My first exposure to Gary Larson’s work came at the impressionable age of five; my uncle had left behind The Far Side Gallery at my grandmother’s place. Reading very little English at the time, I flipped through the collection of cartoons full of animals and people in strange situations and enjoyed them as silly drawings. As I came to understand the captions of those comics, I saw and appreciated Larson’s work in a new light.
In hindsight, the Far Side comics probably did a number on me growing up, shaping and twisting my sense of humour in all sorts of strange, quirky, and unhealthy ways. Two decades later, I continue to find Larson’s work hilarious and bizarre. Imagine my delight and surprise when I discovered that he had published another book after his retirement from the comic business. I immediately ran out to the local library (an unabashed plug for this gem of a public resource) and checked out There’s a Hair in my Dirt! A Worm’s Story. Like in many of his Far Side comics, Larson’s passion for the natural world shines through within the pages of this twisted ecocentric version of a fairy tale.
The story begins with a young worm sitting at the family table being served a customary meal of dirt. He is shocked to see a hair in his dirt. Already upset at being a worm, Junior lashes out at his family, complaining about his species’ lowly status on the food chain. His father, a cantankerous and grizzled invertebrate, admonishes his young son and proceeds to tell him a tale. The fable revolves around Harriet the fair maiden and her delightful stroll through nature. As the story unfolds, it is gradually revealed to the reader that the nature as seen by Harriet is not at all representative of reality, but merely reflects her flawed anthropocentric perception of it. The story ends when the young worm realizes that the hair in his plate of dirt is actually the hair from a long dead Harriet. The family begins to laugh maniacally, and the book concludes with a bunch of worms staring up and smiling sinisterly at the reader.
An Ecocentric Tale
Dirt represents a rather subversive take on modern sanitized fairy tales from the beginning. The title itself foreshadows a shift in perspective – it is the hair that is the impurity, not the dirt. This is the world from the lowly worm’s perspective, but the narrative of Dirt emphasizes that this world is no less vital to the continued functioning of the world than the one we inhabit. In his cranky speech, Father Worm describes the critical role earthworms have in ecosystems:
Father Worm sat back, stretching himself out to his full, glorious three and a half inches. “Take us worms, for example. We till, aerate, and enrich the earth’s soil, making it suitable for plants. No worms, no plants; and no plants, no so-called higher animals running around with their oh-so-precious backbones!”
He was really getting into it now. “Heck, we’re invertebrates, my boy! As a whole, we’re the movers and shakers on this planet! Spineless superheroes, that’s what we are!”
Even the conclusion is unexpected: Junior Worm expects an ending in which Harriet lives happily ever after. But Father Worm ends the story with Harriet dying due to a viral infection, with the worm family rejoicing. Once again, the reader is asked to view the world from a different perspective. Harriet’s death is, in reality, a great boon to the worms, who excel at breaking down dead organic matter, including the hair that was on Junior’s plate. It is indeed a happy ending – just not for Harriet.
Truly Understanding Nature
“Nature is to be loved, cherished, admired, and yes poetically celebrated (Why not? We’ve depended on it for millions of years), but, above all, understood.”
– E.O. Wilson, p. 1 foreword
Dirt’s central message to the reader is that it is not enough to simply appreciate and love nature; we must have the passion, curiosity, and wisdom to attempt to understand it. Simply admiring nature and dwelling on its beauty can lead to an overly romantic perception of the natural world. Like the works of Le Guin and Pollan discussed in past Ekostory entries, Larson demonstrates an understanding that nature also includes ugliness, chaos, death, decay, and destruction. In reality, nature is neither kind nor cruel, but rather indifferent. This can be an unsettling realization for many. Thinking upon this subject, I am reminded of a quote by Stanley Kubrick, celebrated filmmaker, attempting to address the issue of how to cope in an uncaring, inhumane universe:
“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent. If we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death, our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”
– From Wikipedia – Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, 2001
One source of light is scientific understanding. Harriet in the story is depicted as a naive individual ignorant of biology and ecology, unable to understand the connections and relationships between her and her surrounding environment. She unwittingly feeds the large and aggressive grey squirrels, thinking them cute and cuddly, not realizing that they are an invasive species that is out-competing the native red squirrels. She praises the Amazon ants for being caring parents, when they are in reality raiding eggs from another colony. Harriet dooms a tortoise by dropping it into the pond, not recognizing the different morphologies and adaptive traits of tortoises and turtles. She condemns a forest fire as something ugly and undesirable, not understanding the vital role that fire plays in the renewal of forest ecosystems. (To be fair, the role of fire in forest ecosystems has only been realized in recent decades, so I’ll cut her some slack.)
In the conclusion of the fable, Harriet acts unwisely out of her misguided perception of what is good and what is bad, killing a snake that was about to eat a mouse. Unfortunately, the disease-riddled mouse turns around to infect Harriet with a virus, causing her ultimate demise. This tragic result was due to Harriet’s ignorance and lack of knowledge about the biology and ecology of her surrounding environment. Father Worm summarizes the problem with Harriet at the end of the story:
“You see,” Father Worm began, “Harriet loved Nature. But loving Nature is not the same as understanding it. And Harriet not only misunderstood the things she saw – vilifying some creatures while romanticizing others but also her own connection to them.” Father Worm paused, his eyes narrowing. “Ah, connections, Son. That’s the fateful key that Harriet missed, the key to understanding the natural world.”
Dirt reminds the reader to be mindful and appreciative of the natural world while cautioning us against projecting our own biases out towards nature without a solid understanding of how it works.What we perceive as cruelty, aggression and suffering are all elements in nature as well. As Pollan stated in Second Nature, “nature is probably a poor place to try to find values”. Meaning is derived from culture and in our relationship with nature, but not nature itself.
Humour to Connect and Educate
“There’s a Hair in My dirt! Is hysterical… more entertaining than any science class I remember and the foreword by biologist E.O. Wilson proves it’s legit.”
– Washington Post Review from the back cover of Dirt
Many of the illustrated pages of Dirt have both subtle and not so subtle messages of biology and ecology embedded in them. Larson’s passion for biology is evident in Dirt and in his Far Side comics; he is a master at utilizing humour to connect and educate people about biology and the natural world. There is something about his delivery that is so distinctive, bizarre, and self-aware that it resonates with people from a wide range of backgrounds. I constantly see Far Side comics taped to office doors, work cubicles, and used at the beginning of presentations and conferences.
What I find most fascinating in Larson’s work is that he draws inspiration from both culture and nature, delighting in placing animals and other creatures in surreal human situations. Organisms ranging from cows to spiders to amoeba are routinely portrayed anthropomorphically. By contrast, human beings are often depicted as dim-witted creatures. In one sense, Larson’s work often attempts to even out the differences between nature and culture, making animals more like humans and humans more like animals. This approach makes it easier to relate and appreciate the non-human world. He reminds me that human beings are at their core animals too, with biological urges no different from the spider or the cow or the amoeba. This is a refreshing and sorely needed reminder in today’s society, lest we forget and become too detached and disconnected from nature. We are still beings of biology, connected to the ecological world, as E.O. Wilson writes in the foreword of Dirt:
“The point is that we, too, are organisms. We are subject to the same physical laws, still tied to the planet, totally enmeshed in food webs, energy flows, nutrient cycles, predator-prey cycles, territorial imperatives.”
– Dirt, Foreword, p. I
Dirt presents an accessible and non-threatening approach for getting people of all ages to think more deeply about the natural world. The use of humour in stories to convey the essence of the alien, the non-human, and the incomprehensible can provide perspective, create resonance, and stimulate the imagination, all elements crucial to the formation of environmental awareness. That’s why I think There’s a Hair in my Dirt! is a great Ekostory.
Larson, G. There’s a Hair in my Dirt: A Worm’s Story. HarperCollins: New York, 1998.
Images from There’s a Hair in my Dirt: A Worm’s Story © 1998 Gary Larson. All rights reserved.
What a brilliant blog. Beautifully written. I have written a review with link on my blog Eco-Crap. It will be published Thursday.
Thanks for visiting. I very much enjoyed your Silent Spring piece. The story is very reminiscent of what’s going on now with Colony Collapse Disorder with the bees and the increasing evidence that it’s primarily caused by Neonicotinoids.
Most people are concerned with eco-friendly BBQs and recycling cans, I tend to try and see the global aspect of what we are doing to the planet and tend to attack there. I have seen the reports of the bees, and nothing now surprises me. My Sunday Nature Ramble was about bees. I need to explore more of your blog.
Loved this post! My husband bought the book for me a while back. We’re both Gary Larson and E.O. Wilson fans. Another earthworm picture book that I love is Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin. Not as subversive as Larson’s, but very cute and a good way to get kids and other folks interested in earthworms as “people,” so to speak.
The point about Nature’s indifference is one that I sometimes find hard to take. Part of me hopes that some animals and plants (our pets, at least!) may appreciate us as human beings, though as a cat person I don’t always mind the attitude of benevolent indifference. Read something about the Biblical book of Job yesterday in an article on food production in Christian Century that feels pertinent here: When Job complains to God about his woes, the Creator responds by listing several magnificent but (from a human point of view) threatening creatures such as the Leviathan. The point being: hey, Job, it’s not all about you.
Sorry for the long comment, but so much good stuff here to digest!
Great article and post!
I have not yet read this book but am immediately struck by the connection we have as humans to dirt itself, as the name Adam means “red clay”, or something closer we to that. The indifference of nature somehow makes my heart ache, I yet what is more thrilling than being able to observe it, with the caveat of a comfy couch and a large screen. Isn’t it a comfort to learn that although nature is indifferent the one who created and sustains it is not! Here is a piece of Psalm 103 that is rather fitting.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
As a father pities his children,
So the LORD pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place remembers it no more. But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting
On those who fear Him,
And His righteousness to children’s children, To such as keep His covenant,
And to those who remember His commandments to do them.
The LORD has established His throne in heaven,
And His kingdom rules over all.
I always appreciate long thoughtful comments such as yours. Thanks for sharing that passage!
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Marvellous! Got to share this with CelloPlayer and ViolaPlayer, both of whom are huge fans of Larson (as in, quote his lines to each other over dinner and break out in guffaws, leaving CelloDad and me mystified). We all love his subversive ways.
Great to hear that Larson’s work clicks with the younger generation as well. Humour that reaches across generations is a very rare thing.
Because so much of Larson’s comics focus on the biological, there is a certain timelessness to it – so long as there are food-webs and apex predators, parasites and decomposers, wildebeasts and crocodiles, it will continue to amuse and illuminate.
Of course, what with the Sixth Mass Extinction well under way and picking up steam, we are forced also to contemplate the horrific possibility of a world devoid of those inhabitants and many others…..
Great post. It brought back memories of my childhood, which was also filled with Gary Larson comics…and I remember when There’s a Hair in my Dirt! first came out and how excited I was to get it from the library.
Whenever I think of the relationship between “Nature” and the individual organisms that comprise it, I am reminded of this line from the The Tao Te Ching:
Heaven and Earth are not humane
They treat all things as straw dogs
“Straw dogs” were ritual objects that were venerated during ceremonies, and then casually discarded and trampled underfoot afterwards. The line is essentially saying that the forces of natural world (“heaven and earth”) don’t play favorites.
Interestingly enough, Tao Te Ching also criticizes the human habit of dividing up the world into “good” and “bad” categories, much like Father Worm’s indictment of Harriet. There is a broad, relational perspective found there that is very much in line with ecological or systems thinking.
Philosophical Taoism has heavily influenced my thinking, so I think my musings on Nature hopefully reflects those influences. The Tao Te Ching is really a unique text in that it is simultaneously insightful, absurd, refreshing, and funny.
Yes, I agree with the criticism of our human habit. It’s not the division that is the problem, but rather the assigning of values such as good, pure, ugly, and evil to nature that gets us in trouble.
It’s very difficult to not subscribe to those culturally ingrained notions though. I read a post a few days ago about a blogger who struggled with leaving a snake in peace and her neighbours practicing the preemptive strike doctrine towards all snakes. It just reminded me of the conclusion of Dirt! Here is the link:
Love this post! There are so many wonderful thoughts & ideas. I especially like the concept of indifference … we tend to label aspects of nature, and animals, as good or bad … in reality, they just are! We can either walk in a path of acceptance and understanding or we can struggle against nature … and lose. In the Tao Te Ching there is a phrase ” To assist the nature of all things – Without daring to meddle”.
I’m here from Argentum Vulgaris’ blog, Eco-Crap … so glad he introduced you to his readers. I’ve signed up for your emails … can’t wait to read more!
Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you found your way here!
Do you know what chapter that phrase is in? Every version of the Tao Te Ching is slightly different, it’s always interesting to hear the various interpretations of it.
It’s from Chapter 64 from this online version: http://taoism.net/ttc/complete.htm. It’s a translation by Derek Lin. I have several other version but this is one of my favorites. 🙂
The Far Side was the best…Larson could do more with a single frame or panel than most cartoonists. His synthesis of art and biology continues to be a personal inspiration. Fun post…thanks.
You’re welcome. I agree, one-frame cartoons are really tough to do; everything must be communicated through two glances: one at the picture, the other at the caption. For me, Larson just nails it almost every single time.
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Thanks a lot for this. I too grew up strongly influenced by Gary Larson’s comics but hadn’t heard of this latest book. The conclusion you quote at the end is brilliant. Well written, too.
Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for reading!
Great review, must get the book. I was just on an archaeological project where we found a 10,700 year old hair in the dirt. We were thrilled. Now to figure out which Harriet it belonged to…
That sounds like such an amazing discovery! Was that in the Gwaii Haanas?
Yup, that’s the place. I am posting a series on the project at the moment.
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Another favorite that is fun and educational. Noth’n like humor!
Education and learning should be always be fun! Humour just makes things easier.
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I have yet to deliver a Biological Anthropology lecture without at least one Far Side, in seven years of teaching. I hadn’t heard about this… I’ll have to track it down.
It’s a good one! Shame that it’s pretty much the only story he’s published.
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Excellently written! And thanks very much for liking my Howl’s Moving Castle review!
Thanks for reading. I am a fan of Studio Ghibli films and appreciated your in depth exploration of Howl’s 🙂
Thanks very much! =) I’m thinking about starting to add images to my reviews, but I’m not really sure what the rules are regarding copyright and such.
Here is an in-depth article on the issue: http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/copyright-fair-use-and-how-it-works-for-online-images/
Ah, thanks very much!
Your blog is very lovely to look at, though.
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