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.


thekid said...

I'm glad to see you back at sharing after something of a long pause. I appreciate the reflections shared here - I'm happy for you that you could take it all in while you were working. I always feel a little guilty when I meet a big Malaysian cockroach in the apartment with a shoe in hand... it's just doing what big cockroaches do and wandered into the wrong space... I never step on the ones on the sidewalk :) Love ya! Jen

Gordon Hackman said...

Hey sis,

Thanks for the comments. It's funny, but my friend Matt and I were talking just last Friday and he said that he now tries not to kill insects unnecessarily anymore, as he feels they are part of God's creation and shouldn't be treated as simply expendable. I agree that this is a proper Christian attitude. That's not to say that all life is necessarily equal in value, or that sometimes we don't have to kill something (like a bee or a spider in the house). I think, though, that there's something intrinsic in us that knows that killing and death aren't the way things are supposed to be, and that killing even something as insignificant as an insect in a callous manner reveals a wrong orientation towards God's creatures. It's all about our basic orientation.

Jessica said...

I try to kill intentionally. Meaning, not reflexively. So that each time I am deciding and acknowledging that I'm killing - it makes me have to justify my killing. This is only some of the killing I do; I don't mean to say that I don't kill unawares much much more than I do awares - like bugs that are killed by my vehicle, my footsteps, my plants, my lawn mower, or animals' environments disrupted by chemicals or physical buildings/roads that I help create with my lifestyle/purchases, etc. And then there are of course other waysI am ignorant of that I support destruction. Learning and changing all the time! It's all good!

Jessica said...

P.S. Jen - I didn't know you were "the kid"!

Jess the neighbor

Gordon Hackman said...


Thanks so much for your comments! It's true, of course, that we kill other living things all the time without being aware of it, simply by moving about in the world. Wendell Berry talks in one of his essays about the fact that even the most enviromentally conscious of us can't help but damage things just in the course of our ordinary activities. It's probably inevitable and should serve to remind us of the fallen state of the world we live in. Only when death is finally banished forever and God completely makes all things new will this come to an end. In the meantime, we have to live and act in this imperfect world, but I think that we should still try to be aware of how what we do affects the world around us and try not to be callous about it.

thekid said...

Hi Jess! So great to meet you here! I'm The Kid alright - I guess it was something my dad started but Hol also called me kid for a long time and it suits how I often perceive myself. Thanks for your comments on doing things with intention. I feel like I'm just beginning to do that with the thought of caring for creation in my mind. You are right on with the learning and changing all the time by God's grace. Peace!

Jessica said...

Yup, you said it - "God's grace" That's the essence. All learning and thankful for Grace.

Jason Hesiak said...

Hey Gordon,

Me again. Again, really enjoyed and appreciated your post. Something small my professor said once that pointed to something so much bigger (iconic): "Architects don't use any 'natural' materials." 'Cause we have these image of Frank Lloyd Wright - esque (old architect up there in the Chi-town area) "romantic" and "natural" buildings, with exposed wood and ceramic tiles and the like. As opposed to the "artifical" "modern" white-clad, steel and concrete architecture common to the skyscrapers of, say, Chicago. Funny, cause these images we hold with signs to the signified labels of "romantic/natural" and "artificial" (a practice that extends far beyond architecture, as you indicated) are really a big part of what, from the beginning, whether we live in a rustic house or not, sets us apart in un-holy scientific systemetized secularization from our own "nature". What's wierder, now we even confuse this setting aprat and lifted up to a place of control from being set apart and edified by God.