See, Carine? That’s the purity of nature, it may be harsh in its honesty but it never lies to you.” – Chris McCandless, to his sister Carine
I read an article recently by the former director of the Centers for Disease Control, who traveled to Uganda in 2007 as part of a quest to determine the source of an outbreak of the deadly Marburg virus, a close cousin to Ebola. Dressed in full protective gear, she and several other researchers entered a cave filled with 400,000 bats. As she entered the bat-clogged cave, one of them landed on her face shield as if to examine her, and take her measure.
Talk about a wildlife encounter.
The researchers suspected that the outbreak originated in the cave. They trapped twelve bats and sent tissue samples back to Atlanta for analysis, which showed with near certainty that the Egyptian fruit bats in the cave were the carriers of the virus. Later studies have shown that it’s likely that these same bats also harbor the Ebola virus, and periodically transmit them to mammals – including human beings.
One of the curious aspects of my nature addiction is that the natural world is by no means universally benign. (Really, the natural world isn’t even mostly benign.) And I began to ask myself, in the midst of the horrifying West African struggle with Ebola, whether a nature addiction requires the luxury of controlling one’s exposure to it, whether in that sense it’s not a bit of an artifice. I started to wonder whether it’s not a little precious – and privileged – to romanticize nature. And yes, it is. It’s also delusional, so we shouldn’t do it.
When I began to really think about why I’m so drawn to the natural world, and to plants and animals, at first I thought of the awe, and the wonder. But that has never felt like a complete answer, for reasons like the story above. At the heart of everything is paradox; the same natural world that inspires joyful awe can spew forth a virus that causes horrible deaths. These two things cannot be separated from one another. They are parts of a whole. “Nature” is not to be sentimentalized. Sometimes it’s really nasty.
As it turns out, I don’t love the natural world just because it gives me a mental glow of awe – though that certainly helps – or because it makes me feel safe. It doesn’t. I love it because it’s unchangeably authentic in ways that our plasticized world is not. The natural world will proceed on its own terms, without our permission, and it will do so with an honesty that you can’t find anywhere in the human-made world. The natural world will reflect you exactly as you are, and it doesn’t have much of an opinion about the reflection.
Nature doesn’t have issues or baggage, and so it projects nothing; it has no interest in deciding who you are. As a result, it’s a place of total emotional freedom. It is the only truly clear mirror I’ve ever encountered. Looking into it has helped me know myself in a life where that self has seemed, at times, maddeningly elusive, where other voices have always seemed more credible to me than my own.
This, I think, is why I keep going back, in spite of the tornadoes, lightning storms, bears and snakes and ticks and whatever else. People find their mirrors in all kinds of places. And one thing I’ve learned is that when they need them, they won’t be kept from them. It’s more powerful than almost anything.