June 9, 2011

Nature and the illusion of peace

In the clearing just below my grandfather's hunting cabin, between thick rows of red and blue spruce, you have to be careful with the lawn mower. Three perfect white sitting rocks are quickly overgrown with daisies and other weeds in the spring, so it's important to fish the stones from the tangle to avoid twisting a blade. I spent an evening there, about an hour, sitting, waiting for the sun to fully set, for the sky to blacken. Eventually I lost patience and went inside. The trees remained shadows against dark blue for much of the night.

Down there though, sitting on those rocks, it's quiet. The silence is deep, broken only by the furtive movements of rodents and birds in the woods and the rise and fall of the choral of tiny frogs by the pond. Occasionally the song halts while a larger animal passes - perhaps deer or raccoon - and then resumes. I get edgy thinking it might be a bear.

These are the moments we crave with nature. I sought out the exact place for my cathartic need for the quiet mountain that evening in the same way millions of people seek out specific places to connect with nature: state parks, hiking trails, cabin rentals, on and on. When my grandfather's place was inaccessible due to distance, I found other ways to connect. If I went too long without having that selfish bit of time, I felt pensive, frustrated. E.O. Wilson cites our evolutionary heritage. I tend to agree, but it runs deep in different ways. In my case, it's partially familial. Being in the woods anywhere reminds me of happy, uncomplicated times I spent with my family.

There's something untrue about it all, however. I sit in the night and listen, hearing little, breathing deep, but under my feet billions of organisms fight for territory and resources in the tiny cracks between soil granules. The soil itself is a conglomerate of varied origin, the decayed remains of animals and plants, fragments of ancient rock from continents long dead. The weeds we hacked down just days before have begun to vigorously regenerate, to vie for a better access to sunlight. Down the road, a snake invades the den of a family of chipmunks overnight, consumes the young. The guardians of the den are dead, flattened by passing cars on the asphalt. The babies would have died of starvation anyway.

You can almost see it, hear it when you want to, the cells of every living things around, the innumerable chemical processes firing off and all of this in context temporarily strips away that peace, leaves bare a reality, if not the reality of nature. The limitations of our own senses save us from prolonged exposure, but it invades nonetheless, if you let it.

There is something disrespectfully incomplete about popular conceptions of nature, especially when the escape into these places we love is for pure beauty, pure peace. There's something I dread about reentering that world, seeing the things none of us want to see, the brutality of it: death, chemical compulsions, the needs of predators. It's a reminder of how things really are and squashes that silly daydream of somehow returning to nature and finding our "proper" place among it once more. As a species, we ran away and didn't look back until about 100 years ago or so.

It's easy to wax poetic about the parsimony of nature, the circle of life, the harmless, birds-eye view of the majesty (and other such cliches), but it's difficult to actually witness the sad little realities that form the foundations of the big, happy system. The peace that I derive from nature is always denuded, raw, contextualized; I return to the city relieved but mindful. It's never a light escape. It never should be.

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