Explaining Why

Sometimes we get questions about why we are the way we are, and as writers, we often need to think long and hard about the answer.

I recently told my sister that after several weeks of attending conferences and having relatives visit, I was feeling desperate to get out in nature. She asked, “What do you like so much about nature?”

Frankly, at first the question confounded me. How could it not be obvious that the natural world is absolutely fascinating and rewarding? There’s a reason I write mysteries with wilderness settings. But after thinking about it, I decided that the question really deserved an answer from me. So here are my personal thoughts on the subject.

For me, nature has always been magical. The world is so much bigger and grander than human civilization, and we know so little about the plants and other creatures we share our planet with. Even plants have superpowers; they can absorb sunshine and water and soil to create their own food before they become food for us. Mosses and lichen and fungi inhabit mysterious and extensive ecosystems. Scallops and snails use their bodies to synthesize shells from the elements in which they live. Birds and many insects can leap into the air and fly. Bats can not only wing their way through the sky but find food through echolocation.

As a scuba diver, I’ve watched an octopus hunt along a reef at night, squeezing its boneless body through tiny holes and narrow crevices, changing its colors and skin patterns as it explores. I’ve hung motionless in seawater among a school of big-eyed squid for long moments before they jetted away at warp speed. I’ve peered through the bodies of jellyfish—how can a creature that we can see through be alive? And like so many of my diving compatriots, I’ve spent hours searching through books and websites trying to identify some otherworldly organism that I observed on the ocean floor.

Many creatures are shape-shifters. They spend their lives in several different forms. How amazing it is that a caterpillar and a butterfly are the same animal! Some fish appear completely different as juveniles than they do as adults. Larval forms of most sea creatures look nothing like their final shapes.

Some creatures can change genders. Others have no gender but simply clone themselves to perpetuate their species. Wouldn’t that ability change our lives if humans possessed it?

Watching an elephant pick up a small nut with its trunk makes me wonder if dinosaurs had the same dexterity. Observing porpoises and whales always causes me to contemplate whether it’s a blessing or a curse to be an air-breathing creature that lives in water.

Even meteorological forces are captivating. How can anyone not be impressed by the crystalline formations of snowflakes and frost? By the ferocious forces of lightning and tornados? I’ve enjoyed meteor showers so dense and bright and seemingly close that I expected to hear the impacts of the streaking objects as they hit the earth. My brief and limited experience seeing the aurora borealis nearly brought me to tears; visiting a place where I can witness its full majesty is definitely on my bucket list.

Perhaps, as Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, familiarity breeds contempt, but it has always seemed to me that, when compared to the natural world, humankind is limited and repetitious and self-centered. After all, humans are only one species. We are forced to invent supernatural beings and imaginary powers, when they abound in nature all around us. The natural world promises an infinite variety of species and experiences. How can anyone not be awed by that?

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