If you were ever to ask me what inspires me to write, I’d have to say that I have few muses.
I’d very quickly explain to you that the many wonderful dogs I’ve known are an inspiration. The ghosts of at least two dogs loom heavily in every word I write here.
But in the end, they aren’t my true muses.
My true muse is nature.
I grew up in the middle of a forest. In many parts of the world, people plant trees around their homes as a way of landscaping, but in most of West Virginia, a home is just a place where the trees got cleared off enough to have a yard and a driveway.
I spent my childhood catching lizards and nonvenomous snakes, filling jars with insects of every description, and spending lots of time in the woods with dogs.
You can learn a lot from reading about the natural world and watching nature programs on television, but I had hands-on experience.
And that’s an education unto itself.
All around me were people who had an even better education than I did.
My grandpa admired people who had a lot of experience hunting and trapping. He referred to this as having “a Ph.d. in the woods.”
I don’t think I’ll ever have more than a mere associate’s degree.
But that’s more than most people in the West will have.
Most don’t even have an eighth grade education.
When I was a believer, I saw God in nature.
It was how reconciled all the dense scriptures I read.
There was a God because in nature I saw His handiwork.
Now I know that nature is nothing more than a compilation of catastrophes. There is no intelligence to it.
It is merely life that has survived horror after horror. It is not so much survival of the fittest as it is survival of the luckiest. Did my phenotype make me more likely to survive or reproduce?
But there is something beguiling about the products of the horrors.
The truth is that I am as much a product of those horrors as a mouse or a wolf or an oak tree.
My species is the great contriver. From the time we began to shape flint tools to this modern era when I can have conversations with Facebook friends in Europe. we have contrived, rebuilt, and reshaped.
It has created a kind of delusion– perhaps the most destructive delusion of it all.
It’s the delusion that we are not part of nature, but the truth is everything that we own and everything we use came from nature.
Materials get manufactured and refined, but it all comes from nature.
But because we have advanced so much and so quickly, we think that we’re above nature.
In our minds, we’ve become as supernatural as the Christian God, but we’re still mortals.
We’re still animals, and no matter what we do, the resources of the planet do have some finite nature to them.
I think that this may be one reason who people are so hesitant to accept evolution. If one accepts that man evolved, then one has to accept that man is a part of nature and that somewhere along the line, we have to deal with natural realities.
We can’t continue to treat the ocean like a giant septic tank. We can’t continue to fill the atmosphere with all that carbon dioxide.
But in order to fix those problems, we’re going to have to change the way we live– maybe even change the expectations we have for what a good standard of living actually is.
And that’s an anathema to our species. For tens of thousands of years, we’ve used our brains to make ourselves more comfortable, more entertained. and more withdrawn from the simple realities of nature.
But we can withdraw for only so long, and at some point, things will fall apart.
It won’t be an Apocalypse. It’s not a doomsday scenario, but at some point, it will just be harder for us to live the lives we want.
And then we’ll wonder why we didn’t try to fix things sooner.
But even with all that high-minded talk, nature is ultimately my true muse for another, much more selfish reason:
It’s never let me down.
I know that there is no compassion in nature. When Werner Herzog described the jungle as obscene, he was talking about the simple reality that nature is the compilation of horrors.
These are the same life shaping horrors that I described earlier, but they are nothing compared to my utter disappointment in my own species.
This is the contriving and conjuring species.
This is the species that can think about doing big things, and it can think about its own legacy and role in the world and in the universe.
And I grew up in the nation that did big things. We were founded upon Enlightenment principles. Empiricism was meant to form our decisions on how to rule ourselves.
But we’ve long since kicked empiricism to the curb. If it’s not fundamentalist Christianity then it’s New Age hokum.
It’s really any excuse to avoid critical thought. If we thought critically, we’d see the problems very clearly, and then our consciences would require us to do something.
Now there certainly are some bright green shoots that give me some hope. The re-election of Obama and the growing rationalist and skeptic community among the younger generation certainly do give me hope.
But there is still too much darkness about.
Over the past month or so I’ve thought of Camus’s basic philosophical question.
That question is very simple, if a bet stark and disconcerting.
Why don’t you commit suicide?
I didn’t write this to shock anyone, but it’s a fundamental question.
And it’s one that is very hard for nonbelievers to answer.
I don’t see a lot of hope for this world, and I also see very little purpose in my own life. Further, even if there were a purpose, it would eventually end. Judging from my own family medical history, it would either end with cancer eating out the last bit of my organs or the Alzheimer’s destroying my brain bit by bit.
Neither is worth looking forward to.
The only answer I have is that I, like all living things, derive from ancestors who had strong instincts for survival.
I never had to worry about Smilodon or short-faced bears, but my ancestors had forage in world full of such fell beasts.
If they wanted to eat meat, they had to kill. They just couldn’t pass the buck to someone else by going to a grocery store.
Even my more immediate ancestors lived in much this way.
I am only three generations removed from people who essentially lived like the Siberian in the taiga.
During the Great Depression, ruffed grouse provided much of the poultry my great grandparents ate.
They lived in a world in which fascism was on the rise, and fascism was worse for human dignity than anything current proposed by the religious right of today.
They survived it.
And so shall I.
I will survive because my instincts says I should live.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
There is no more meaning to existence than this.
My muse provides balm to my wounds.
And Ill use this space to celebrate her.
That’s really all I can do.