150 Years of the Atlantic May 2006

Nature & Environment

This is the fourth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature, Wandering Home and the forthcoming Deep Economy.
River Driftwood
October 1881
By Sarah Orne Jewett

In 1881, Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett (who would later go on to write the classic novel The Country of the Pointed Firs) was moved by a journey along a local river to thoughtful musing on the ruthlessness of nature and the interconnectedness of living things.

At the head of tide-water on the river there is a dam, and above it is a large mill-pond, where most of the people who row and sail keep their boats all summer long. I like, perhaps once a year, to cruise around the shores of this pretty sheet of water …

The great gulls watch me float along the river, curiously, and sail in the air overhead. Who knows what they say of me when they talk together; and what are they thinking about when they fly quickly out of sight? Perhaps they know something about me that I do not know of myself yet; and so may the musk-rat, as he hurries through the water with a little green branch in his mouth which will make a salad for his supper. He watches me with his sharp eyes, and whisks into his hole in the sunny side of the island. I have a respect for him; he is a busy creature, and he lives well. You might be hospitable and ask me to supper, musk-rat! I don’t know whether I should care much for you if I were another musk-rat, or you were a human being, but I shall know you again when I see you by an odd mark in the fur on the top of your head, and that is something. I suppose the captive mussels in your den are quaking now at hearing you come in. I have lost sight of you, but I shall remember where your house is. I do not think people are thankful enough who live out of the reach of beasts that would eat them. When one thinks of whole races of small creatures like the mussels which are the natural and proper food of others, it seems an awful fact and necessity of nature; perhaps, however, no more awful than our natural death appears to us. But there is something distressing about being eaten, and having one’s substance minister to a superior existence! It hurts one’s pride. A death that preserves and elevates our identity is much more consoling and satisfactory; but what can reconcile a bird to its future as part of the tissues of a cat, going stealthily afoot, and by nature treacherous? Who can say, however, that our death is not only a link in the chain? One thing is made the prey of another. In some way our present state ministers to the higher condition to which we are coming. The grass is made somehow from the ground, and presently that is turned into beef, and that goes to make part of a human being. We are not certain what an angel may be; but the life in us now will be necessary to the making of one by and by.

Volume 48, No. 288, pp. 500–510

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