I N T H E S E I M A G E S of the horse as the instrument and symbol of the human pursuit of a yielding earth, we are returned to the figure of the hunt. The disastrous compression of nature in the guise of the hunt can be misleading, for the hunt in its primal form, men and women on foot without iron weapons, went on for millennia without this catastrophic turn. The problem was not the hunt as practiced by Paleolithic peoples in Pleistocene times, nor was it the killing of beautiful deer. As all hunters know, the deer is the sweetest of game, the companion of Artemis, the white deer of the reverent Winnebago and dozens of other tribal peoples to whom it brings all good things, the deer in the heart of the Sierra Madre woodland in which the fantastic and harmonious mythology of the Huichol Indians is played out, the honored Celtic stag, the mediator between humans and the animal persons as depicted in the figure of the antlered shaman of the ice-age cave at Trois Freres in southern France.
The saga of the dark side may be said to begin with the employment of dogs and horses in the hunt. The patron saint of hunting, Eustace, was a mounted hunter who cornered a stag, in the spread of whose antlers appeared the crucified Christ. The ripples flowing out from this startling medieval image are with us still. Deer, run by dogs, eventually turn and stand before the hunter rides up. This final pause, even if brought on by exhaustion, is a little like a self-sacrifice, so that Saint Eustace's vision of the deer facing death seems a parable of Christ's sacrifice for humanity. The cornered animal is a plain enough analogy to the Christ hanging in its rack, but what of the horse and hounds? Are they merely the contextual associates of this medieval melange?
The mounted saint confronting the stag is strangely connected to calamity. Man, horse, and dogs, all against the single deer, prefigure an overkill which will in time cut down the wild landscape and even the hunter himself. It is as if the history of all the destructive machinery and pollution of the modern world were concentrated in this one image. It is the centerpiece of Russell Hoban's novel, Riddley Walker, in which the world has been devastated by nuclear war as a result of the hunt by physicists for atomic structure. Hounds and horse represent the first tools of that dubious achievement. What began with the hunt then shifted to the "hunt" of the soil and the political use of equestrian power. We realize that without human control of the hound and horse, the final confrontation would never have occurred, as that combination destroyed an equilibrium that had existed for hundreds of millennia between people and nature, the human hunter and his prey.
At the beginning of Hoban's story, humans have gone feral and the transition from scavenging and foraging to agriculture is being made swiftly this time. Language itself has regressed and reemerged. In his wandering, Riddley "tuk 2 grayt dogs with him thear nayms were Folleree and Folleroo." Most dogs in this twilight world of the year 2330 live in wild packs dangerous to people, though others have befriended humans. Protoscientists are already sifting the residue of the ruined world for the secrets of the control of nature, probing the symbolic meaning of the figure of Saint Eustace in the painting which they find in the wrecked Winchester Cathedral and believe to be a religious relic. "On the stags hed stud the littl shynin Man the Addom in be twean thay horns with arms owt stretcht & each han holdin tu a horn." The tiny Christ is both Adam and atom. The beleaguered stag says: "I am the Hart of the Wud. Nuthing wil run from yu enne mor but tym to cum & yu wil run from evere thing."
The defiant voice of hounded nature, the stag, the atom in its embrace, is the voice of nuclear power in the atomic bomb. As more of nature is domesticated and controlled, it becomes more compressed and dangerous. In the bomb, all the former wildness is concentrated. Humans, in the form of Eustace, have come from being surrounded by nature to surrounding nature. The wild has not disappeared, but at first it is squeezed into forest relicts, its power not diminished but contracted, isolated, pushed to an explosive end in the very heart of the minerals themselves.
It is ironic that nature's revenge is not embodied as a monster with huge teeth and slavering jaws. We think traditionally of great storms and tides and other dangers as predatory demons, but these images are traceable to the bronze-age tyrant emperors and their evocations of enemy power as lions and dragons. We now see that it is not the competitors or hunters of "man" but his victims who will kill him for his failure to keep within the limits and scale of his own natural being. And so the deer speaks for the atom. (As Konrad Lorenz shows us, the herbivores are the cruelest of all when pressed, for only among the carnivores with lethal teeth and claws are there inborn inhibitions against killing, tied to signals of submission. Rabbits are murderous in combat if the lesser of two combatants cannot run away, as it will be relentlessly kicked to death. When Albert Schweitzer playfully pushed on the head of one of his captive antelopes, it turned its pointed horns toward his stomach and the good doctor, his back to the fence, sweating and grunting, barely escaped being impaled after a struggle of some minutes.)
The moral of Hoban's story and the Eustace myth is not about the passion for the hunt but about its perversion into a megalomaniacal quest which began with domestic animals and plants as its objects and instruments. When the cultivation of wheat and barley encroaches too much on the native plants, compressing them upon themselves, their contracted wildness explodes with pests, diseases, locust swarms, and the ergot fungi that drive whole human communities crazy. The use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers escalates something begun with those first grains, finally releasing the fury of chemical poisons in the soils and the living body.
The history of ecological catastrophe begins with the "hound," which comes from the same root word for "dog," meaning "to seize" or "tenacious pursuit." The first domesticated wolves were not pets, guards, companions, or meals but fellow hunters. With dogs, the first domesticated animals, the "conquering" of nature started toward its final calamity. As David Noel says: "What is trulybeing hounded, harried and crucified in this ambiguous little masterpiece is not Christ but nature itself . . . a dawning sense that hounds and hunting might have something to teach imaginations locked in the global nuclear stalemate."
The allegory does not end with the middle ground, but with the pursuit of nature to its core. With chemistry, the seizure of the earth shifted to compounds and molecules. The physicists, the high priests of the subatomic hunt, have taken the final step by hounding the elements, which, like the stag in the painting, turn finally to defend their wildness. At first surrounding pockets of domestication, nature itself is at last surrounded, its irrational forces contracted in the Bomb, to that point "where it finally must turn and confront us with the very unimaginable wildness we thought we had hunted down and eliminated."