It’s true. Nature is out to get you.
It’s easy to forget this, living as many of us do in our modern world of indoor plumbing (with clean, treated water) and safe cars (coated in polymers and pigments and lubricated with oils and grease) and comfortable clothes (some even treated to protect us from UV rays, or to shed the rain, in addition to keeping us warm). We have the luxury of viewing nature as quaint, pure and benevolent. It’s not. It never has been.
Reading “The World Without Us” (reviewed earlier on this blog) had the unexpected effect of giving me an appreciation for the many man-made materials that have been developed to hold off the power of nature to break everything down into its component elements. Granted, it is these very man-made compounds that are now polluting our oceans and water supplies. Still, one has to admire the ingenuity of our species and recognize the reality that life and comfort must be continually wrested from the natural world.
And this, of course, is our dilemma. We have become successful at holding back corrosion and decay and heat and cold and the dark to a point where we have altered the nature we only meant to keep in check. Well, that may not be accurate. I expect that most people in generations before ours did not see nature as anything other than a malevolent, capricious force. In our time, we have gone to the other extreme and glorified this mindless constellation of natural phenomenon to a point that many of our more conservative brethren feel as if we humans are being devalued to the point of being seen as a mere nuisance to the great earth mother.
The reality is, well, the reality of it all: we are a species on this planet doing what we do both for our survival and our prosperity, dealing with a growing awareness that we cannot afford to completely tame our environment lest we choke off the very source of our sustenance. It’s an interesting dilemma faced — to some degree — by just about every living thing there is: the parasite that ends up killing its host, the locust that consumes everything in its path, the humans that fish the seas empty.
As smart as we are, I wonder whether we really have it in our power to forestall the inevitable depletion of our resources. Our technology seems to be on an evolutionary path all it’s own (though we humans can seem to be as much passenger as driver of that train). Of course — as The World Without Us so cleverly shows — our technological progress can only continue as long as we continue. But for now — even with all of our talk of becoming “green” — the forces of cold and heat and weather that drove us to create electric cooling and gas heating and internal combustion engined bulldozers continues unabated.
A complication to our proper perception of the many “natural” forces at work in our world is the fact that they act on different scales of time. In my part of the world (the Chihuahuan Desert of Southern New Mexico), we don’t see houses rot from mold and dampness, or weather rapidly from constant rain. But we do see paint faded to dust in a few seasons by the unrelenting sunshine. And though we can see the immediate results of corrosion in a skillet left too long in the sink or the dashboard cracked by sun damage, we don’t notice the erosion of the mountains by wind and rain and freeze and thaw, or the tumbling action of the oceans or rivers that quickly smooth the rough edges off of stones. Even slower is the movement of the earth’s crust which — though we can now measure it precisely — moves far too slow for us to perceive it (except when we experience the earth-quaking effects of that movement).
Much of the mystery of how nature works has been dispelled by science, and some of the power of those natural forces can be temporally thwarted by paint and steel and concrete and sunscreen. But nature persists — mindless and random but not causeless — wearing away, fading, smoothing, melting, building and tearing down. We are soft living things finding ways to stay alive and intact in an inert world of abrasives and searching rays of ultraviolet light that are the source of both our life and our undoing.
Appreciating the raw, relentless power of nature makes the wonder of our own existence even more remarkable. Life, it turns out, is a thing that exists in the space between the power of nature to destroy and to create. But even that statement misses the mark, for nature has no intelligence with which to actively create or destroy, it is simply what it is. And life is the thing that sprang up in the spaces between the abrasive sands and weathering waves, between the planet’s bubbling molten core and the dead cold of space. It is the fruit of the first organisms that took chemical reactions that one step further to self-replication — that were able to use sunlight for energy and minerals for food. Life found a niche in a world of inert geology and atmosphere and exploded into abundance. Beaten back by nature again and again, it came back improved.
Nature, of course, will win in the end. It always does. And I don’t mean the nature of the wild things that surround us (the other living organisms such as the virus and the cockroach). No, all life will eventually be consumed again back into the elements that made it as the universe collapses back upon itself and reforms all over again. It’s not just the cycle of life we are a part of, but the larger cycle of the elements and energy.
But if it’s of any comfort to you: Nature is not only out to get you but — in a way — itself as well. So don’t take it personally.