Originally published January 2010. Seemed like a good time to re-publish, given the heat waves baking the U.S. this summer.
Those of us here in usually-sunny Southern California have gotten a good hard scrubbing over the past week. I find it a relief when it finally rains; I spent a lot of years in the Southeast, and I can appreciate a good thunderstorm. Mr. P and I were in Cocoa Beach in October '08 and had the pleasure of watching an hours-long lightning storm out at sea; we just turned off all the lights and sat there with the patio doors open, listening to the rain and watching the electricity flashing across the sky.
What weather can bring home to a person is this: nature is not your friend. At best, she is neutral, allowing us to take and use what we find. But nature doesn't love you, and she is not looking out for you.
Nature doesn't want to help you live forever. If you believe in natural selection/evolution, which I do, you see that nature has tended to favor certain traits which maximize the likelihood of surviving just long enough to raise one generation (in humans) of offspring. Once past that point, the structures of the body start to break down; they become less resistant to disease and injury; they turn on each other. Nature has no use for you once you've done your reproductive time.
Less than a century ago, the average life expectancy for people in the U.S. (then, as now, one of the safest, cleanest, healthiest places in the world) was about 64 years. Now it's 78. That is seriously almost long enough for another generation, when you consider that simultaneously the average age of menarche has been creeping downward.
But that's not because nature decided we should live longer; it's because we figured out how to use vaccines, antibacterials, antivirals, anti-oxidants, and ever-more-extreme medical interventions to fend off the illnesses, diseases, and disabilities of aging - as well as those that occur naturally.
The big killers of the 19th century and early 20th century were infectious diseases. Influenza, cholera, measles, whooping cough (diphtheria/pertussis), smallpox, polio. Infectious diseases are still major killers worldwide, with HIV/AIDS now squarely in the mix. Influenza viruses continue to circle the globe, picking up steam every few years and breaking out in ways that populations aren't ready for. Other highly-infectious viral pathogens are making it into human populations with increasing frequency. Bacteria, meanwhile, are adapting to our countermeasures faster than we can invent them.
Nature might be trying to tell us something.
There are certain new-agey tree-hugger types (including, maybe, me) who think of Earth as an organism. Certainly, all of the necessary components are there: circulation, respiration, electro-magnetic forces, you name it. New research comes up all the time showing the ways in which non-human animals use reason and plants have consciousness; so, while I really don't think a mountain has a mind - any more than I think a bacterium does - I don't find it completely implausible that the concatenated ecosystems of Earth comprise a Gaea entity.
Sometimes it is tempting to look at the ways nature is coming up with to kill people and think, She may be tired of us. And really, who could blame her?
It's not enough to say that for better health, we should live closer to nature. Sure, living in a clean environment is healthier than living in a polluted one. Getting away from cities and into the wild on a regular basis is healthier than never leaving the concrete jungle. Putting your bare feet on the earth and letting her electromagnetic waves soothe the jangly discordance of your own vibrations is healthier than using chemical tranquilizers.
But nature will kill you just as surely whether you live in a steel and glass high-rise or in a bamboo hut on a beach. We have to accept that for our fullest, best life, we have to use every weapon in our arsenal to stay healthy. We can't indulge in every self-polluting vice and expect our bodies to resist the incursions of nature's ever-evolving armies.
We each have a natural span that is, to some extent, pre-ordained. Our genetic makeup and early-childhood health set a natural endpoint. But that endpoint can be extended by the conscious, deliberate application of best health practices.
One of which, I believe, is to approach nature with reverence, respect, and a mindful caution. To appreciate the infinite beauties and gifts of nature, without ever forgetting that she is utterly indifferent to us.