I’ve been at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument since noon. I first came here in ’88 on my dissertation trip. I had had a brief exposure to Death Valley and extended time in the Joshua Tree desert area and then several days here. More even than JT it has a diverse and abundant flora and I was entranced by it, as I was by so many unique and striking places back in those days of first exposure. I still remember a close encounter between a Palo Verde and young Saguaro that I mentioned in the dissertation journal; it seemed remarkable then and routine now; it is of course both. That trip produced the dissertation and more important, changed me permanently.
I read a few days ago a repeat of the common query: Are humans part of Nature? The answer seems obvious but requires elaboration to be at all illuminating. The better question is, What kind of relationship do humans have with Nature? and in that form, part of the answer becomes apparent. About no other plant or animal would we ask how it relates to Nature, since it simply is Nature in one of its forms. The ocotillo or coyote do not relate to Nature; they are Nature standing in front of or jogging away from me; they have their place in ecosystems but to speak of their relating to them does not feel fitting since to do so has a distancing sound. There is no split between them and Nature. I’m sure that was once true with Homo sapiens as well but along the way it changed.
To have relation with another (of any sort) means being separate from it, even when, as in Thou-relation, I join with the other in love or mutuality; but other remains other. Since humans are now in relation to Nature, we have necessarily stepped away from it, else there would not be relation but identity. Did our inquiring minds begin the separation? Maybe, but not necessarily. Inquiry sets the other apart for the purpose of examining and understanding, including understanding us as part of it and what that might mean. That seems to me to make for a heuristic division— “I am a small part of this whole. What part is mine, how can I be conscious of being embedded and still play my part”—but not an experienced one. As when I analyze a dream I set it apart for interpretation but it remains me/mine. In my imagining, however, inquiry may well have set in motion what became separation. Our nature is such, with its ego (even primordial or incipient), anxieties, and desires that in combination with our growing ability to dominate other creatures would have fostered efforts to control. Which got the separation ball rolling, as I picture it. Control, I imagine, led to diminished respect for Nature and its otherness; we wanted to use it for our own purposes, purposes that in time broke free from innate and vital needs and replaced our former organic engagement with being/Nature. So things, and processes for making and moving things, began to dominate us, their initiator. Now our relations are more with things than Nature, which has become only a resource. Severing our self from our source left us depleted and disoriented, hollowed out of intrinsic values. Our best recourse lies in reestablishing our unity; experiencing ourselves as much as we can as once again embedded, within spiritual union.
Returning to the beginning question, our relationship with Nature…there remain aspects of daily existence that inexorably tie us to Nature: mortality, illness and health, our dependence on adequate food, air, and water, the weather…physical things for the most part. Even so, we aspire to a lofty separation—humans above and in charge—and the illusion generally works, but then drought, flood, hurricane; cancer, virus, senescence; occurrences such as these break in and our broken relation is exposed. Division and the forms and sources of suffering identified by Buddhism have become our quotidian condition, and their resolution our reunion with reality, our life’s aspiration when we bother to think about it. Building my daily being on the insights and practices of reunion is how a good life progresses.
But do I beg this question: Is it possible that anything done by any creature born of Nature can be unnatural? If it exists as an innate capacity doesn’t that make it natural even if self-destructive? I understand the point of this objection but reject it (besides which, if true it would be a trivial, unhelpful observation). What Nature does or leads to is not always beneficent. It often disrupts, like a hurricane, kills and maims. But such events are the natural results of physical forces and not designed by Nature or anything else for a result (that we know of). They just happen and Nature rebounds and moves on; I do not in imagination conceive that plant and animal life grieves its fate. Natural life in all its forms, as they exist within relatively undisturbed ecosystems, inevitably leaves me feeling their rightness, their implicit belongingness and harmonization (even through conflicts), the forms of shared being coexistent alongside each other. They do what they do because that’s how (other parts of) Nature designed them.
Humans were given by evolution a limited freedom to reflect on ourselves and where we are and why. I wonder sometimes if perhaps Nature over-reached and got blindsided in its evolution of humans—it, too, can run up blind alleys and occasionally over a cliff as shown by mass extinctions—thinking that giving life an ability to stretch its boundaries and try on novel and unnecessary ways of doing things would be an adventure and consummation. I’ve never accepted the notion that “There can be no value without a (human) valuer,” but it does seem that throwing in the valuer adds a sort of completion to value. Beauty exists even in the absence of a human to witness and appreciate it, but the beholding may fulfill it. As it happened humans’ limited freedom seems, all things considered, to have turned into almost unlimited disaster. Our ability to remember what’s good for us falls away and turns into distraction, activity for the sake of activity. In this turn, humans became unnatural, for Nature knows better.