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Novelist T.C. Boyle on Humankind's Arrogant Attitude Towards Nature

In "When the Killing’s Done," novelist T.C. Boyle once again examines humankind's conflicted attitudes toward the natural world.
 
 
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Mankind’s relationship with the natural world has dominated the news of late, with terrifying images of tsunami damage and well-founded fears of nuclear contamination. But even during periods when we don’t seem quite so puny or powerless, the topic captivates T.C. Boyle.

The much-honored and best-selling novelist often writes about people who take a hubristic attitude toward nature, assuming they can either tame it or bend it to meet their own needs. The natural world tends to elbow its way past their arrogance, or idealism, or combination of the two, vividly revealing the scope of their self-deception.

While Boyle mines their quests for humor, he also gives these characters a certain nobility: Even if their actions are ineffectual or counterproductive, they are driven by a desire to do good. Such is very much the case with the dual protagonists of his new novel When the Killing’s Done.

Like many of Boyle’s critically acclaimed works, this one is based on a real-life controversy: The effort by the National Park Service in the mid-2000s to return the Channel Islands, off the coast of Central California, to their natural state. This meant exterminating the invasive rats and feral pigs that were introduced by man a century or more ago and attempting to save the native dwarf fox.

Alma Boyd Takesue and Dave LaJoy -- both fictional characters -- are the antagonists; the book shifts back and forth between their points of view. She’s the National Park Service biologist in charge of the eradication effort; he’s an animal rights activist who is determined to stop what he perceives as mass murder. As we learn, both have family connections to the islands that go back generations.

Boyle discussed the book and his own relationship with nature in an interview at his Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home outside Santa Barbara, Calif.

Miller-McCune: When the Killing’s Done opens with an epigraph from the Book of Genesis: “And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

It seems to me you have hit on a very basic disagreement we’ve struggled with since at least since the time of Darwin: That is, a scientific view of life versus a sacred view of life. If you believe life is a sacred gift given to us by a deity or some other supernatural force, than it has to be protected at all costs. But if it’s the natural product of evolution, that’s something else entirely.

T.C. Boyle: The question posed by that epigraph from the Bible is really: Who gives us dominion over the other animals? Is it some sacred or divine thing? Or is it really just a free-for-all -- chaos and anarchy, and we just happen to be the smartest animals?

I love to think of the grizzly bear in this respect. The grizzly bear is much faster than the fastest human being. It runs as fast as a horse and has superb eyesight and the best smell of any animal -- better than a bloodhound. It is the king of everything. How could it ever conceive that some tiny little ape, that it could eat six of for lunch, would emerge from Africa and dominate it so much that we’ve destroyed the entire environment?

M-M: Anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that’s simply the situation we find ourselves in: We are forced to destroy life in order to sustain our own existence. But we hesitate to acknowledge that, because we don’t like its implications.

 
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