The Courtesy of Nature



    PERHAPS one of the things that charm us most, as we come back each year to the green world out of the stress of our city life, is the great courtesy of nature, if one may call it so. For her laws, though inexorable, and even ruthless at times, are none the less gentle. I doubt if there is cruelty in nature. We must wait until man appears and evil is born into the world, before we find anything of malice or greed in creation.
    It is truly a state of war, in which all the wild things live, whether they dress in leaf or skin, fur, feather, bark, or scale. The unceasing struggle for self-preservation and the perpetuation of kind is veiled but real. And [Page 165] great nature, which looks to the casual eye so calm, so unstirring, so saturated with content and repose and the essence of peace, is actually in hourly ferment of strife. To our housebred sentiment, it seems a pathetic thing that every wild creature should die a violent death. But, after all, what better fate could befall it than to render its life up for the preservation of other life more complex, more active, more intelligent than its own? It is only man who kills wantonly. The beasts that live by killing kill only as hunger bids.
    I think we feel the influence of such natural benignity in our pleasures of the open air. One may say, without being misanthropic, that the greatest joy in nature is the absence of man. For in our retreat to the woods we escape what is basest in ourselves; our fellow mortals are not thrust upon us so closely; we have room and time to choose our companions; and we forget for awhile the cruelty of fear and greed.
    I know the theme is deeper than I can go [Page 166]. The great dilemma of humanity is not to be solved offhand. And there remains, after all, our hand-to-hand strife for a living, in which the weak go to the wall. I do think, however, that we might learn a lesson from that great nature which seems so impersonal, and sometimes so reckless of life. We might learn the courtesy of tolerance.
    Here is our city life, our modern modus vivendi, mitigate it as we please, a veiled yet ruthless encounter man to man, – a strife to the death. You may cushion your pews and deaden your walls, and replenish your table from the ends of the earth; you may lull yourself with sermons and salve you conscience by founding charlatan colleges and establishing impertinent charities; but the fact remains that men and women are being worked to death in order that you and I may have our luxuries.
    “Well, what then? This is no more than happens in a state of nature,” you say. Yes, it is more. For in nature one is content with [Page 167] enough; in civilization one is never content. One of the chief characteristics that we seem to have brought with us from an earlier stage of existence is the baleful heritage of fear. Indeed we seem to have cherished and developed it past all need. It is fear that is at the root of all cruelty and greed, the two evils that most disgrace the life of man. Under primitive conditions, the dangers to life are greater, and the chances of security less; so that it behooves the savage to go warily. Fear is his vigilant warden. But as he makes progress toward the amenities of a more civilized existence, surely, one might suppose, fear would be the first trait he would lose. For the first great boon of his advancement must be immunity from danger. The first good that comes to him from combining in a recognized structure of society, however crude, must be security of life. He can have less and less need of fear as a delicate instant monitor for self-preservation. Unfortunately, this is not so. Instead of laying aside fear [Page 168], we have developed new desires, absurd and unthought-of requirements, that can only be satisfied, as they increase, by ever-increasing acquisitions of property and stores of wealth wrung from the earth. Nor is this enough; we are still not satisfied with what we can earn by labour; we must plunder from our weaker fellows, outwitting them in relentless guile; until in the midst of plenty the struggle for a bare existence is as fierce as it ever was among the tribes of our predecessors.
    Very likely this vigorous process of social and individual evolution is productive of some good qualities; we are not likely to become lazy under it; none the less it seems to common sense terribly wasteful, as wasteful as the processes of nature. And if we are not to devise means to better nature, if we are not to use our intelligence for purposes more benign than those of the pre-human and sub-human creation, I can form no notion of the proper use of mind at all. You may tell me that the inexorable law of nature has provided [Page 169] for progress by the simple means of preserving the fittest to survive, and that in human society we merely follow the same methods. But I say that the laws of nature can offer the soul no criterion for conduct. I only exist to temper the occurrences of nature, to deflect them to my own needs, and to alter my own human nature continually for the better. I do not know what the soul is, but I know that it exists; and I know that its admonitions form a more beautiful sanction for conduct than the primitive code of evolution taken alone. But I do not believe that in our finer moments we shall find any fault with nature, though we shall find a taint in ourselves. I believe that we must in a large measure reverse the law of selection when we reach human society, but that at the same time we must remain nearer to nature in many ways than we are accustomed to do.
    I do not see any greed in nature. I do not find any creature fighting for more than it actually needs at the moment. I do not see [Page 170] any cruelty in nature, any wanton destruction, except among those primitive voters, our arboreal ancestors, the apes. But that is the taint of human ingenuity beginning to appear. I find in the world of green unflinching responsibility, abiding, perdurable patience, and a courtesy that is too large, too sure, for the cruelty and greed of man [Page 171].