Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Man vs. Nature, as of 1932

Every time one re-reads a worthy book, one finds new resonances within it. I believe this is my fifth time with this volume, and its ecological view would have found agreement back then with J.R.R. Tolkien, as it finds resonance today:

He wondered how all this cultivated part of Dartmoor would have looked, say, in Tertiary times, before the advent of man on the planet; before that uglifying master-brute had put a hand to his congenial and self-honoured labour of clearing lands of their established life. Savage and lovely beyond thought, no doubt. So what had been gained by the substitution? Additional sources of food supply for man himself and some dozen kinds of degenerated animals, his servants. For this, fair trees had been uprooted, strange, beautiful beasts and snakes of the wild exterminated, exquisite birds made rare or extinct, the inhabitants of the streams slaughtered and poisoned. Verily, a ruthless campaign!

And the effective result? Why, this foul trail of earth-viscera and metamorphosis wheresoever man passed. All over England and Europe, and gradually all over the world, the houses, pavements, factories, mines, quarries, cuttings, bridges, railways, cars, engines and machinery, slag-heaps, gas-works, roads, stagnant canals, the grime of unreckonable chimneys, the grit and dust of a hell-maze of thoroughfares; and the slums, and backyards, and hidden corners of filth and shame. Or the cabbage-rows, and manure-heaps, sties, stables and pens—to demonstrate the superlative vulgarity of this scrambler for easy food, the human biped, whose stomach was paramount in the existence of a mystic universe.

The source?  This comes from  Chapter VI of Devil's Tor (1932) by David Lindsay.


  1. That's a great passage, Doug. Thanks for sharing it. --md

  2. There's a kinship with Tolkien's thought, but only up to a point. Lindsay expresses a hostility toward humans ("the human biped, whose stomach was paramount") that is alien to Tolkien. Lindsay's kinship there is with some deep ecologists who (if I'm not mistaken) think the ideal would be a few hundred thousand human hunter-gatherers. Tolkien's ethic was that of stewardship, rooted in ancient Hebrew-Christian thought. The book by Dickerson and Evans is a reliable exposition of Tolkien's thinking. Lindsay's passage is, perhaps, the expression of a feeling rather than a philosophical-religious wisdom. But it's a striking, poetic passage. Have you looked into Paul Kingsnorth's Dark Mountain thing?

    Dale Nelson

  3. I read Kingsnorth's novel The Wake and thought it rather pretentious and dull. I don't know much about the Dark Mountain thing, save for what I've just read online. But I do think you underestimate Tolkien's own misanthropy. Take his hobbits for example. For as much as he himself claimed to be hobbit-like (and claimed he was like Bilbo), he was frequently wryly critical of hobbits themselves, save (especially) Bilbo and Frodo, who were exceptions as hobbits. Still, as you suggest, Lindsay's comment is the more pointed.