Joy Williams’ Ill Nature: A Review

First published in 2001, and now reissued in paperback by Lyons Paperback, Williams’ “rants and reflections on humanity and other animals” (per the subtitle), is a collection of essays on humanity’s destruction of nature and war against animals written in a tone of angry cynicism: anger at what we have done and are doing, cynicism that we will ever really do anything about it. These are powerful and disturbing essays on such topics as the destruction of the Everglades, the sterility of master planned developments, the cruelties of agribusiness and scientific research, the pseudo-philosophical blather that pretends to justify hunting (not a spiritual pursuit but an atavistic delight in slaughter), and over population. There is little of what passes for “reasonable” or “rational” in these essays, precisely because the reasonable and rational approaches to environmental issues and animal rights, among other topics, are Williams’ ultimate targets.

No reader can escape unscathed from these essays. As “consumers,” we are actively (definitely not passively) complicit in these crimes. Do you eat any kind of meat? Then you are an active supporter of agribusiness, which treats farm animals as units of production and commodities, not as living beings with hearts and minds that suffer in overcrowding, forced feeding, and production-line slaughter. Do you contribute money to the flagship environmental and animal protection organizations? Then you participate in the compromises and rational cost/benefit analyses that undermine the stated missions of these institutions. Do you want babies? Then you are contributing to over population. Do you visit nature preserves and national parks? Then you are endorsing the idea that Nature is something other than us, is something meant for sentimental recreation and resource management, that is, ours.

Williams does not let wildlife biologists off the hook. Snarky asides let us know that she has no patience with collaring and monitoring wild animals for the purpose of adding to human knowledge. She cites one admittedly astonishing and shocking experiment by Canadian scientists, in which they leased a number of pristine lakes and deliberately subjected them to pollutants of various kinds and concentrations in order to see what would happen. Not surprisingly, all life in the lakes died; the lakes themselves died. It will take decades if not generations for the lakes to recover. Why did the scientists do this? Everyone who wanted to know already knew what would happen, after all. Pollution is not a new phenomenon. Those who didn’t want to know paid no attention to the scientists’ experiments. They were pointless.

This experiment reminds me of one conducted by E. O. Wilson and Daniel S. Simberloff in the 1960’s, in which they “removed” the original fauna (mostly insect species) from small mangrove islands in Florida Bay by tenting and fumigating them with methyl bromide (in other words, they exterminated all the brutes) and then watched and waited to see how quickly they were repopulated. This is what passes for science these days. Wilson has been beatified not only by the scientific community (especially those who are temperamentally attracted to his theory of sociobiology) but by the public at large; he’s virtually the Pope Francis of naturalists. It’s too bad Williams, herself once a long-time resident of Florida, didn’t turn her attention to this experiment in her own back yard. Maybe she didn’t know about it.

There is, of course, a problem: Williams is a contemporary American woman, an owner and seller of land, a writer and a professor of writing. She owns dogs. The dog is the species which has been subjected to the most manipulation and disfigurement to suit human purposes and whims of all domestic creatures. Some breeds are so distorted that they can hardly breathe and can no long give birth naturally but have their pups routinely delivered by Caesarian section. None could survive for long in the wild, despite the fact that they are, genetically, wolves. All of which is to say that Williams, along with all the rest of us, cannot escape from the unnatural world we human beings have created—and continue to create: which is enough to infuriate anyone who cares to the extent that Williams obviously does. Of which there are too few to make any real difference to the big picture, in the long run.

What is happening on the scale of the big picture and the long run is the likely fact that we have already passed the tipping point on global warming (“climate change” is far too innocuous a term, meant to deflect the criticisms of deniers), that we already have far too many people on this planet and will have many more—too many for resource management schemes or renewable energy infrastructure to satisfy—, that wild elephants will probably be extinct within a decade or two, and that water and food shortages, along with the frustrations of crowded, poorly educated, and jobless young men, will lead to more and more deadly wars than we already have. Meanwhile, bioengineers cook up schemes for subjecting the forces of nature to human control, with results that are admittedly unpredictable. This fantasy is based on the false notion that Nature is a system; systems can be controlled, tinkered with, reset, understood.

Many years ago I read an article in some national magazine in which the author argued that, with Nature already gone or domesticated, we had no choice but to treat the earth as a great manmade garden. He seemed to think that we could, by means of our intelligence and technology, recreate Eden. that is, we could systematize nature. Apparently he had not noticed (most people don’t, although the writers of The Simpsons did), that Eden was a small paradise circumscribed by the rest of the world, that beyond the gates were death, disease, and hardship. After all, where else could God have cast them out to? God made or manmade, Paradise is a dream, a fantasy, in which all the untidiness and unpredictability of reality have been eliminated. Paradise, Eden, Utopia. Systems all. Rational. Reasonable. Impossible.

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  • Wild Spirit Louisiana  On October 14, 2015 at 9:17 PM

    So true that many of these so called scientific experiments are absurd (occasionally horrific) and a waste of time. Can you comment on the reason owning or selling land is an issue? Also, the notion of tipping point — although it seems likely that we are headed for a much different world, why not at least go on and do the best we can to restore and preserve what is good and useful — making some havens for wild life and people and adapting to new ways of living? Is it really too little, too late? How can anyone know this?

    • William L. Scurrah  On October 15, 2015 at 7:37 AM

      Williams’ book includes an essay titled “”One Acre” in which she meditates on the common notions of land ownership–it’s well worth a read, as is the whole book (I read it straight through in one day). She is less optimistic, I think, than most people about the prospects for mitigating, let alone reversing, the effects of human activity on Nature.

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