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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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TCB: We can intellectualize it and say, “I won’t kill anything.” But we are apes. We are hunter-gatherers, and we are killers. We do kill and eat other animals. But to what degree do you take that? As Dave points out, pigs are as smart as a 3-year-old child. We have them in factories full of stink and ammonia where they can’t turn around or see daylight their entire lives. It’s like some weird Auschwitz or science fiction movie.

There are many ironies here. Alma and Dave believe in many of the same things. They’re both vegetarians. They believe in preserving wildlife and the environment. But they disagree on this essential question. Dave believes all life is sacred.

Alma agrees, but she believes in making exceptions for practical considerations, such as killing pigs and rats to save indigenous species that are unique to this island, and are on the verge of extinction. You must sacrifice (some life for this greater good). That’s what this debate is about. This brings it down to its essential elements, in a very primitive place.

M-M: Do you feel an internal tug between the scientific and spiritual points of view?

TCB: Of course. That’s why I’m writing about it. That’s all I write about. When you’re writing about the environment, and our place in it as animals, you’re asking questions that go beyond either religion or science, both of which are a kind of voodoo. Neither really gives you the answers that you want in any definitive way.

Many people in our society -- and I’m one of them -- have given up religion for science, because science is demonstrable. I can drop that grape on the ground and know damn well it will adhere to the law of gravity. But we don’t know what we’re doing here, and it’s utterly depressing.

If there’s no God, and science can’t tell you what it’s all about, what do you do? I write books. And I find myself in nature -- in our backcountry here, or more often in the Sierras. I rent a house, work there and go out in the woods, by myself.

M-M: Is that a scientific or spiritual journey?

TCB: I think it’s more of a spiritual journey. What I’m doing is putting the science out of my head, and trying not to notice the trees being killed by the drought, or remembering the scientific names of things. I’m just observing, the way you do when you’re a child. Like Wordsworth would try to recapture, in some of his later poems, going back to your childhood in nature, when you were just a creature in a place of wonder.

M-M: And you can recapture that?

TCB: I try! You’re shutting down the conscious mind to a degree when you’re exploring. I might go to the same waterfall several days in a row, but each day, it’s different. The light is different, the creatures you see are different, what you observe is different, your feelings are different. It’s very important to me to be in a wild place alone occasionally. I feel bad for the people in the world … who don’t know any nature whatsoever. It’s alien to be separated from nature, because we’re animals. My favorite [place to commune with nature] is up in the sequoias. I’ve been up there every season of the year. I look forward to going back real soon. Sometimes my wife or kids will go with me into the woods, but mainly it’s just me.

M-M: Sounds good unless you fall into a crevice, like the guy in 127 Hours.

 
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