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The Hawk, the Crow and the Brutality of Nature

David Langness | Jan 23, 2015

PART 2 IN SERIES The Struggle for Existence

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Jan 23, 2015

PART 2 IN SERIES The Struggle for Existence

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

When I worked at UCLA I had a third floor office with big windows in a building overlooking Westwood Boulevard. Looking west and south, those windows afforded me a beautiful view of Westwood Village, which has the big trees and the quaint old buildings you’d expect in a university’s sylvan campus setting.

I admit it–sometimes at work I’d catch myself gazing out those windows as life moved by outside. One day while a co-worker of mine and I met she said “Wow! Look at that beautiful hawk!” I turned around and there, outside my window, we saw a big red-tailed hawk circling high in the sky above a murder of crows. (That’s the name for a flock of crows—a “murder.” I promise I didn’t make that up.)

Anyway, as we watched all these graceful birds in flight I realized I could hear the murder cawing madly, obviously not happy about the threatening presence of the hawk. In a second we found out why—as we watched the hawk stooped over into a high-speed dive, falling like a bullet, and slammed hard into one of the crows. As the crow fell, the hawk rapidly recovered and hooked its talons into its stunned victim in mid-air, a dazzling aerial feat. The other crows went nuts, screaming at the hawk and strafing it.

But the hawk ignored them, landed on a rooftop and began to literally eat crow. My co-worker turned away, now completely grossed out. “Oh, that’s horrible!” she said. “Wait a minute,” I asked her, “a minute ago you called that hawk beautiful–what changed?”

We talked about it for a while, reflecting on the cruelty of the natural world, and agreed that the old phrase “Nature, red in tooth and claw” definitely applied in this situation. Then we got curious and wondered where we both had heard that familiar saying, so I looked it up. Turns out the great poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, heavily challenged in his faith in God by the theory of evolution, started putting his feelings about the subject into a poem called The Way of the Soul. After working on it for years, Tennyson finally published it in 1849, under the title In Memoriam A.H.H., dedicated to his recently-departed friend Arthur Henry Hallam. The poem contains these immortal lines:

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.


Tennyson’s beautiful poem, about the search for hope after great loss, touches not just on human mortality but on the death of spiritual belief in the light of science. The poet told people the concept of evolution had heavily influenced his work–he had read about it in an anonymous book published in 1844, called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Preceding Darwin’s theory by 15 years, the book caused enormous controversy–because it sharply contrasted the newly-emerging scientific understanding of a harsh, impersonal and bloody natural world with society’s prevailing belief in God, a literal interpretation of the Bible, and an unquestioning acceptance of the revealed truths of religion.

During that same period, the Baha’i Faith arrived in the world. It brought a new kind of religious belief to humanity—one that emphasized the independent investigation of the truth along with a full acceptance of reason, logic and the complete harmony of faith and science.

So how do the Baha’i teachings deal with this question of evolution and God? Simply, Baha’is believe that the natural world, red in tooth and claw, evolves just as science says it does—but that human beings, who have both animal and spiritual characteristics, can transcend the struggle for existence:

In the world of nature there are aggression, bloodthirstiness, oppression, struggle for existence, rapacity. These qualities are the natural laws of nature. Just as these animals are captives of nature, similarly man is conquered, subjugated and humbled by nature. For example, anger gets the better of man, ferocity prevails upon him, and he becomes the subject of the lower passions. What are all these? They are no other than the mandates of the world of nature.

Only those persons who are in reality believers in God, who have witnessed the Signs of God, are attracted to the Kingdom of God and turned their faces toward God–they and they alone are freed from the bloody claws of nature. Whereas formerly they were the subjects of nature, now they become the rulers. Whereas before they were vanquished by nature, now they become its victors. In brief, while nature invites man to the baser propensities of ego and self, the Love of God attracts him to the worlds of sanctity and holiness, justice and generosity, mercy and humanity. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, pp. 181-182.

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  • Peter C. Newton-Evans
    Aug 7, 2016
    There is a lot more cooperation and synergy in the world of nature than the "survival of the fittest" and "red in tooth and claw" paradigm would have us believe. There is nothing more horrible in a hawk catching its supper than a person going to a supermarket for it. The main difference is how far removed we have become from the source of that supper.
    True, our attraction to and love for the divine qualities we see in other human beings, and -- especially -- in the Manifestations of God enables us to transcend Nature. However, let us not ...forget that Nature itself also reflects those qualities if we only look deeply enough for them. Modern science is discovering the harmony, unity in diversity and mutual aid that permeates all ecosystems, a lesson we humans would do well to learn from.
    • Sep 21, 2018
      You're definitely right. However, I think the point David's made in this here text has a alegoric meaning. The poem itself confirms it that man see in nature what he's believing in himself. Humanity has been seeing struggle in nature because it is how humanity has behaved in many manners. So, when you see the "evil" in the hawk it is not the hawk itself but the humane meaning of the strong ones impose themselves over the weak. Many scientist have considered this the outmost truth and applied the same logic to many day to day mindsets. Therefore, David is ...actually pointing how, when we submit ourselves to God, we defy these thoughts reaching out to our higher nature (which can also be seen in the natural world) from God.
  • Feb 22, 2015
    A beautiful piece. We are Baha'is from the Isle of Wight where Tennyson lived for many years, and greatly live his poetry too. 'Crossing the Bar' was read at the funeral of our Baha'i friend David Mumford some years ago. Wonderful to see his work understood so well and related in thus way to our struggles as Baha'is.
  • Feb 1, 2015
    Nature is a reminder that we are contained in something larger, I think.
  • Jan 25, 2015
    'Speak to me in your beautiful voice' said the fox to the crow.
    'Your voice is as sweet as your feathers are fine': Master Reynard
    With apologies to Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) and the truth about my age:
    ‘Ah! What shall I be at 60 should nature keep me alive if I find the world so bitter when I am but 59?
    Poet laureate for nigh on two generations, Tennyson, was my first choice as I roamed China for a decade declaiming English poetry in an endeavor to disprove what most consider impossible: an artificial language, in translation to boot, ...can match the mother tongue vis-a-vis poetry and humor.
    However off-theme that may be, a couple of years before his passing (in the same year that Baha'u'llah ascended) at the zenith of his sagacity Baron Tennyson let loose his true feelings about the Lord :
    CROSSING THE BAR Alfred Lord Tennyson
    Sunset and evening star,
    And one clear call for me!
    And may there be no moaning of the bar,
    When I put out to sea,
    But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
    Too full for sound and foam,
    When that which drew from out the boundless deep
    Turns again home.
    Twilight and evening bell,
    And after that the dark!
    And may there be no sadness of farewell,
    When I embark;
    For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
    The flood may bear me far,
    I hope to see my Pilot face to face
    When I have crost the bar.
    TRANS LA SABLO-BAR’ (Sankta Kanto) El la angla tradukis ǔaogo
    Vidu. 'La Revuo' 1913 – 1914 p.562
    Planed’ eĉ sun-subir’!
    Por mi senduba vok’!
    Ne estu muĝo ĉe la sablo-bar’
    Je mia ekvojaĝ’.
    Sed kvazaǔ-dorme-mova tajda flu’
    Sen bruo kaj sen ŝaǔm’,
    Por porti la veninton el profund’
    Ree al hejm’
    Krepuska sonoril’!
    Kaj poste la mal-lum’!
    Kaj manka estu adiaǔ-malĝoj’
    Je mia ir’.
    Ĉar kvankam tra ĉiela senlimec’
    Forportos min la mar’,
    Rigardos la Piloton en vizaĝon
    Mi – trans la sablo-bar’!
  • Jan 24, 2015
    Nature is a tough road, it goes beyond look at nice trees, flowers. waterfalls, etc.
  • Jan 23, 2015
    I truly do not see nature the way it is being described. I feel more of an organic presence in the same sense as our own bodies contain cells that destroy and consume other cells but we do not judge this process as "horrible" because it contains the complete mystery of our being and I feel in awe of nature as nature is in this same sense, I regard nature in awe and mystery, there is no malice in nature there is Divine wisdom.
    • Jan 24, 2015
      Dear Juanita,
      Beautifully said of the divine wisdom, that is the view point of Singularity or GOD where everything is the same and beautiful. All these distinctions we make of good and bad are for duality that we dwell in.
  • Jan 23, 2015
    Dear All,
    We can easily transcend our lower level human nature which is composed of hate, lust, greed, fear, anger, jealousy, misery, pride with our higher level spiritual nurture which is composed of love, compassion, peace, equanimity and righteousness. It's our choice to make either to descend to the lower level of natural existence or ascend to the higher level of spiritual enlightenment.
  • Jan 23, 2015
    Dear All,
    We can transcend hate with love
    We can transcend fear with faith
    We can transcend despair with hope
    We can transcend ignorance with knowledge
    We can transcend darkness with enlightenment
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