Nothing is tastier than a blackberry pie still warm from the oven, and nothing is nastier than the blackberry bramble it came from. We spent the morning doing battle with the spiky vines that have invaded our fotinia hedge and we’ve come away bloodied and exhausted. The bramble won. Here in the Northwest they always do.
The Pacific Northwest is filled with many natural amazements: conical, snow-covered volcanos, tumbling white-water rapids, forests that each spring bloom with rhodendendron and dogwood. We can gape sky-ward toward the tops of ancient redwoods, stand in awe at the rolling power of the Pacific, or catch a glimpse of a grizzly snagging a salmon at the base of the roaring falls. We are surrounded by Mother Nature.
Mother Nature. What an interestingly vague and benevolent concept, even more difficult to define than God. He at least told us what would tick him off, but with Mother Nature, we have never really known. Our ancestors even went to the extremes of sacrificing their next of kin to keep her mollified. And yet the term “mother” carries such an affectionate, cookie-baking, kiss-it-and-it-will-feel-better connotation that it hardly fits with the reality of nature. William Wordsworth, in a fit of romantic zeal and wishful thinking (while, no doubt, taking tea on a spring afternoon in his well-tended rose garden) once said , “Nature never will betray the heart that loves her,” and I suppose many a tree-embracing environmental enthusiast would agree with him. But if this is true, then he must have meant something different by the word “nature” than I do, and I’m sure I harbor a different definition in my head than the one floating nebulously through our national band-width.
I suppose that since mankind naturally (pardon the pun) squanders contentment and wastes his days yearning after what he can’t have, and since we have won so many of our battles with Mother Nature, that we now lust after what we think we “remember” about those pristine times when all was natural. Never mind that in the good old days starvation and disease did most people in before they were forty. But now, having trumped nature in a few areas, we seem to long for the days before central heating and useful medicine. We want to get back to nature, however irrational that may be.
In the first place I have to contend that nature consists of more than just trees and hills and sucker fish, that human beings are nature too. Granted, we can make machines, but we aren’t machines and just because we sit at the top of the food chain doesn’t oust us from it. So much of our public discussion makes man sound like some ungrateful alien upstart, a Grendel-style monster with the audacity to try to stay alive and improve his existence at the expense of other preditors. We don’t seem at all appalled at the ladybug who will selfishly wipe out entire colonies of aphids just for her own benefit; we even employ her to do the job for us and praise ourselves for using “natural” gardening techniques when we do. No, we got here the same way everything else did and that makes us, too, a natural phenomenon. Which brings me back to Wordsworth -- if we include mankind in nature, then his statement is patently ridiculous. Volumes have been written on human betrayals.
But if mankind does not belong in the definition of nature, what does? Could we say that nature is everything in the world except man and what he has made? That would mean we would have to include our national nemesis, petroleum, since that substance developed naturally thousands of years before man found and learned to use it. Under this definition we’d have to include nuclear radiation as a part of nature, and quit treating it like a Frankesteinian human invention. Bacteria and viruses would qualify as well, with or without mankind, and we’ve all had to deal with stomach flu and head colds and we’ve all felt betrayed. Then, if we include the “nothing man-made” clause we would have to exclude all gardens and farms and Wordsworth didn’t seem to be shunning domesticated animals or his climbing roses. Did he just mean the outdoors?
That creates problems as well. If nature is so benign, why have we humans spent the last six millinia trying to avoid her? We build shelters and spend most of our time inside those shelters, cleaning up the messes that just naturally accumulate, and creating our own climate, which in most parts of the world far outshines the natural climate outside the walls. Even when we wax all maudlin and sentimetal and rush off into the woods to camp and “get back to nature,” we pack up half our worldly possesions so we can stay safe and comfortable in the forest. Wordsworth could make his pollyanna remark because he never tried to live through a Montana winter or a Texas tornado. What was Hurricane Katrina but nature betraying all those jazz-loving Louisiannans?
In fact, humans have found natural climate conditions rarely condusive to staying healthy. Mankind was created with little to protect us from the elements. We have no insulating coat of fur or feathers, no protective scales, and a body temperature that we need to keep stablized, so we have built roofs to keep out the rain, walls to stop the wind and and warning systems in case Mom Nature decides to turn unusally nasty; nature doesn’t have to change her behavior much to make our existance impossible. A little too much rain, and our houses are ripped from their foundations and go floating down the fickle river. Too much wind, and roofs fly off. Too much cold, and the pipes freeze. We have paved the world’s surfaces so we can move about unhindered by nature’s weather whims, but then she freezes the rain or dumps tons of snow and we are still in trouble.
In fact Mother Nature is such a sweety that we long ago discovered we were better off huddled together in cities, not only to protect ourselves from marauding lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), but to lend each other a hand in our never-ending attempt to outsmart the old girl. Many summers ago I spent a week in Manhattan. Upon my return to the Rogue Valley, my Nebraska brother and his family came to visit and one day we decided to drive over to Gold Beach. My husband, who loves to drive and scare our flat-lander relatives, decided that the lonely old logging trail called Bear Camp Road would be the ideal route. By the time we were heading home, the sun was setting and we crept slowly over the pass, scaring black bears off the road, spotting cougars slinking through the trees and generally feeling isolated. For over two hours we spied no other humans and the forest grew darker. Finally we rounded one last bend and the road dropped down past Ennis Riffle and we saw the lights in the charming brown cabin that guards the turn-off. The minute I spied the lights, I relaxed and I realized that I had been less uneasy walking through the midnight streets of New York than I had been that night on Bear Camp Road. Granted, people die daily in the Big Apple - I watch TV too - but I’d rather be shot on a crowded street corner than die the way a salesman did on this old road several winters ago. He got lost in a snow storm at the top of the pass and it took three months for the rescue team to find him. I doubt that he died quoting Wordsworth.
Though, he might have at the start of his ill-fated journey. It is beautiful up there; ridge after ridge of navy-blue mountains, ancient Douglas firs, cascading rivulets, rugged rock outcroppings and the occasional patch of snow. Mother Nature is an attractive old broad - attractive, but dangerous. She is also generous, providing, when she feels like it, beauty and susteanance, rest and water, health and healing. When she feels like it. And she is wealthy beyond our wildest dreams, capable of fulfilling our every need and desire, but she is also capricious, unstable, unforgiving and uncompromising. We must find better ways than the ancients did to accept her largess without incurring her wrath and we must always respect her dictums because she will betray us, whether we love her or not.