Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Fundamentally animal

In her book on gardening, Cultivating Delight, Diane Ackerman writes: "We believe [nature] is beneath us, or rather behind us. We believe we are evolution's goal, and that what is animal is dirty, low-class, immoral. We think we can somehow shed our animal nature."

Lord knows, we try. Spirituality gurus and televangelists make a fortune promising us that we can leave our animal natures behind and ascend to a new airy-fairy plane of existence. Attend their workshops, buy their books, and biology falls away to fleshless bliss.

How long we have labored in the Judeo-Christian West with a distrust of the body, seeing it as something verminous and corruptible. How long we have dreamed of flying free of the blood and visera and foul excretions -- the immaterial self ascending like a luminous vapor.

The thing I love most about living part of each year in the tropics is feeling my animal self. Being (almost) naked most of the time in sun and breeze. Diving in the water like a fish. Living cheek by jowl with geckoes, boas, hummingbirds, anis, frogs, scorpions and (grrr!) termites. None of that New England wrap -- the insulated walls, double-glazed windows, bulky clothing, tidy artificial lawns -- that separates us from the material ambiance from which we came. Here in the tropics I love the way the untidy vegetation sprawls, the way the sun bakes and shatters, the way the whole place would revert to wilderness if unattended for a minute.

Which is not to say I don't love New England too -- the reliable high-speed internet, the college library, the supermarket burgeoning with every imaginable food -- but I don't forget that all of that is as much a part of our animal natures as (in Ackerman's words) a wombat's burrow.

She writes: "Accepting our own wilderness, rejoicing in it, will be an important step toward learning how best to promote what we love about human nature and curb what shames us. If we can achieve that, a refined sense of ourselves as fundamentally animal, then the world we share -- what we call nature -- will feel homier, and we'll want to protect it like a second skin."

(In transit tomorrow, from the tropics to New England. See you Friday.)