Monday, December 2, 2013

The Evil of Nature

Many of us comfortable lazy cityfolk types forget the evil of nature. Maybe we never knew nature could be evil to begin with, if we were sheltered enough, naive enough, clueless enough.

The evil of nature is not so much in the natural disasters that shake our faiths, that force us to ask questions like, “If there’s a God, why did he allow that tsunami/earthquake/tornado?” The evil of nature is in the everyday living creatures which form the circle of life. The spider in Robert Frost’s poetry. Wilson Rawls’ mountain lion. The cat that screws with a mouse until it gives up trying to run yet has killed for no reason pertaining to hunger. The whales that play soccer with baby seals for sport.

That’s not evil, you say. That’s nature. That’s the basic instinct of animals. They don't know any better.

Why, in this age when people expect household pets to be treated with almost the same dignity and respect as people, are we so willing to give animals the benefit of the doubt? Why are we so eager to insist that humans who exhibit the ability to close off their souls or conscience to commit unspeakable acts are Evil instead of “naturally inclined towards predatory behavior”?

The book Serena by Ron Rash aims to serve as a wake-up call for us, a reminder that nature can be downright ornery when it’s not busy being indifferent. At the book’s dark heart is the titular character, a woman whose singularity of focus and purpose is so bald and free of conscience as to distract readers from the bigger messages the novel attempts to tackle.

While we pontificate on the nature of things, on what or who is evil and good, nature itself plays a game free of morality or ethics, a game of predators, of accidents, of apathy.

The plot itself is savory enough for the modern reader, we who have dined with shifty-eyed glee on antihero meals like Walter White or Tony Soprano. It’s the story of a beautiful and sultry orphan girl who seduces her way into the lap of power. Serena marries a man whose aim is to level the whole earth of its timber, but first he must raze the Appalachians, and she wants to watch the destruction happen.

(NOTE: If my plot/review here skirts on the border of Spoiler Alerts, I apologize, but the fate coming to most of the characters in the novel hardly requires Sherlock Holmes, yet this knowledge didn’t stop me for a second from devouring the book.)

The main characters are Serena and Pemberton, the ruthless timber barons; the young girl knocked up by Pemberton before he was seduced into marriage in Boston and her endangered son; the wealthy movers and shakers on both sides of the fight to destroy or protect the land; and the men desperate for scarce Depression-era work, even if their lives are at risk and the wages are pathetic.

The working men are worth less than the trees, just another part of nature the Pembertons want to sap.

Although not a horror book, the Pembertons manage to kill more people than Jason Voorhees. Some of them they plot and devise to kill. Others they merely unleash on an indifferent and harsh nature. And Serena overlooks it all with a trained hawk on her arm, a hawk gifted at out-predatoring all other predators.

The symbolism is rarely subtle, nor are the working men’s pseudo-philosophical conversations. But I’ve come to believe that some books are better by not being subtle. Some parts of life are obvious but still more than worthy of exploration.

We in our comfy air-conditioned multi-thousand-square-foot homes judge the Pembertons and their cronies for raping the land. How dare they. We would never. We judge them for treating their employees like dirt. How dare they. We would never. We judge everyone for seeing the evil in a person and doing nothing about it. How dare they. We would never.

Well, Serena doesn’t give a good galdern what you think. You ner nobody else neither. Her past is mysterious. Burned houses. Dead lumber baron parents. Enough knowledge of sawyering, books and foreign languages to require two or three deals with the Devil himself. Neither knowing what she is, nor turning a blind eye, nor remaining gleefully ignorant will protect you.

You are the baby seal, and she is the killer whale. And it’s perfectly natural. Right?

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