Once upon a time I was reading King Lear, which isn’t my favorite bit of Shakespeare, but it’s right near the top and I got thinking about Edmund, the bastard son of the Duke who says this:

“Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound.
Why bastard? wherefor base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word, ‘legitimate’:
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”

Edgar is talking about his Nature. He is saying that he must act according to his nature and that his nature is that of a bastard and that this nature was given to him, he has no choice.

I have noticed that in Shakespeare’s plays the bastards are always the bad guys. It is the bastard’s nature to be so. And the legitimate son is the good guy, the hero, or the victim of the bastard and often the one who settles things, or at least makes it through the end of the tragedy without dying like everyone else. The legitimate son is honorable, respectable, often clever and oh-so-civilized. The bastard is often also clever (sometimes more clever than the legitimate son), but he is also unpredictable, often two-faced, and undermines the legitimate son.

The bastard son and the legitimate son can be seen as metaphors for nature and civilization respectively. The bastard son is cruel and unpredictable, but he can’t help it. It’s just the way he is. He was made that way by his situation. The legitimate son is not cruel, he is lawful, he is often the innocent and oblivious victim to the mechanization of the bastard, often underestimating the bastard and suffering for it. But in the end, the legitimate son always wins, though he often has lots of help.

But what makes a bastard a bastard except the machinations of man. If there were no such thing as marriage, there would be no legitimate sons, and if there were no legitimate sons, there would be no bastards. All would be equal, none greater than the other.

As I contemplate my front walkway this metaphor comes home to me. The paving stones, perfectly placed are overrun again with weeds. I pull them up and they grow back. They drive me crazy! I hate weeding my darn sidewalk but there they are again, weeds. Nature. Invading my nice civilized sidewalk. (My efforts to plant spanish moss and creeping thyme between the paving stones have failed. Only clover, plantago and shephard’s purse wants to grow there. If they were all nice and short, I wouldn’t mind so much.) But, what if there were no paving stones? Then I would love the weeds. I would value them as I do any other plant in my garden because without them, I’d be walking in mud.

There was a time long ago when the people of Europe lived in “harmony” (in quotes because it’s relative) with Nature, but that time was long over before Shakespeare was born. To them, Nature was a cruel and unpredictable goddess (I lowercase goddess on purpose there because She wasn’t really a Goddess to them.). She was failed crops, hailstorms, swarms of locusts, poisonous reptiles and insects, rodents that ate their food and spread diseases, poisonous plants, thorns, and predators who ate their livestock and sometimes their kids. It wasn’t until relatively recent times that nature became flowers, and butterflies, and hummingbirds and majestic trees and fluffy bunnies. Incidentally, it wasn’t that to the prehistoric people who lived in harmony with nature either. It took wiping out most of our natural predators and paving most of our arable land to do that and even still, there’s mosquitoes.

A lot of people think of ancient Pagans and think “Oh, they lived in harmony with Nature” or “Oh, they held Nature sacred.” but that’s not necessarily true. All civilized societies have seen nature as an adversary. Something to be fought back, kept away, tamed into manicured lawns, trimmed trees and neatly rowed crops. Walls were built to keep out, not only human enemies but nature as well. People who lived off in nature away from civilization were seen as odd and branded with derogatory terms and Gods and Goddesses of natural realms had the most terrifying stories told about them (read a bit about Artemis, Dionysus, and Hecate and you’ll see what I mean.)

But as Edmund’s status as a bastard would disappear with the institution of marriage (a civilizing force)

Why bastard? wherefor base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue?

So too does the attitude toward nature disappear if civilization did not exist.

But both marriage and civilization serve an important role to the human. Without these, we must live in harmony with nature because we cannot separate ourselves from it. We would not be able to hold ourselves above the animals, we would not be able to speak of ourselves as guardians of nature. We would be just like all the other animals. Civilization allows us to transfer property, to keep records, to maintain knowledge, to store food, to think of ourselves as above other species.

Civilization is what allows us to be such a successful species. Without it, we would be subject to Nature. To exposure, predation, disease, starvation. our numbers would dwindle, and perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad.

It may seem that from Nature’s point of view that we are the bastards undermining the sanctity of Her legitimate children, usurping their lands, driving them out and stealing their birthrights. But remember that bastardy was invented by civilization. Nature cares no more for any of us that love Her than she does those who don’t. Earthquakes, storms, tidal waves, plague are going to take as many environmentalists as they do oil barons (probably more because the oil barons can afford to buy bubbles to live in) and dogs and cats and birds and fish are going to die too. Nature can be a loving mother, but in the end She is pragmatic and nonpartisan. What is best for the All is what will be done and the most convenient will be the ones sacrificed. Nature loves us (ALL species) equally, and she will destroy as many of us indiscriminately as she needs to in order to ensure the survival of some. It seems horrible on the surface, but it is really quite a beautiful mystery. Great Mother Gaia, the Mother of us All destroys randomly because she loves us too much to choose. There are no bastards- no matter how bastardly we may behave!

But is Nature a bastard? Will the legitimate son eventually vanquish Her? The birth of civilization made Her a bastard, for She was first, She is after all fatherless, and civilization invented bastards. I think civilization could vanquish the spirit of Gaia, yes, though it certainly won’t be easy and a whole lot of other characters in the play would be dead before the closing act. Her material form would still flow through space, barren and on life support provided by civilization. But She’d probably still scheme from the dungeon, awaiting Her chance to rise up and strike back and claim the throne She enjoyed before that upstart legitimate civilization came into being.

Liked it? Take a second to support Morningbird on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!