing in a world filled with terrors. And who really wants to be told that the pleasingly park-like forest where we go running and the nice, open lakeshore where we go for picnics are actually radically simplified, impoverished landscapes that fewer and fewer other species can call home? Who doesn’t thrill to the grace and beauty of a doe nuzzling her fawn, and shudder to think of the fangs and claws that honed such perfection through millions of years of co-evolution?

Beware more beasts

I still remember my first true encounter with existential terror. I think I must’ve been around 14. I was lying on my back in the field, looking up at the night sky, when all of a sudden I felt chilled to the core by the thought of all that “outer space” that was not and would never be human. I suppose the best way to express it would be to say that it was an encounter with supreme indifference. I realized in the most immediate and visceral way imaginable that everything humans think they knew about the universe is most likely, simply wrong. As I continued to stare upwards, I had the sensation that I was looking up into a gaping mouth with countess burning teeth, opening wider and wider.

Was this the kind of awe that leads to faith? I don’t know. But there’s no doubt it was a profoundly humbling experience. Heshel makes the important distinction that God is not the mystery itself but the revealer of mysteries; certainly I did not for a moment feel any impulse to worship the “outer space monster” that had intruded upon my imagination. But now that I think about it, I wonder if my immediate re-visioning of a cold indifference into a kind of fire-breathing monster wasn’t, in fact, an attempt to humanize the mystery? Isn’t this what the shaman does: stamp a human face on every part of the cosmos? Endow every sublime and mysterious thing with sentience, such that even the most terrible beings display a predator’s fond regard for its prey?

Presumably, anyone given to the kinds of thoughts and impressions I habitually entertained as a teen would have been prepared for shamanic initiation in a gatherer-hunter society. But while a shaman-to-be would often allow himself (or herself) to be symbolically eaten by a future power-animal, most if not all members of such societies would seek a relationship with a spirit guardian, often personified (yes, that’s the right word!) as an animal. The near-universality and apparent great antiquity of such practices led the eco-philosopher Paul Shepard (The Others) to speculate about “how the animals made us human.” Neanderthals, as far as we know, did not paint animals on cave walls; recent thinking depicts them without symbolic language, and hence without the cultural flexibility to adapt to the violent and abrupt climatic shifts of the Paleolithic.

Genocide against these competing hominids may have been our original sin. Be that as it may, there is mounting evidence that the megafauna of the Americas, which evolved in the absence of humans, was driven to rapid extinction by the Paleolithic invaders of 14,000 B.P. It is interesting that virtually every modern hunting people investigated by ethnographers in the last 150 years evinces a deep sense of angst about the necessity of killing. A sense of human fallenness seems a near-universality.

In indigenous worldviews, the prey animals must be implored in advance and propitiated after the fact for the gift (or loan) of their bodies. Often there are mythical Owners of the game who must also be propitiated. Strict rules (“taboos”) govern every aspect of the hunt and subsequent use of the animal. No part of a carcass may be tossed idly aside or otherwise treated with disrespect. Can we really say, with the spectres of Mad Cow Disease and regular e-coli outbreaks hovering over our antiseptic supermarket shelves, that these beliefs are so much superstition?

Christians would do well to remember that they are alone among the three Peoples of the Book in lacking a ritual analogue to these most ancient codes of reverential conduct toward our non-human brethren. From my perspective, as an outsider to all three religions, it does seem as if, in rejecting the minutely detailed halakhic superstructure of the “scribes and Pharisees,” Christianity deprived itself of a great source of complexity and nuance. The radically simplified mental landscape of the religion of St. Paul proved all to easy to subvert: with the conversion of Constantine, “love thine enemy” became “in hoc signo vinces.” A kind of schizophrenia crept in. The book of Revelation swarms with fevered nightmares of beasts, paranoid visions of cosmic evil and power-fantasies about a sacrificial lamb come back to life as a super-carnivore. And the Church became more Roman than the Romans in its fanatic determination to extract confessions and punish all thought-crimes with torture and execution.

Thankfully, the worst excesses of extreme dualism were kept at arm’s length. But there’s little doubt in my mind that our on-going war against the wild has deep roots in Christian tradition, whatever its ultimate origin (the Greeks, the Persians, the ideology of the Roman empire). Rebels against God included not simply heretics but wizards and witches (eventually meaning anyone with access to unofficial knowledge or power) and all the monsters of the bestiaries. The brutish, speech-deprived wild man was the archetypal enemy of the knight-errant in the mythology that grew out of the Crusades and formed the first truly popular literature after the introduction of the printing press. As most of us know only from reading Cervantes’ brilliant send-up of the genre, such romance novels were all the rage during the decades that saw the Conquest of the New World and the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“Love thine enemy” may or may not be too idealistic a formulation. But common sense alone suggests that respect must be extended toward our opponents, our adversaries, toward everything with the power to harm us. The cumulative wisdom of the ages – based on reverence, which is respect taken to a higher power – teaches that whatever has the power to harm may also heal us. The figure of the monster is thus deeply ambiguous. Our natural discomfort with ambiguity leads us to try to capture and confine it in one of two mental cages: either as an all-malevolent demon, or as a cuddly stuffed animal (cf. Defenders of Wildlife’s ever-popular version of the Gray Wolf).

I greatly fear that without the continuing presence of wolves, bears, jaguars, tigers, crocodiles, sharks and the like, an irreplaceable treasure house of visions to counter human self-centeredness will be lost. Our descendents will forget that there ever was such a thing as a beast whose violence was not only not malevolent, but could even be seen as necessary and beautiful. Already our children’s impressions of Wild Nature are shaped largely by Walt Disney, even as we teach them to fear the all-too-real human monsters that actively wish them harm.* Already, we in the United States are reverting to a medieval view of righteousness beset by cosmic evil, of barbarians at the gates (when in fact the barbarians are in charge). A universal myopia threatens to leave us forever suspended between utopia and dystopia: Don Quixote’s impossible dream unable to hide the horror of the endlessly recapitulated Conquest. Genocide, ecocide: we become what we most fear. “Feed my lambs,” said the gentle voice on Rwandan public radio over and over on the morning when the state-sanctioned killing began. God help us all.
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*See The illusion of safety in Creek Running North for a valuable corrective to the society-wide perception of the risk of child-snatching.

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