By Barbara Falconer Newhall
Some people get their spiritual highs from nature. Put them down on an open plain billowing with prairie grass or in a woods fragrant with piney duff and rotting oak leaves and an ineffable feeling of connectedness to all things wells up in them.
Humans beings like Nature. They love Nature. But does Nature care a fig about humans?
It was Nature, after all, that dispatched a category five cyclone to Vanuatu earlier this year, taking out buildings, houses and 90 percent of the island nation’s crops.
And it was Nature that brought down a mass of mud and rock on the village of Abi Barak in Afghanistan last year. More than 2,000 human beings perished in that single act of – Nature.
And when Nature unleashed a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in Japan a few years ago, the death toll was 1,600.
I have my own fond thoughts about nature – of driving over to Mount Tamalpais to hike in the shade of ancient oaks and stalwart redwood trees, the Pacific ocean glimmering in the distance.
For many of the folks I interviewed for my book, Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith, nature is a benevolent, nurturing presence. They talked about sensing a deep kinship with the natural world.
Tori Isner, an Army veteran who traces her roots back to the Cherokee people of southern Appalachia, is one of them. I couldn’t squeeze Tori’s story into my book, so I’m glad to have the chance to pass along some of it here.
Here’s what Tori has to say about Nature:
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.
— Tori Isner
But not everyone I talked to for Wrestling with God was so sanguine about the nature of Nature. Pediatric pathologist Geoff Machin thinks of nature this way:
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 Machin
Geoff’s right. The truth is, Nature is not nice. It is fierce. It does what it’s going to do. Cyclones, mudslides, earthquakes, tsunamis. Also, stillbirths and slow death by cancer.
“Nature doesn’t care one whit about us,” Alan Lightman, author of The Accidental Universe, wrote 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 Tori suggests? Cruel as Geoff 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 hike Mt. Tamalpais every chance I get. Breathe the chaparral scented air. Close my eyes and let the soft wind coming in off the Pacific soothe my soul.
My soul — or whatever it is that makes me want to put on my hiking boots and feel that glorious mountain under my feet.
Barbara Falconer Newhall is the author of Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith, new from Patheos Press.