Most of my life, I have found more solace in nature than the company of any human. From a young age clear into my third decade, it has always been lizards and bugs, feathers and fur. If most of my strife came from the jammed confines of society’s expectations, most of my joy came from watching green anoles strut their ruby red throats along sun-drenched walls and from marveling at learning that hummingbirds are not just a subject of Animal Planet shows but a flying, chirping neighbor in fence-choked Texas.
As a so-called adult, I am as reliant on nature as ever. If I don’t get in a long walk or a bike ride, spend time wading knee-deep in a river or sitting statuesque while the birds fill in the trees around me, I come untethered. My sanity wanes, my brain turns to staticky mush, I become increasingly self-aware of the fact that I am not great at participating in the human rat race. It is humans who enforce dress codes, judge one another, consume at such an alarming rate that we don’t leave anything for our neighbors.
It is humans who are so unquestioning in their megalomaniacal narratives that they have children as flippantly as they finance new cars, throw gender reveal parties that attempt to one-up the stunts they’ve consumed on social media. Humans who suck the entire world dry of fresh water and pump the atmosphere full of greenhouse gasses and are surprised when the whole thing turns into a tinder box waiting to explode when a pyrotechnic gender reveal ignites the sad grass of inland California. Then we make memes of the incident, laugh at our own absurdity, until it is time to mimetically repost the news that a firefighter has died fighting the blaze that was started by a firework announcing the gender of a new life. It is absurd on a level that renders my own fingers heinous, makes my unconditional love seem like a joke that could go up in smoke like my own flesh, at any unexpected second.
And indeed, my flesh is increasingly made of the smoke that our society has created. It is not just routine incense of aspen and pine. It is acrid smoke, spreading across an entire continent, filled with bits of electrical wiring and industrial paint, finer and lighter than ever because the vegetation is so dry. It is smoke that makes it unhealthy to be outside, which makes the very air we rely on into a noxious thing that shortens our lives. Triggers autoimmune responses in our bodies that mimic the coronavirus, a global nightmare that has frayed nerves and taught us to be leery of fellow man.
I am sitting on my front porch right now, breathing in the smoke, eyes watering and squinting, some combination of pain from the smoke and strain to see the ridgeline across the valley through the haze. I am out here because I am no different than the animals who have no choice, the birds who have perished en masse trying to migrate too soon in a fatal effort to escape the smoke. I am out here because being inside kills me faster, sitting in my overpriced “garden level” condo that has no natural light and nothing comforting or familiar about it. The generic furniture sternly reminds me not to get too comfortable, the loudly ticking clock on the wall marks each passing second of a dull life.
It could be better than this. Like a beautiful place you have seen on a clear day, life flashes glimpses of the scenery and opportunity around you. It hints at what is possible, shows the challenging and rewarding peaks that beckon.
Then the smoke descends. The horizon disappears, life is cast in a dull gray light, the promise of soaring highs shrugs beneath toxic air. Instead of getting drunk on possibility, we are buried in headaches and sore throats, an aching awareness of how quickly our bodies fail us. We suck in shallow breaths, denying ourselves the calming rhythm of breathing exercises because the air is not good for us. It is the respiratory version of days traded for average wages, completely devoid of meaning. Technically, it is enough to keep us alive. And even while it sustains us, it does more harm than good. In each breath, tiny particles of dead people, animals, lost livelihoods, blue and pink dye from the gender reveal.