Essays About

Nature and Science

1.6 million people live within the 60 square kilometers of Manhattan Island—the densest population center in the United States. Compared to such congestion, nature is supposed to be slow and uncrowded. Yet a single square meter of soil in the boondocks—less than a billionth the area of Manhattan—holds a thousand times more animals than all Manhattan holds humans. Earthworms, beetles, mites, ants, nematodes, springtails, and protozoa bump cell walls and brush antennae as they cram the intricate grids of dark dirt streets. Unlike our human cities which end at rivers or peter into suburbs, this great clay underground metropolis spreads vastly across every continent of earth, diminished only by deserts and ice caps. There is nothing rural about nature.

I marvel at the body's pickiness. Below 68 Fahrenheit, we shiver. Above 75, we sweat. From the near absolute zero of deep space to the sun's fiery core, the universe spans 30 million degrees, and our comfort range is seven degrees? Philosophers complain that the cosmos is harsh and inhospitable, but are we not astonishingly particular in our demands? We are like a beggar pleading to be fed with any of seven specialty foods.

Amazingly, the earth obliges us with a tolerable if not ideal climate—provided we do not venture five miles above or below this planet's surface, our narrow safe zone. At a picnic on a perfect spring day, there is boiling magma beneath the thin dirt floor we stand on. Meanwhile the air overhead, where planes are flying, would frostbite our skin and kill us with hypothermia.

Today while reading a book outside on my porch, I was about to turn the page when I noticed a miniscule insect crawling across the bottom left-hand paragraph. I gently brushed it off the page, but this made me wonder how many insects' lives I have inadvertently ended turning earlier pages. It must happen quite often on these pleasant days, when the air is abuzz with bugs. Flipping through used books I have purchased, I have often noticed small brown spots, which I guessed were squashed insects, victims of some earlier reader.

For the unlucky insect who lands on an open page, it must seem like a stable enough surface—why not wander around a bit? It is like people who build in earthquake regions. They buy a hilltop plot, erect a mansion, and sip pinot noir on their deck while enjoying the views. Then nature turns the page.

When a hurricane strikes a coastline, and I follow its onset and aftermath on the news, I am struck by the brevity of the event. Floodwaters rise to the second stories of buildings, and cars float in the street, but a day or two later, the ground is dry, the sun is out, and the world is as it was. Impressive as storms are, they cannot match the staying power of pleasant weather. They muster all they have and blow themselves out in twenty-four hours, like panting sprinters doubled over after fifty meters. The blue sky pushes their fury aside and re-asserts its casual sovereignty. With unsinkable buoyancy, normalcy resurfaces.

This return to normalcy sets me up for surprise when I read reports that people are dead. Though the waters no sooner rose than receded, the victims they briefly drowned did not revive with the next day's sunrise. The world before and after the storm was livable, and deadliness only encroached upon life for a moment, but life, a featherweight, once knocked down stays down. Surely the victims' lives, like the electricity, should only have been interrupted, not ended. The cause was fleeting: shouldn't the effect be?

People who advocate cutting car emissions, installing solar panels, and cleaning up watersheds to "help the environment" speak naively. They frame conservation as a moral issue—humanity restraining itself for the good of vulnerable creatures and defenseless habitats. Rather, the point of conservation is to keep humanity off the endangered species list. Can GDP flourish when, oil gone, we are back to burning candles? In four hundred years, the future may look prehistoric. In Europe, twenty-fifth century cavemen will scavenge among the ruins of the Uffizi.

Environmentalism is not about saving nature, but saving civilization.

Last night I returned home from vacation. Not having checked the local forecast, and arriving after dark, I could not tell the weather conditions except for the temperature. This morning I woke to a gray, dreary sky, humid air, intermittent rain, and moderate warmth. This waking to unknown weather recalled my experience of weather in childhood, when I had no knowledge of forecasts. Each day was a distinct world divided by the curtain of night, and I never knew what was coming. Reversing unpredictably from dry to drenched or calm to blustery, weather had an arbitrary and absolute character—not part of a causal nexus but a fate handed down. I submitted to the sky utterly, making its mood my mood, imagining life only within its limits.

In adulthood, broadening my knowledge has localized the weather. I anticipate cold or heat waves, recognize this overcast sky as a frontal system exiting the region by tomorrow. In dry weather, I am conscious of the rain falling in places I could drive to. In winter I think of Australia's summer. Great thunderstorms which once rattled the whole world now seem small because my thoughts fly to the storm cell's edge, where the clear sky eastward dwarfs the blackness behind.

There is a comfort in the memory of my childhood acquiescence to weather. I would like, again, to be ignorant of the weather, so I could wake surprised and submissive to each day, believing the here and now were the whole of life. Knowledge of other possibilities has fragmented my adult consciousness. I am nowhere, through being too aware of everywhere.

I never knew how vast the sky was till I drove across the Great Plains. On the East Coast, the sky is an irregular blue shape between rooftops and oak branches; in Kansas it is half the world. Beneath the sky are 360 degrees of ways to go, without so much as a hedge to hinder your progress. Yet instead of feeling free, I felt trapped by such boundless acreage. Surveying the fields, there is nowhere to go, because there is nowhere different to go. Drive a mile, and you find yourself in exactly the same location. Where do locals go to enjoy a picnic? How could they possibly choose? There are no clearings in the woods or pleasant overlooks to make you want to park your wagons here instead of there, only an infinity of equivalent spots. Mountains, coastlines, cities, and forests, which elsewhere create borders that turn land into locales, are missing from America's middle. Equidistant from the Atlantic and Pacific, the Appalachians and Rockies, New York and California, the Plains are the midpoint of everything, yet a thousand miles from anything.

On a ship there is both more room and less room than on land. We can see to the horizon but cannot walk past the ship's rails; we have wider thoughts but stiffer legs. The mind's very spaciousness exacerbates the body's claustrophobia. On land we accepted working all week in a cubicle, because its walls obscured the world beyond, but now that our eyes extend to earth's edge, a ten-story ship feels as cramped as a clam shell. Our souls would surf the hemisphere of waves, but matter shackles us. At sea I see why Plato cursed the body.

Inlanders going to sea are like shoppers looking at catalogs: we were happy before we knew how much we wanted.

When I see nature bulldozed to build subdivisions, I feel anger toward the developers. But when I drive by later and see the new homes filled with families, my anger goes flaccid. Must not the families live somewhere? True, they had homes before, but those homes now house others, and the others' old homes house others too. Trace the trail of new construction back to its origin, and you arrive at a hospital maternity ward humming like a factory day and night, sending endless swaddled shipments of future homebuyers into the world. Developers build because parents beget. Suburbs sprawl because lovers do.

Cruising the fjords of Alaska last summer and trying to imagine I was Captain Cook seeking the Northwest Passage, the thought kept intruding into my mind that on this same earth, only a few thousand miles away, were New York City, Tokyo, and Dubai, where at this moment people were talking on cell phones, riding subways, and checking stock quotes. This reflection pruned the wilderness of its power, for instead of the dangerous place our ancestors walled their cities against, it was now the walled enclave amid a wilderness of civilization, no longer threatening, but threatened.

Our contemporary experience of wilderness often seems more simulated than real. We designate wildernesses instead of discover them. We put a fence around the wilderness, not for our sake but for its: a cage to keep it wild. A protected wilderness is an oxymoron.

The first time I visited Yosemite Valley, I did not expect to be very impressed, not because I thought the scenery would be shabby, but because I thought the crowds would spoil it. Plus, Yosemite has been so praised by so many people that it seemed to me too clichéd to be impressed by it, and with a certain pride I hoped I would not be.