Side With the Living

the other night I saw a commercial for a PBS program that breathlessly described how orcas “dominate” the oceans. And the nature program I had the misfortune to see before that talked of different species of bears “conquering” each other’s territories. The program repeatedly emphasized the powerful bite of one particular type of bear — making sure we got the point by always playing scary music when these bears were depicted — and only late in the program did viewers learn that these bears were exclusively scavengers, with powerful jaws not so they could “conquer” and “dominate,” but so they could break the bones of those already dead. This projection onto the natural world of this culture’s urge to dominate is so ubiquitous as to be at this point almost invisible to us, like air. And obviously, how we perceive the natural world affects how we behave toward it: if we perceive it as full of domination, we are more likely to attempt to dominate it.

Not infrequently, people will use the mass extinctions of the past to rationalize their efforts to dominate (read: destroy) the world at hand. For example, I recently read an essay by the influential scientific philosopher Sam Harris titled “Mother Nature Is Not Our Friend.” It begins, “Like many people, I once trusted in the wisdom of Nature. . . . I now believe that this romantic view of Nature is a stultifying and dangerous mythology. Every 100 million years or so, an asteroid or comet the size of a mountain smashes into the earth, killing nearly everything that lives. If ever we needed proof of Nature’s indifference to the welfare of complex organisms such as ourselves, there it is.” Never mind that only one of the major mass extinctions was probably caused by an asteroid. But the real point is that the moral I derive from mass extinctions is precisely the opposite of the moral Harris projects onto them.

I’m lying on my stomach where meadow meets redwood forest. The ground is wet from last night’s misting rain. My clothes quickly become soaked, my skin chilled. I hear the soft sounds of songbirds — I’m grateful that some remain — carrying out their daily activities, and in the distance I hear a crow. A frog chuckles in a nearby pond — I’m grateful some frogs remain, too. This is the year the worldwide amphibian die-off has come home; the frogs in this pond are disappearing. A fly buzzes overhead.

Looking down, at first I see a more or less undifferentiated mass of life and death. But then, as I begin to get past my own discomfort at being cold and wet, and, more to the point, as I begin to grant even the few seconds it takes to stop paying attention to me and start paying attention to what (or who) is directly in front of my face, I begin to see. A tiny mushroom, an inch tall, stalk as slender as a hair, button smaller than the butt on this pen. A fir tree, two inches tall, already forked, tiny green needles already stiff and sharp. Three-lobed plants whose names I don’t know, and slender plants who stretch to their full height of less than the length of my finger. Mosses grow beneath; they are fragile, and I take care not to dislodge them.

I see first one spider web, wet with dew, and then another, then another. I see huckleberry leaves, each its own shade of green. Some leaves are complete, some have small bites taken out of them, by whom I do not know. I look closely at one salal leaf. The dew, barely beaded, looks slick across its surface, like delicate sweat on a lover’s chest. The leaf is a rich green, with a few dark spots where some fungus is feeding. Another tiny plant, this with a single unopened flower, pale pink, at its tip. An old piece of redwood, long fallen off the stump of a tree cut eighty years ago, slowly losing shape, covered with lichen; tan roots of something — someone — sprouting out like hair. I see another spider web, and then, beneath it, tiny greenish stalks of some fungus growing from a half-buried piece of that murdered tree. A fruit fly lands on the pocked leaf of a native blackberry. A gnat navigates this forest of six-inch-tall plants. All of this life in one small area in only a few moments of noticing.

Elsewhere in life I have seen spiders who have lost three legs, yet still they live. I’ve seen a young bear who was shot in the back right knee by someone with more firepower than heart; I saw her soon after she was shot; and I saw her wound abscess grow to the size of a salad plate. I saw my mother give this young bear antibiotics; I saw this bear survive and grow and return to my mother’s house to show my mother her first twin cubs; I saw this hurt bear raise these cubs; I saw her back right leg remain tiny, shriveled, no more useful than a peg, as she could not bend it, could not put weight on it; I saw her survive. I saw my mother moments after she broke her neck in a car wreck: C2 fracture, hangman’s break, the damage so severe that doctors said the only person they’d ever seen in the entire world with damage this severe never regained consciousness. I have seen her twenty years later close her eyes tight against the pain from this accident; and I have seen her stagger from the broken-neck-induced vertigo. Yet still she lives on. I should have died any number of times: at birth, at nine months, at twenty-three years, at forty-four years. Yet I survived.

The point? Life is tenacious.

Just last night I was walking through the dark forest when I heard the distinct and sadly familiar sound of a snail shell imploding beneath my feet — two hundred pounds coming down on half an ounce. I returned this morning and saw a beetle hauling away the body. It is not hyperbole to say that I cannot imagine how many minute creatures I have killed simply by walking, scratching, wiping my forehead. I don’t want to imagine how many I have killed by running into or over them with a car.

The point? Life is fragile.

Life is tenacious. Life is fragile. Life relentlessly wants to live. This is the real moral of the story of mass extinctions, but life wanting to live does not mean that no harm ever comes. Life wanting to live does not mean that bad things don’t happen. We all know this. Or should. And when bad things happen, life still wants to live. Relentlessly, desperately, lovingly, fully. Even in Chernobyl. Even in toxic waste sites.

Sam Harris seems to blame “Nature” for mass extinctions, and he implies that these mass extinctions have caused him to no longer trust “Nature.” Do you see the unstated premise that binds him to fundamentalist Christianity? All he has done is changed the name “God” to the name “Nature” in presuming that “Nature” is omniscient and omnipotent. How else can we explain his evident belief that “Nature” can stop an asteroid? His whole argument is nonsensical, much like saying that just because I didn’t prevent my mom’s neck from breaking in a car wreck, I’m not her friend, and that my wisdom, such as it may be, is not to be trusted. That’s absurd. I would have done anything to prevent the accident, but I had heartbreaking constraints (such as not being able to see around a broad corner; such as not being able to see a black tarp against the backdrop of a black night; such as not being able to anticipate that a semi loaded with plywood — the load covered with a black tarp — would have overturned moments before and blocked the entire road; such as not being able to convert that semi load of lumber into feathers, foam, or Jell-O. And who is to say that “Nature” does not also have constraints? How did life respond to an asteroid striking the Earth? Life responded as life does, by attempting to live. How is life responding to the horrors of industrial capitalism? Life is responding as life does, by attempting to live.

Life wants to live. Life so completely wants to live. And to the degree that we ourselves are alive, and to the degree that we consider ourselves among and allied with the living, our task is clear: to help life live.

Originally published in Orion

Filed in Essays
No Responses — Written on September 3rd — Filed in Essays

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