Thursday, April 27, 2006

Nature and Limitations

Today, as I was out working (I wash windows for a living), I was struck by how many bugs were around the windows I was washing. First, I encountered several spiders that had spun these little web sacks along the edges of the window sills (I think they hide in them during the daylight hours). It's nearly impossible to wash the window without knocking them off. Then I encountered a wasp attempting to start a nest in one corner of a window I was trying to wash. Of course, I had to knock it down, but I felt appropriately bad knowing the wasp was only trying to survive in the world (like me). At another store, a strange looking type of fly sat on the sill of several of the windows.

All this got me thinking a little bit about how even in the most highly developed settings, the natural world is always present with us. We can't get away from it, no matter how hard we attempt to live in a completely artificial environment. I think many of us think of nature as something that is "out there" in places like forest preserves and parks. The theologian David Bentley Hart has observed,

Now that we exercise so comprehensive a medical and technological mastery over whole regions of nature at whose mercy our ancestors lived out their lives, we enjoy the unprecedented luxury of being able to render the "natural" at once remote and benign. It is we who summon it, rather than the reverse, and we do so at our pleasure; it dwells with us, not we with it. We are free to sentimentalize or romanticize it, or even weave a veil of empty and unthreatening sanctity around it -- until the moment when disease, age, infirmity, or random violence suddently defeats us, or fire, flood, tempest, volcanic eruption, or earthquake surprises us by vaulting past our defenses. Then nature astonishes and horrifies us with its power, immensity, and sublime indifference.

I think that in a much smaller and less dramatic way, that is what seeing all these insects today reminded me. That no matter how developed and controlled the environment we inhabit, we are still a part of the natural world, we are immersed in it and we cannot get away from it. I think that is good thing to remember, as it reminds us of the limitations of our ability to control everything. I think the illusion of control is something we moderns continually suffer from (I know I do). Of course, I am deeply thankful for many of the ways in which we are able to control nature, as it makes our lives both safer and easier. But I still think we need to be reminded that we cannot exercise total control over our situation.