Beating a Rainbow to Death

By | October 10, 2012

“The dorado did a most extraordinary thing as it died: it began to flash all kinds of colors in rapid succession. Blue, green, red, gold, and violet flickered and shimmered neon-like on its surface as it struggled. I felt like I was beating a rainbow to death” —Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Maybe once upon a time, Americans felt that they had to fight against nature. Just after they hopped off the Mayflower, perhaps. Or that first winter in Jamestown. Along the Oregon Trail. (although, if they’d asked the people that were already living here, they might’ve learned different, but that’s another column). For most of us, it’s no longer like that. Unless a disaster happens. Like it does to the main character of Life of Pi, by Yann Martel.

What I do want to do is examine this book on two fronts with you. Because Pi is unique because it is a book about both religion and nature. Our relationship with God, and our relationship with creation.

On the most basic level this is a story about a shipwreck. But there’s so much more to it than that (and why does every book I read this summer have a shipwreck in it, anyway?). Pi endures grief and fear of nature (the ship sank and he’s drifting on a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger). But he also experiences transcendence through both nature in general and the tiger himself. He sees the stars from the middle of the ocean. He realizes that without the tiger in front of him keeping his focus, he would be forced to face his very real grief.

But I can’t quote the whole book for you. Read it if you’d like. Instead, let’s use the story as a launching point to think quickly about our own relationship to both God and nature. And since we tend to focus on parenting around here, let’s take that into consideration too.

Is nature something to conquer, or something to enjoy? Before you answer, think again. How many times have you gone mountain biking and talked throughout about how it’s you “against” the trail? Or climbed to the summit of a mountain and spoken of how you’ve “defeated” it? Victory!

Just exactly what is it we feel about nature, anyway? It makes a person wonder just how much of those pioneer forebears we still have “inside” our heads, shaking in their homemade shoes as wolves howl outside the door of their log cabin from the seemingly endless woods.

This is, essentially, what the title character faces in the scene that gives this post its title. Hunger and tiger danger are the wolves in this case, but regardless, Pi—a vegetarian his whole life, and a passivist one at that—needs to eat and needs to feed the tiger, lest it see him as food. So he does what he has to do to survive. Like those pioneers might’ve.

But the thing is, we’re not them. That’s not to diminish the real danger of nature, still. There are people who get lost on Mt. Washington or Denali, and some die. God rest their souls, but on another level, thank goodness we still have enough nature left that they can get lost in. That said, though, the point still stands: the USA has been completely explored and domesticated at this point (with the possible exception of Alaska). Not totally, no—but there are no wolves outside our door. Not mine, anyway.

And so, we stand before our children as their role models. How do we relate to the outdoors? Are they a challenge? Sure. But do they need to be a challenger? Do we need to speak of doing battle against it? Of course not.

And here’s where spirituality comes into play. Might we not do better to portray nature for our little ones as a gift from a higher power—call It what you will—that we are here on earth to care for? Dare I say, that we are here to be stewards of? (which implies to me a little more active caretaking).

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden�to work it and take care of it.” —Genesis 2:15

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