Nature. We Love It — But Does It Give a Darn About Us?

NASA satellite image of Great Lakes covered with ice and clouds, March 8, 2014. NASA image.

NASA satellite image of the Great Lakes covered with ice and clouds, March 8, 2014.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

In her new book, Writing Wild, Tina Welling quotes the popular mythologist Joseph Campbell: “The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.”

I like Joseph Campbell. But I’m not so sure about nature.

The cover of Tina Welling's trade paperback, Writing Wild, from New World Library shows a pencil and a fern.

Writing Wild: Forming a Creative Partnership with Nature, by Tina Welling, New World Library, 2014, $14.95 paper.

It was nature – Nature – after all, that brought down a mass of mud and rock on the village of Abi Barak in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province earlier this month, More than 2,000 human beings perished in that one act of – Nature.

In 2011, 1,600 people died when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami were unleased in Japan by –  Nature.

I get where Welling is coming from. She’s is a big fan of nature and its ability to inspire creativity and ignite the psyche. She writes of spider webs glittering in a tree and snowflakes landing on a moose’s eyelashes. She reports experiencing helpful writing epiphanies while out on the trail.

I have my own fond memories of nature – of lying on the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan as a child, soothed by the sound of nature’s gentle waves lapping at the shore and the touch of nature’s gentle breeze on my sun-kissed – OK, scorched – skin.

For me as a kid, Lake Michigan – and all of nature – was a benevolent, nurturing presence. Many of the folks I interviewed for my book, Wrestling with God, felt the same way. They talked about a deep kinship with the natural world.

Tori Isner, an Army veteran who traces her roots back to the Cherokee people of southern Appalachia, had this to say:

An eight-month-old boy walks on the shore of Lake Michigan. Photo by BF Newhall

Son Peter at  twenty months: safe on the gentle shores of a benign Lake Michigan — in summer. Photo by BF Newhall

It’s a family thing, the spiritual world. It’s a connectedness to everything around you, Mother Earth, Grandmother Moon, Grandfather Sun.

Everything is part of the family. The buffalo is your brother. The standing people are the trees. They’ve been here a lot longer than you have. They can teach you. Go stand next to a big rock, see how big you really are. Go look at the ocean. That’s Creator, that’s beauty.

And this from Cerridwen Fallingstar, a Witch and shamanic priestess:

Outdoors . . . that’s where I feel the connection with whatever you want to call it –  God or Goddess or “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”  That force, that power, that beautiful connection, I can get it in different places, but mostly from being in nature.

I feel a sense of ecstasy or exultation or grace when I’m in the presence of the earth and the sky and the sea and the fire. That’s my spiritual experience.

Pediatric pathologist Geoff Machin, on the other hand, was not so sanguine about the nature of nature:

Many of us cling to a pre-Darwinian, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century concept of the natural world that says, “Isn’t nature beautiful? Look out there, look at the sun on those trees, look at the green against the blue sky, look at the red of that plum tree. Beautiful! And, look, there’s a squirrel.”

I call this concept the romantic model. What the romantic model doesn’t tell you is that the squirrel is flea-ridden and has intestinal parasites. It’s got chronic diarrhea from the parasites and it’s scratching itself all the time because of the fleas.

Every tree, every animal, every bacterium and every virus on earth is locked in a deadly struggle with every other individual – within the species and across the species . . . Anything that doesn’t compete goes to the wall and dies.

Geoff’s right. The truth is, Lake Michigan – and all of nature – is not nice. It is fierce. It does what it’s going to do. The Great Lakes can roar up a storm in minutes. Over the years their waves – taller and steeper and more frequent than those out on the ocean – have sent thousands of  shipwrecked vessels and their passengers to watery graves.

Front page of the Detroit News, 1913, with headline describing harsh shipwreck weather on Great Lakes.

Front page of the Detroit News, 1913, a year of record shipwreck weather on the Great Lakes.

And the soft waves lapping on Lake Michigan’s shores? They turn frigid in winter. Ice balls, ice rings and ice pancakes crash about in the surf. And on the shore, spray from the lake builds ice caves twenty and thirty feet high.

“Nature doesn’t care one whit about us,” writes Alan Lightman, author of The Accidental Universe, in the New York Times. “Nature, in fact, is mindless. Nature is neither friend nor foe, neither malevolent nor benevolent. Nature is purposeless.”

Not only that, Lightman asserts, life in general and human life in particular is inconsequential in the cosmic scheme of things. The results of the Kepler spacecraft’s search for signs of potential life in the universe suggest that a mere one millionth of one billionth of one percent of the visible universe exists in living form. We and our plant and animal kin just don’t count for much.

“We may find nature beautiful or terrible,” writes Lightman. “But those feelings are human constructions.”

So – which is it? Is nature a friend as Welling suggests? Cruel as Machin asserts? Or has Lightman got it right – nature is indifferent?

I’m going to go with indifferent.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to wade into Lake Michigan the next time I see it, lie on my back, close my eyes, float in the sun, and let the lake’s soft waves soothe my soul.

My soul — or whatever it is that makes me love that lake.

If this story resonates for you, check out “The Downside of Things Beautiful.”   For other posts about Lake Michigan, go to “Walk Around Lake Michigan? She Did It, Now I Don’t Have To” and “Build a Wind Farm, Wreck Lake Michigan.”

A storm comes ashore at Grand Haven, Michigan, 2009. Waves of 15 to 20 feet were predicted for that day. Video by Kevin Walters

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  1. Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

    My cousin Bob shared his thoughts on nature: “I’m not sure I can really identify with any of these impressions of nature. I guess the guy who says nature doesn’t give a whit if we live or die has an undeniable point, but when I’m lying on that sand you referred to or doing my annual hike from Pentwater to Bass Lake on the Lake Michigan shore, I feel there is something a little deeper than whimsy going on here. I’m one of those people who doesn’t have much use for organized religion, but I have a strong belief in a higher being, and Lake Michigan is one of his wonderful mystical creations.”

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