The Happiness of Alligators

From the Archive: “The Happiness of Alligators,” by Meera Subramanian (Sept. 20, 2006).

The man is lying flat on his back, staring at the sky, four thousand miles from the place of his birth. Not even thirty years old, he is in his second month of recuperation from a disease that nearly took his life. He is thinking, among other things, about the happiness of alligators.

Read more. has been publishing, sometimes sporadically, since 2000. Some of our favorite personal essays from the last nine years are gathered in our new anthology, Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith, coming from Beacon next month. But a lot of our favorite work remains in the archive. So, henceforth, we’ll be dusting off a pre-owned gem each weekend. And we’ll be using these retrospectives to think about what we mean by “Killing the Buddha,” after nearly a decade of publishing and several editorial staff changes.

“The Happiness of Alligators” is the first piece published on KtB by Meera Subramanian; a couple of years later, she joined several friends in shaking KtB from one of its occasional naps. Now she’s an editor. But back in 2006, Meera wasn’t sure if she had anything to say about religion or belief. A longtime environmental activist in the Pacific Northwest, she’d come east to earn a master’s degree in journalism at New York University. She planned to merge her activist past with her interest in science to become an environmental journalist. And so she has — Meera’s written about nature and its troubles for The New York Times, Salon, Audubon, and other publications.On its surface, “The Happiness of Alligators” is also an environmental piece, a narrative reconstruction of a crucial moment in the interior life of the legendary conservationist John Muir:

In a month, John Muir will head west to San Francisco and ask for directions to “anywhere wild,” and his already well-developed love affair with the natural world will find a unique focus in the Yosemite Valley. As a boy, he knew the salty shores of Scotland and later explored the Fox River meadows filled with nuthatches and red-winged blackbirds of his family’s Hickory Hill Farm in Wisconsin. He has dropped to his knees in wonder and awe at the beauty of a Calypso orchid in the tamarack swamps of Ontario, where he’d “skedaddled” to in 1864 to evade Lincoln’s draft. And now, he has just “botanized” his way a thousand miles, from Louisville, Kentucky to Cedar Keys, Florida, through a post-Civil War landscape, seeking out the “wildest, leafiest and least trodden way.”

It’s the next couple of lines that tip you off to what we saw as a Killing the Buddha connection:

On this December day, it is a comfortable sixty-five degrees in the shade and there are alligators to think about. How, exactly, do such man-eating creatures fit into the divine scheme of things according to God?

Muir, transfixed throughout his life by “the sublime” of nature, was a theological thinker even as he abandoned the trappings of religion. That didn’t make him “spiritual” — he lived, hiked, and climbed trees almost a century before “spiritual” became code for religious folk who feel that they’re too individualistic and, well, sublime for organized religion. That is, before “spiritual” became its own orthodoxy. We saw Muir as a Buddha killer because rather than trade one orthodoxy — his father’s Calvinism — for another — an unreflective nature worship — he merged the two, dreaming of alligators and drawing on the hellfire of his father’s faith to understand the inherent conflicts within nature, the violence within its peace. And we saw Meera’s essay as a portrait we had to have for because she so brilliantly achieves another one of our goals, the narrative depiction of religion — very broadly defined — as it is actually lived.

Read the rest of “The Happiness of Alligators.”