“Where the Crawdads Sing” by wildlife scientist Delia Owens is marketed as an “ode to natural world,” but Owens takes the theme further than a simple celebration of nature and into the realm of morality. At the heart of the novel is this presupposition: what is natural is inherently moral.
Owens’ story follows Kya Clark, a young girl coming of age in the marshland of North Carolina. After being abandoned by her family, she must take her cues on life, love, and survival from the wildlife surrounding the run-down shack where she lives. The story is at once a bildungsroman, a romance, and a crime drama, but the thread that runs through each aspect of the story is Kya’s reliance on nature to inform her moral code, particularly when it comes to male-female relationships.
“Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.”“Where the Crawdads Sing”
As she reaches her teenage years, Kya attracts two suitors: mild-mannered Tate Walker and popular townie Chase Andrews. Tate woos her in the ways of nature, with feathers and a mutual love of the marsh while Chase is the local golden boy, a symbol of the civilized world to which she doesn’t belong. Throughout her interactions with each boy−the deep emotional connection she builds with Tate and the primarily sexual relationship she has with Chase−Kya looks to nature to understand how males and females interact.
Interwoven throughout the romance narrative is the flashforward sequencing of a murder and investigation in Kya’s future. We learn Chase Andrews has been found dead in the mud of the marsh. There are no footprints, but the grate of the nearby water tower is open, and the law suspects he was pushed to his death. All fingers point to Kya.
“A swamp knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin.”“Where the Crawdads Sing”
Despite the mounting evidence against Kya, Owens leads us to believe she’s innocent of the murder and only suspect due to the bias of the townspeople who uncharitably refer to her as the “Marsh Girl”. But we’ve seen Kya watch a female praying mantis bite the head off her mate and think “female insects know how to deal with their lovers.”
“When cornered, desperate, or isolated, man reverts to those instincts that aim straight at survival. Quick and just. They will always be the trump cards because they are passed on more frequently from one generation to the next than the gentler genes. It is not a morality, but simple math. Among themselves, doves fight as often as hawks.”“Where the Crawdads Sing”
What Kya learns from nature is ruthlessness. Owens masks this revelation in beautiful language, portraying nature as many do−a benevolent mother with abundant lessons to reveal if only we would drop our moral pretense and listen. Kya’s god is the land that raised her, and any understanding she has of right and wrong is based solely on the natural inclinations of the wildlife she studies.
Sometimes a mother fox leaves her kits, as Kya’s mother left her, and even though the kits may die the vixen may breed a stronger litter, ensuring the survival of her lineage. Often bullfrogs or fireflies use deceitful tactics to trick partners into reproduction. These are lessons Kya learns are harsh in the short term, but net positive over time. But is this how we, as human beings, understand the distinction between right and wrong? Eat or be eaten? Might is right? Are we no different than animals?
We are surprised to learn at the novel’s end, years after the trial and exoneration, that it was indeed Kya who murdered Chase. The fact that Chase attempted to rape Kya earlier in the novel is meant to justify her in the elaborate planning and premeditation of his murder after the fact. After all, it’s a dog eat dog world out there. Kya’s father may have abandoned her, but she has a new role model in Darwin. Who needs God’s law when we can practice survival of the fittest? Revenge is nature’s virtue.
Owens’ theme is essentially that whatever ensures your survival must be right for you. Mother Nature is the ultimate moral relativist. In a godless, evolutionary universe there is nothing wrong with Chase attempting to rape Kya; it would have allowed him to propagate his seed. Equally, there’s nothing wrong with Kya biting off his head.
But Owens undermines this theme in how she writes about the degrading way that Chase used Kya for sex, in the shame Kya experienced under the neon lights of a cheap motel, in the deep violation of sexual assault. These values don’t stem from nature, but from God who made male and female in His image, instilling in them a creational purpose (Genesis 1:27-28). Relationships between men and women find meaning in the construct of God’s law, not natural law.
As they walked along the tide line in late afternoon, he took her hand and looked at her. “Will you marry me, Kya?” “We are married. Like the geese,” she said.“Where the Crawdads Sing”
Owens is right: nature is beautiful. But remember it, too, has suffered the effects of the fall. After Adam’s sin, the ground was cursed, and death entered the world (Genesis 3:17-18). Even now creation is held in bondage to decay (Romans 8:20-21). If we accept the idea that what is natural is moral, we should engage in cannibalism as the praying mantis does. Men should roam the streets in the name of aggressive herding, a practice whereby male dolphins surround a female and relentlessly mate with her for weeks. We should abandon our young and eat our mates.
Instead of searching this fallen creation for our moral code, we should find truth in the revealed word of the Creator. Right and wrong find meaning not in nature, but in the nature of God.
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”Isaiah 40:8