§II THE RULE OF RETURN
WE have just glanced at the best-known and seldom forgotten aspect of the wheel of life – the way in which each creature receives others into itself and gives itself to others. Man appreciates one side of this anyway – the receiving of others into himself; though he so rarely holds to his side of the bargain by giving himself to others that it is regarded as an event when anyone is eaten.
This brings us to another very important aspect of the Order – namely, the ever- active movement of return. All these creatures of the earth whose numbers could never be counted, are, as it were, motor crops. They come out of the earth, and when they die they do so by either entering into the bowels of others or into the bowels of the earth – in both cases giving further vitality to the devourer. They come into the world and they receive the gifts of the world, its air and water and soil: this is called growing. In due course they give it all back, all of it. Some ecologists say that they give back a fraction more than they receive. This may be so. If it is, then the world is adding to itself, increasing itself. Yet this seems unlikely. I do not see how there can be such a thing as total addition or multiplication. It is more likely that there has always been and will always be the same amount of substance: yesterday the world a flaming ball, today changed into earth, air, and water: nothing added, nothing substracted, all conserved. A question of change, not of addition. Indeed I have little doubt that the learned could point out to me that if the totality could grow as its units grow, we would very soon notice it; and I suppose that the law of the Conservation of Energy carries in itself a denial of total Addition. So I beg leave to question the soundness of any ecologist who suggests that when any living creature dies and renders its account, it is in a position to give more than it has received.
The main thing, however, is that it does return what it has received, not only in terms of a corpse, but also when it is alive. When it receives another creature into itself, when it eats that creature, it can only use a portion of it and must pass out from its body the remainder. We call it waste or excreta. But of course waste is an absolute misnomer. It is no more waste than a corpse, and can be devoured by certain other creatures and by the earth itself. The creatures in the natural order do not think of it as waste, they do not think of it at all, they just return it haphazard to the earth. This goes on day after day, year after year, century after century, countless tons of excreta being returned to the earth. To the earth: not the sky, nor to the sea. The amount of this, for one single day, if assembled in a heap would stagger the beholder.
This unbroken circuit of return of good received, provides one of the most glaring aspects of the Order. And how we step outside it! I am not ready yet to speak at any length of Man in relation to the National Scheme; but it is proper to remind ourselves at this point of what is perhaps the most civilized of all things concerning him. He does not hesitate to receive into himself as many creatures as possible (no animal in fact approaches him in this), and he also can use only part of them, and must chemically treat the remainder and pass it on. But towards this matter passed out he has an attitude all his own. Wherever he dwells there is found a private little place called a closet or W.C. by means of which he can keep the product almost invisible from himself, and by means of pipes can keep it totally invisible from others. These pipes and underground passages, which he calls his sewerage system, are designed so as to prevent any of this product, which he calls waste, from reaching the soil. It reaches the sea and the rivers: ‘in England we waste every year 219,000 tons of nitrogen, 55,000 tons of phosphate and 55,000 tons of potash as sewage sludge and
house refuse that pollute the rivers and are lost in the sea’.1 Europe and the United States combined, dispose of 20 million tons of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus every year in this way. The stuff is not lost, of course; it remains in the world, but in the ocean – that is in the wrong place for the good of the earth.
1 H. J. MASSINGHAM, The Tree of Life.
This subject is painful indeed: we are right to draw back from it – for the quality of what we pass out, its smell, is such a terrible comment upon our physical corruption in comparison with the animals. We are right to feel ashamed and wish to hide our product, when we witness the bowel action of a horse: the easy delivery, the sudden ending, and the clean flesh at the finish . . . What a far cry it is from the coral reefs which are the excreta of polyps, to the sewers of London and Paris! How strange that the first should proceed from the lowliest of all the children of the world, and the second from ourselves who claim to be the highest.