Just in time for the last post in the series, the weather outside was gorgeous. I decided to lie down on the roof of the “fort” again and look up at the sky. Going out in the late afternoon had the distinct advantage that the sun no longer shone directly down into my eyes as it had before. The trees above were beginning to bloom, as indicated by the small congregation of chirping birds on its branches. Most importantly, the weather was about the closest to perfect it had been in a while: it was warm and sunny, but with a cool breeze to complement the warmth. The weather seemed balanced just right, and it was hard to think about anything but how beautiful it was.
But the balance of the weather sparked another thought as well. I thought how fickle weather was, and how quickly the light breeze could take a drastically different form. In a few months (or, considering the weather lately, in a day or two), this comfortable breeze could develop into bitingly cold winds or some kind of hurricane. I was struck by the fragility of the pleasantness and beauty of my current position, and how just as easily the weather could have ruined my day (or at least my twenty minutes of nature). The plane that flew far above my head also reminded me how tiny and insignificant I was in comparison to the world around me. In other words, if the universe saw fit to end my comfort (or even my physical existence), it would hardly encounter difficulty in doing so.
One might consider this thought to be pretty dark and depressing. Indeed, on the surface, it does tend to give that impression. An even slightly different universe could have meant a catastrophic end (or, more likely, lack of beginning) of the human race. However, in a strange way, this thought is also comforting: we don’t live in a slightly different universe. We live in a universe extremely well-suited to our survival and well-being. It’s as though we had played Russian roulette with five bullets and survived. Sure, there’s inevitably the initial stress and shock at having so narrowly escaped death, but these in time ought to be replaced by an overwhelming feeling of relief and joy. It’s as though our minuscule size and apparent insignificance in comparison to the universe is meant to say, “Congratulations! You’re alive. Now be happy about it.”
I found it. Shortly after my last experience, I received confirmation* that the spot I found was indeed the spot I was looking for. I’m not exactly sure what I expected would come of my “hike,” but I was pretty sure it would be interesting. At least, I expected it to be natural. This expectation was only barely met by the reality I encountered. This was not mainly because of what I didn’t find, but of what I did. In addition to the expected trees, dirt, and other organic objects, I discovered an unexpected amount of litter, especially bottles. These served as clear reminders that I was not, by any stretch of the phrase, “exploring nature.” The most telling indication arose, however, when I reached the end of the short trail only to be confronted by yet another street. The “nature” I had “discovered” seemed simply to be filler space in the paved and manicured blueprint of the suburbs.
Ironically enough, the closest I came to an “experience” occurred after I had finished my excursion into the unknown. As I made my way back to my familiar street, the sun cast a warm light on the well-kept lawns and houses. This evoked a striking contrast between the place to which I had gone and the place to which I would return. Contrary to my expectation that the more “natural” surroundings would provide a more beautiful experience than mundane urban life, the sterilized setting appeared to me in that moment far more beautiful than the woods I had just explored. I felt somewhat strange about my judgment, valuing man-made structure of the wild beauty of nature. However, the vivid contrast left precious little room for doubt: the “artificial” street was undoubtedly the more beautiful than the “natural” trail.
I’m still not quite sure what to think of this evaluation. Clearly, the relative position of the sun had a great deal to do with my experience. One might argue that I hadn’t really experienced “nature,” or that I was biased toward the familiarity of my street, and they would most likely be right. However, this experience does seem to point to an oft-forgotten truth: human progress is not the ugly sore on the otherwise attractive face of the earth. We build houses and factories and cities for a reason: civilized comforts and securities can drastically improve people’s general quality of life. In addition, man-made things, in addition to merely naturally-occurring ones, can be quite beautiful. “Nature,” while it certainly possesses great beauty, does not corner the market on attractiveness and goodness.