The Man Who Ate Himself: An Agricultural Fable
“In Greek mythology, Erysichthon…ordered all trees in the sacred grove of Demeter to be cut down. Demeter [Goddess of the harvest who presided over the fertility of the Earth]…punished him by placing Limos, unrelenting and insatiable hunger, in his stomach. Food acted like fuel on a fire: The more he ate, the hungrier he got. Erysichthon sold all his possessions to buy food, but was still hungry. At last he sold the only thing he had left, his own daughter Mestra into slavery. …Eventually, Erysichthon ate himself in hunger.” – Erysichthon_of_Thessaly
"The invention of agriculture ten millennia ago was the first step toward the current problem of climate change. Humans then began a way of life that would exploit the first of five relatively nonrenewable pools of energy rich carbon — soil. Trees, coal, oil, and natural gas would follow as additional pools to rob from. We are the first species in this multibillion-year journey of life on Earth that will have to practice restraint after years of reckless use of the five carbon pools." — Wes Jackson (in Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, 2012)
"If we have become incapable / of denying ourselves anything, / then all that we have / will be taken from us. / If we have no compassion, / we will suffer alone, we will suffer/alone the destruction of ourselves." — Wendell Berry (in Leavings, 2010)
This story is not meant to be a prediction of our end — about which I have no more information than you. It is a fable. And in fables, bad behavior begets misfortune. A sort of divine justice rules the day. They are comforting, perhaps, because so much of everyday life seems ruled by blind chance, bad luck, and gross injustices — injustices that not only go unpunished, but are lavishly rewarded. They are instructive because they remind us that such bad behavior eventually is punished, if not always in the manner we expect. This lesson encourages us to look at ourselves critically and perhaps change any unwise trajectories — hopefully before it’s too late to avoid the gruesome punishments usually rendered in the fables of old.
Of course, in regards to our current predicament, it may very well be too late. In which case, this fable will perhaps serve as a sort of prediction — a deservedly grim account of our species’ fall. …But then again, it might not be too late. In which case, it may serve as a sort of instructive warning — replete with general directions for getting back on the right track.
But in either case, I think we can all agree that we’ve been behaving very, very badly for a very, very long time. And that — if for no other reason than to reclaim our collective dignity — it might be a good time to stop. And that perhaps we should heed the words of the beetle.
I. HE CUTS THE FORESTS AND EATS HIS FINGERS
There was a man who lived in a forest at the foot of a great mountain. A fast, clear river flowed by his modest hut. The clean air was filled with birdsong, and the man whistled these songs back to the birds as he worked in the dappled shade and rain. He ate from the leaves, nuts, berries, roots, and beasts amongst which he lived. And he drank from the cold spring at the foot of the mountain. A small garden was scratched out along the bank of the river where he grew some of his favorite greens and herbs.
One day, while working in his garden, the man had an odd, unpleasant feeling wash over him – like he had just forgotten something very important. He puzzled a long time over the feeling, but then resigned himself to just let it go.
Then the man spoke: “I am happy, but I want more.” He raised his arms and said, “My hut is so small, and my garden is so shaded and cool. But I am clever and strong, and I deserve to live in a palace with a great garden and be warmed by the sun.” So he fashioned an axe and began cutting the multitudes of great trees, working very hard, day and night. When he had finished, he built a great palace on the ground where his hut had been. The great trees lay like scattered sticks all around and the sun beat down on his body.
“Oh my! I am so hot now. And so very hungry!” said the man. “But where are my leaves, nuts, berries, and roots? Where are my beasts?”
A large elk leapt upon a nearby stump and spoke: “Your plants? Your beasts? We were never your property, and now we are leaving. If you are hungry, why don’t you eat your fingers?”
So the man ate his fingers.
II. HE PLOWS THE SOIL AND EATS HIS HANDS
After his meal, the man slept. When he awoke, he looked upon the hot, treeless landscape around his palace in dismay. “What a calamity! All my food is gone. I must find another way to eat.” So the great trunks were burned in a fire that turned the night to day.
The black ground now stretched naked before him, all the way to the horizon. “If I want food to eat, I must plant it all myself,” thought the man. So the clever man fashioned a plow and began turning the dark soil to plant his seeds, working very hard, day and night. When he had finished, the damp, dark flesh of the earth lay exposed, sliced open like drying fish. And it was soon dotted by the green of his food plants, and from these plants he ate heartily.
But before long the fertile darkness of the exposed soil was consumed by a slow, relentless fire, and the great rains washed it to the seas. The rivers ran choked with the blood of the hemorrhaging land – first black, then brown, and then yellow. And his plants began to wither in the thin, rocky clay that remained.
“Oh my! I am so very hungry!” said the man. “But where is my fertile soil?”
A small salamander climbed from a muddy stream onto a nearby stone and spoke: “Your soil? The soil was never your property, and now it is gone. If you are hungry, why don’t you eat your hands?”
So the man ate his hands.
III. HE BURNS THE ANCIENT SUNLIGHT AND EATS HIS LIMBS
After his meal, the man slept. When he awoke, he looked upon the dusty, yellowed landscape in dismay. “What a calamity! All my food is gone. I must find another way to eat.”
The abused and tired land now stretched naked before him, all the way to the horizon. “If I want soil for my plants, I must make it myself,” thought the man. So the man cleverly fashioned a great shovel and used it to mine the ancient sunlight that lay entombed, deep within the earth. And he burnt this ancient sunlight in great fires that turned night into day, raising billows of smoke and gases to the sky.
With the hellish heat from these fires, the clever man manufactured a sort of concentrated soil-substitute to cover the land. It was made from disembodied pieces of the rocks, air, and ancient sunlight – all mined and stitched together at great cost and effort. And although he crowed gleefully at his cleverness, it was merely clever in the way one might stitch back together the form of a mouse after killing and dissecting it.
His fires burned fiercely, day and night, to fuel these great projects, spewing ever-larger quantities of smoke and gases into the heavens. And when he had finished, the thin, soil-like medium was ready to accept his seeds. After planting — a massive effort also powered by these great fires — the vast land was soon dotted again by his food plants, which grew now with a curious vigor.
But oddly (and perhaps because he had gone insane), instead of eating heartily from these plants, he first broke them apart and fashioned a sort of concentrated food sunstitute from some of the disembodied pieces. And although he again crowed at his cleverness, it was merely clever in the way one might dismantle an entire living mountain to fashion a multitude of small cairns.
But nevertheless, he ate heartily and, although his food now made him sick, he was able to survive.
But before long, the smoke and gases from his great fires had begun to choke the sky. Hot, angry winds and a beating sun tortured the sick man and abused his plants until they withered and refused to grow in the bleached medium. Great dust storms rose over the horizon and swallowed him for days at a time.
“Oh my! I am so very hungry!” said the man. “But where is my rain?”
A dusty locust whirred onto a dry yellowed stalk and spoke: “Your rain? The rain was never your property, and now it is gone. If you are hungry, why don’t you eat your limbs?”
So the man ate his limbs.
IV. HE DESPAIRS AND LEARNS THE TRUTH
After his meal, the man slept. When he awoke, he looked upon the parched, yellowed landscape in dismay. "What a calamity! All my food is gone. I must find another way to eat."
But the man said it this time without conviction, for he knew he had wrung the land dry. And he knew he had, with his broken body, no means to fashion anything clever from the withered remnants. And the man cried, for he knew he would soon die.
As the man sobbed weakly, a small black beetle with orange markings climbed his limbless, emaciated torso and perched upon his nose. The man strained as if to declare loudly to the beetle, but spoke only in the faintest, strained whisper, "My life! My life! Look at what has become of my life! All is ruined! I no longer wish to live. …Take my life! Please, you must take my life."
The beetle laughed scornfully and said, "Indeed! Your life? Your plants? Your beasts? Your soil? Your rain? Foolish man, none of these things are yours! That is the root of your problem. That is the seed of your endless calamities. The life you lived was never your sole property, to use merely as you fancied — just as our lives and the land were never your property. Such delusions have transformed you into the scourge of the world!"
"Nonsense," wheezed the man disdainfully. "My life is not my life?! If it is not my life, then to whom does it belong? To whom does my land belong? To whom do you belong right now, trespassing, as you are, on my land?"
"Foolish man, you have eyes but no sight," sighed the beetle, now regaining her composure. "Listen. It is simple. We belong to each other. We are all part of the same living whole. You are part of me, and I of you. We are the land and the land is us. This simple truth is the bedrock of our shared existence. It is the origin of all compassion and love — of which you speak much but know little.”
"You make no sense," whispered the man contemptuously. "That is the airy talk of one divorced from reality — one who looks upon a stone and says it is not a stone."
The beetle sighed. “Tell me then, o man betrothed to reality, does a tree belong to a leaf? No! No more than the land belongs to you! Does one leaf belong to another leaf? No more than I belong to you! And if one limb strikes out against another limb, does not the whole tree suffer? Yes! — In the way all the land now suffers under your thoughtless attacks and incompetent delusions of ownership!”
The man moaned.
“And ownership? Ha! Even your absurd claims of ownership imply some measure of responsibility for what is owned! For what is an ‘owner’ who destroys all he claims to own? Is he not a monster? And does he not then merely destroy himself?”
The man closed his eyes, his shallow breaths becoming more labored.
“This, my sad, broken brother, is the truth of the world: We are, all of us, members of a finite living whole. And with such membership comes limits – limits to our behavior that must be respected, that must be remembered in some fashion. It is a sacred trust. And within this trust, no member has unlimited freedom.
The agitated man strained out a single word that trailed off, “But…
“…But wait. Listen to the good news,” continued the beetle, her antennae twitching rapidly. “Within these sacred limits is the one freedom that matters above all — the freedom to live. And within this freedom lies the greatest gift imaginable – the gift of loving and being loved. You have broken this trust; you have lost this gift; and you are now losing this freedom."
The beetle sighed. "This is all something you once knew, I think. It is something all beings have known from the beginning of time. …It is a pity, this forgetting of yours. …But what is done is done."
V. HE DIES AND RETURNS TO THE EARTH
The beetle spoke no more, but just sat upon the man’s nose as his breath grew fainter and fainter, and then finally ceased altogether.
The beetle waited until the man’s body had dried, and then rolled him up into little balls which were pulled down into a narrow burrow.
Once all was inside, the beetle closed the entryway and retreated deep within.
VI. HE IS REBORN
Much later — A few months? A few years? A few centuries? Longer? It is not known. — a small black beetle with orange markings burrowed up slowly through the newly-moistened soil, past the fibrous roots of a small seedling that had sprouted just above her chamber.
She paused to smell the air, and then ambled through a thicket of countless small seedlings that had recently pushed up between the scattered rocks.
A gentle rain fell on her back as she stopped to stretch one leg at a time. More beetles were now emerging from the burrow.
She sniffed at the air again.
It smelled like Spring.