It’s National Hagfish Day, a day to focus on the unattractive and downright disgusting or horrific creatures of nature.* Seemed like a good time to run this portion of my MFA third semester research project, “A Place in the Family.” This paper focused on learning from women nature writers how to reconnect with nature. It’s important, I think, to value all creatures and to figure out where they belong in our ecological family of creation.
Nature and humans are connected by our creation. . . . With our anthropocentric tendencies, we forget that we have been created just as the frog and the lily pad, the bird and the tree. It’s easy to forget our connection to nature because we have severed ourselves from it.
Once, not so long ago, humans respected nature, relying on it for many of our needs; we were a community with interacting species. More than just physical necessities, nature provided us with identity and purpose. A man was nothing without land to till or livestock to tend. But with the Industrial Revolution and subsequent advancements, humans built more walls, poured more concrete, and founded larger towns rather than small sustainable communities. As our need for nature’s resources expanded, our regard and respect for nature itself grew smaller. Rather than partners, we turned ourselves into strangers.
Nature finds its place with us by simply being close by.
Nature, however, has not drawn back from remaining connected with us. The tree that forces its roots through the sidewalk, a sparrow that builds its nest in a stoplight, the ant that makes its way into the pantry, and the frog that makes its home in the siding–nature finds its place with us not in an intentional desire for closeness, but by simply being close by. Humans will never find a complete sense of place until we rediscover the community that is waiting in nature. To do this, however, we must repair our damaged and neglected ties to nature including our toxic thoughts about it. . . .
One toxic mindset that we must address is our repulsion of or prejudice against certain parts of nature. In our obsession with aesthetics, we easily disregard or avoid species that we find unappealing. The goblin shark with its horrific horn-like snout and snaggle-toothed mouth; hairless cats with smooth gray skin instead of fluffy fur; proboscis monkeys with their Jimmy Durante-esque nose; the giant water bug with its capacity to suck the life out of frogs and small snakes; the dolls eye plant with blossoms resembling eyeballs impaled on red stems; viruses with an appetite for flesh or brain; and, most notably, the recent winner of the world’s ugliest animal contest, the blobfish with its gelatinous body, drooping nose, and down-turned mouth.
No doubt, along with its magnificently beautiful and awe-inspiring facets, nature presents no small array of poisonous, frightening, and downright horrifying species. One creature was appalling enough to shake Charles Darwin’s religious faith. He said, “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.”
Even much less gruesome species of insects . . . receive derogatory reviews. I walked out my front door a few weeks ago to find what looked like a yellow and black smiley face stuck in the middle of an ornate spider’s web strung across my porch. After some examination and a quick check on the Internet, I found the smiley face to be the spider itself–a star spider flaunting its striking yellow abdomen with black dots surrounding it. Later that day I posted a picture of the spider on Facebook, garnering various remarks. One friend commiserated with me about the inconvenience of the tenacious spiders that build webs across his walkway. Another aptly represented how many people feel about nature: “Oh, sick. Another reason I’m moving back north.”
Insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.
Instinctively, we draw back in horror at creatures with more than two eyes and four legs, or an exoskeleton rather than fur. No doubt, horrific species exist with horrific habits. Even Annie Dillard, in her minute inspection and awe of nature, seems to shudder as she writes, “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. . . . I ask why of almost every insect I see. . . . But they make up the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship” (Pilgrim Tinker Creek,64–65).
However, just as Dillard acknowledged, the unattractive and horrific still hold purpose and value, even if only because they are living creatures. Gretel Ehrlich concurs with the need to connect with the uncomely species. Though in Wyoming Ehrlich typically encountered cattle, horses, and prairie dogs, with the summer heat came a plethora of insects. Like Dillard, she marvels at the populace of the insect world. “It’s said that 80 percent of all animal species are insects. . . . It does no good to ask . . . why so many insects exist–so I content myself with the cold ingenuity of their lives,” and she describes how ants heat their underground chambers in the winter by sending up worker ants to act as solar collectors (Solace of Open Spaces, 69). Instead of disregarding the ants and other insects, she studies them to understand their patterns and habits.
From black mold to flesh eating bacteria, from the sea louse to the oar fish, from the cockroach to the giant water bug, unappealing or dangerous species call for inspection, not repulsion. . . . [Why is it] not deemed unacceptable to grimace at an intricate species with a life and purpose its own as a part of creation that in the beginning God called good? It isn’t necessary to be best friends with everyone in a community, but we must respect them.