Seeing Both Sides
I recently read J.B. MacKinnon’s article, “False Idyll: Seeing Only Nurture in Nature is Missing Half the Point,” in Orion Magazine. It was a good reminder. Sure, it is fine to find solace in the natural world. There can be comfort and beauty there. Certainly. But it is inaccurate, and perhaps even dangerous, to see only what is pleasant or easy.
MacKinnon points out that with most of us living in urban settings, and with increasingly fewer opportunities to engage with nature that has not been physically or metaphorically stripped of its thorns and dark shadows, we have adopted a simplified view of nature. Many of us regard it as an idyllic retreat. There is talk of Gaia and the Earth-Mother; nature as a divine place that holds and soothes us. We expect it to conform to these ideals, and then feel frustrated or even betrayed when it does not.
I feel like I have been writing from an oversimplified perspective lately. I feel like I have neglected the complexity of the more-than-human world, ignoring that many of its functions rely on cycles of death and decay. That the mechanisms of those cycles often come equipped with tooth and claw, appetite and apathy. In spite of attempts to clean it up, there is blood, bone, and rot out there. There is struggle and a whole lot of suffering, just like anywhere else. And just like anywhere else, some amount of destruction has to come before regrowth.
MacKinnon’s article included an anecdote about a woman who was charged by a bear. She recalls this as a highly spiritual experience. Her story reminded me of a letter I wrote to a friend some years ago, when I was in North Carolina:
June 24, 2007
This is the second letter I will have written you today – the first was swallowed by a storm that I am thankful did not swallow me instead. Hail stung my face and tree limbs crashed to the ground all around me. I was only halfway down Crowders Mountain when the sky grew orange, green, black and I found myself running; from a wall of oncoming water, from wind that threw my hair so hard as to burn my cheeks, from lightning approaching faster than I could sprint – a bolt for every other breath.
I ran until my legs and lungs stopped me. Like anything else, I will end. I sensed the weight of it then, or perhaps the weightlessness; a recognition that was too large to draw a response of fear or anxiety. All I could do was nod.
When Mike and I arrived at the car, got in, and stripped ourselves of wet, the road greeted us with felled trees, red floodwaters, upturned cars emptied of their drivers. My ears and teeth ached from the shock of electricity touching nearby ground. My left side was numb, buzzing (one bolt in particular landed especially near to where my flip-flopped feet stood in ankle-high water; I am not sure of the details, but I felt something zip and unzip my bones). Later, I found last year’s leaves stuck to the skin beneath my bra and underwear. The elements creep in, I suppose, only sometimes with more haste than one has come to expect.
Now, I am growing bruises like a field of spring violets. My one arm and face are still numb.
I was born into an intimate history of lightning. Storms. Imagine someone extinguished in a flash of hot blue light. Imagine someone else; lightly touch the pale soles, the round marks left behind where the circuit was made complete. I carry a cigar box full of fulgurites—glass forged by the charge of air and earth.
I will write this, someday. Soon. And then, I will still be writing.
Coming down off the top, before the opening of sky, I picked up a spiral snail shell and a beetle whose body shone green and gold, even in the shadows. I carried them down with me, through the thick of it, in the palm of my hand, thinking that such fragile things could better survive what I might not. And then, for just a second, I thought, Maybe I was made for this, too.
I feel humbled and fortunate and somehow more alive. If I ever find myself caught by the skies again, I want to believe I will sit still at their center and watch everything fall before I rise again. I was blind to it at first, but there is beauty in what is left toppled and torn. A different kind of beauty anyway, there, on the far side of fear.
That storm was the one of the strongest I have witnessed. It was downright violent. For a good year and a half afterwards, thunderstorms terrified me, sometimes to the point of tears. Despite that fact, I still count my experience on Crowders Mountain as one of the most valuable I’ve yet had. It was uncomfortable. It forced me up against the things I do not usually make room to think about or feel. There was real danger. There was real vulnerability. There was no option to pull away, or to be anywhere else. I was present for every cold, scary, uncertain second. That experience made me my most human self, soft and animal. I was tugged into this very real, palpable world by the stone feeling in my gut. I met myself there, I saw what I did, and I learned a little bit about what it is to be a very small part of a very large, complex web.
That immediacy and that purity of feeling, of fear and awe and attention, are a huge part of why I try to spend a lot of time on the trail and in the backcountry. The farther out, the better. Being there brings me into closer contact with my five senses. I must be alert to all the possibilities. To loose rock underfoot. To a rattlesnake, startled and sun-hot. To running out of water. To a storm building overhead. And yes, to calm and beauty, too, nestled in among it all. That dusky owl perched on a low branch, watching me with yellow eyes, close enough to touch.
I do not advocate that anyone deliberately put himself in harm’s way while in pursuit of an encounter with the side of nature that is not exclusively peaceful or divine. However, I do advocate remembering this side. The side that stings and burns and stalks. The side that kills. The side that festers and storms. The natural world encompasses both sides of awe, the delight and the terror. I believe that these two things, like solace and suffering, are vital to what it means to be human.