“Nature Must Not Win the Game”

Jon Quitslund

This post was composed last month, and then the holidays intervened.  As is appropriate in January, it looks both backward and forward.

Back in December, my friend Charles Schmid showed up, as he usually does, as a watchdog participant on the COBI committee charged with improving City policies related to significant trees, vegetated buffer zones, and the forested areas of Bainbridge Island.  At the end of the meeting, he passed over to me a clipping he had saved from the Kitsap Sun newspaper.

I used to write a bi-weekly column for the Bremerton paper.  That experiment started me on the path I’m still following, with no end in sight, in the writing I’m doing now under Sustainable Bainbridge auspices.

My column was originally published some time in 2005.   I find in it some uncanny resonance with our situation today, and I don’t think I’m capable of writing as well now, so I’m republishing the old column, slightly revised.

. . .

An article on an inside page of the New York Times for Dec. 27, 2004 caught my eye, and I tore the page out to save it – something I rarely have the presence of mind to do.  The reporter, Andy Newman, worked into his story some ideas that are relevant, I think, to the life of our Bainbridge Island community right now.

Mr. Newman describes his discovery of an enigmatic quotation in a subway station below 42nd Street in Manhattan: “Nature must not win the game, but she cannot lose.”  This wasn’t the work of some graffiti artist; it appears in a piece of public art (“Under Bryant Park,” by Samm Kunce) that replaces the old blank wall tiles.

Curiosity prompted Mr. Newman to talk with others who had paused to think about the riddle on the wall.  A patrolman with the transit police said of our contest with nature, “It seems like we as a people in this city have to overcome everything to live.”  He added, however, that since nature is bigger than we are, all around us and within us, we’re only contending against ourselves.  “It’s like a double negative, a Catch-22. If we win, we lose.”

The words on the subway wall come from C. G. Jung, one of the fathers of psychoanalysis and of psychoanalytically oriented inquiries into the ancient and modern cultures of the world.  The sentence appears in Jung’s Alchemical Studies.  Here it is again, with some explanatory context:

Nature must not win the game, but she cannot lose. And whenever the conscious mind clings to hard and fast concepts and gets caught in its own rules and regulations – as is unavoidable and of the essence of civilized consciousness – nature pops up with her inescapable demands.

Meredith Sabini, the editor of a collection of Jung’s writings on nature, explains that Jung saw in human nature an unconscious, instinctual component that contains both wisdom and wildness.  Jung thought that human nature must be disciplined by civilized consciousness.  In the modern world, however, that consciousness has developed a wildness of its own, contrary to nature.  If discipline by civilizing impulses and institutions goes too far, not nurturing but threatening what is felt to be essential to happiness, the consequence, within an individual and even in the fabric of a culture, will be an eruption of nature’s “inescapable demands.”

Why does civilization, seen in relation to nature (both the non-human environment and the biologically determined aspect of our own being), always tend to go too far?  Why do we strive to “win the game”?

These are questions I can’t answer, but I think that if we fail to ponder them, and to restrain our impulses by so doing, we are asking for even more trouble than we see around us today.

Anthropologists have studied the forces, both conscious and unconscious, at work in the creation of everything that is culture, not nature.  To illustrate the difference: Humans have a natural aptitude for language learning, but languages define our culture, not the natural order of things.  So the nature/culture dichotomy is cultural, not natural.

In nature, nothing has a name, and a cyclical flux is the way of the world.  Sometimes the flux is pleasant, sometimes it’s frightening: we don’t doubt that the sun will come up every morning, and we respond with shock and awe to such dark forces as earthquakes and tsunamis.  Nobody owns anything, and neither the sun nor the tsunami takes any notice of us.  Can we be forgiven for adopting a defensive or aggressive stance toward nature?

Without mythology and beliefs that reach beyond the physical world, we would have no understanding of death, no way of compensating for personal losses, no social fabric.

The profound otherness and indifference of nature prompt fear in many people, and the instinctive responses of ‘fight or flight.’  To an extent that seems to me tragic, modern civilization reinforces those instincts.  It’s been said that human beings are very good at two things: self-deception and exploitation.  We have our culture, not our innate characteristics, to thank for those ingrained habits.

In the pluralistic society we have been blessed with, it should be possible to come to terms with otherness – even to celebrate it.  If our survival depends on confronting both terrorists and terror with courage, it also depends on our achieving a sustainable economy within the limits set by nature.

. . .

That last sentence, in all its abruptness, is just as I wrote it in 2005.  A lot has happened since then.  Are we more ready now to confront terror and terrorism with courage, and at the same time to confront the local and global consequences of climate change, caused by our advancing (pardon my irony) civilization?

This was to be my last post in 2015, and now it’s the first for 2016.  I’ll be writing about the Comp Plan update throughout the year.  The schedule for completion of the Comp Plan was recently revised, and the Planning Commission will be occupied with that, and with related work (notably, regulations to protect and conserve groundwater, and an update of the island-wide transportation plan) through September.  Stay tuned.


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