On the Nature of Change

To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are—painful, impermanent, open, imperfect—and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us. For in a fixed universe there would be no freedom. With that freedom we improve the campsite, teach children, oust tyrants. The world is nature, and in the long run inevitably wild, because the wild, as the process and essence of nature, is also an ordering of impermanence.

—Gary Snyder

A pervasive feeling marked my recent travels: the sense that autumn used to feel different, back when it still rained. Normally, this time of year would be preceded by several weeks of summer monsoon storms, the last of which would stretch into autumn. The air would be rich with the scents of wet earth, sagebrush, pine, juniper, and the delicate aromas of fallen leaves decaying in the moist understory. Aspen groves and canyon bottoms would feel soft to walk on. Delicate and vibrant grasses would sprout on shaded benches at the feet of sandstone walls. Water pockets in the rock would be filled to the brim, the larger ones surrounded by late bloomers: paintbrush, rabbitbrush, daisies. Occasionally, ephemeral fog would drift through canyons and in the high forests. This year, there was almost none of it. After a prolonged drought, the ground is now dry and crunchy, some creeks have dried out, leaves turned brown instead of golds and reds. Now the season is over, and in the coming days the desert will again surrender to the deep silent freeze of winter.

Red StateIf you were to rely solely on “nature photographs” as a means of learning about the nature of this place, it’s likely you would not know the first thing about its struggles. This despite so much of this land still being wild in appearance and rich in opportunities for making beautiful photographs, and despite more and more photographers visiting here each year. Change is only evident in context often missing, if not omitted deliberately, from photographs.

Ironically, despite laudable efforts by conservation advocates to preserve some places in their current state (if not to make them “better” by some anthropocentric measure), change is a defining characteristic of wild places. What is now a scenic desert was once forests, sea bottoms, the channels of rivers, volcanic cauldrons, seashores. What is on the surface today was once buried miles deep, sometimes beneath great mountain ranges since eroded away, and no doubt will be buried again within some geologic measure of “soon.” Every species in existence today, including those considered endemic, either once was, or has descended from, an invasive species (homo sapiens being perhaps the most notable example and greatest cause of recent changes). Many species yet to evolve will only come into being after, and likely thanks to, some current species dying off.

Attempting to freeze Nature in whatever state it happens to be—some snapshot in time—is not to protect Nature; it is in fact to arbitrarily prevent Nature from being natural: from adapting, evolving, recycling, and transforming. Despite our intuitions and best intensions, it is ultimately futile, if not utterly cruel, to “save” remaining members of some species when the habitat they evolved to occupy can no longer sustain them, when such “saving” can only mean a life of captivity, anxiety, and forced breeding, deprived of life experiences essential to emotional wellbeing. It is likewise pointless to establish parks and recreation facilities for people to enjoy when such developments amount to robbing places of qualities only possible in the absence (or minimal presence) of humans. Such qualities include not only those needed for habitation by certain species, but also some that may be invaluable to the emotional wellbeing of (at least some) people: silence, darkness, remoteness, visceral sensations such as certain scents or sounds not reproducible by artificial means. It is therefore false and self-serving to call a place “natural” if it is only natural in appearance to a casual observer, but no longer sounds or smells or feels natural to those who know it in more nuanced and intimate ways (first and foremost among these, its own native inhabitants).

CommunionThe environmental movement as we consider it today is overwhelmingly concerned with preserving characteristics of places, many of which are transient by nature. Very little effort is invested in preserving wildness and naturalness. To preserve naturalness in a place means something that is hard for us to stomach, which is this: to leave it alone—to allow it to evolve and unfold by the same natural forces—both creative and destructive—that brought it into being, including, among others, erosion, evolution, and extinction. Indeed, if it was not for several mass-extinction events in the planet’s history (some of them violently wiping out spectacular beings and thriving ecosystems) we ourselves would not be here today. Just as certainly, our own inevitable departure at some future time will likely make possible forms of life, perhaps even intelligent life, that are beyond our ability to imagine. Some may even be more intelligent than we are, and perhaps (by our own measure of worthiness) more deserving, and better stewards, of the bounty of this earth than we have proven to be.

Change is never universally “good” or “bad.” Such judgments are only valid from certain narrow and subjective perspectives. To have one’s life experiences diminished by some change understandably feels bad for an individual person, but it is quite another thing to accept, as so many do implicitly, that the long-term survival of the human species is unequivocally a “good” thing. Indeed, speaking objectively, from the perspective of life on Earth, a better case can be made for the opposite.

Thankfully, we may persist in our beliefs and expectations, whatever they may be, even if irrational. This is because ultimately change is inevitable. Reality, as Philip K. Dick wrote, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Come back to this place in a few million years and it is likely that most flora and fauna (including homo sapiens) you see today will no longer exist here, or anywhere. Come back in a hundred million years, and the very land now under my feet will have long eroded away and likely will not look anything like what I am now seeing. Come back in a few billion years and you will no longer even have a planet to set foot on. It helps, especially in turbulent times such as we live in, to acknowledge that by any objective measure we are little more than the recent and temporary masters of a tiny clump of cosmic dust, and that we each only get a short blink of a lifetime to be conscious beings capable of appreciating beauty and experiencing profound emotions; and to pursue our affairs accordingly.

Leading up to this train of thought was a comment made to me before leaving for the desert a few weeks back, and that has haunted me since. Relating to current challenges and uncertainties, someone said that my work is needed more than ever. This surprised me at first as it contrasted with some philosophical beliefs I hold, among them an important tenet of Stoic philosophy: that one should live such that one’s happiness depends as little as possible on external things (circumstances, possessions, other people).

In a recent talk I gave, some in the audience were surprised to learn that I am not interested in accepting brand sponsorships because, as I explained, I don’t want to have to tell people they need to possess things I don’t believe they really need, to spend money on things I don’t use myself, or to praise some brand’s products when I know the alternatives may work just as well. For a similar reason I won’t offer any consolation of the sort “things will be OK.” That is, I don’t want to tell you something I have no way of knowing; and that I don’t believe, myself. More to the point: whether things will or will not be “OK” is not something I worry about very much in general. Things will be what they will be; and until I know what they will be, it seems pointless to torment myself in speculations and unfounded hopes. This touches on another philosophical concept that has proven powerful in my own life: the concept introduced by Nietzsche as amor fati—love of fate. Nietzsche explains, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it […] but love it.”

Above the FrayEverything changes and nothing is certain. Given that change may affect our lives in important and pervasive—and not always pleasant—ways, it is no wonder that we are wired by default to fear uncertainty. This primitive fear, in the course of human history, has given rise to countless untenable myths and reassuring maxims, often without evidence of their truth, and sometimes even despite evidence of their falsity. In the course of our evolution, our minds have gained impressive capacities for irrational thought: cognitive dissonance, motivated reasoning, denial, willful ignorance—to name a few—all suggesting that in the process of becoming what we are, irrational behavior was often an advantage, helping unite people around ideas and affiliations that offered individuals better chances of survival, justifying ruthless and violent behaviors toward others in the name of some unquestioned sense of honor, entitlement, or some contrived common fate.

To be sure, our irrational capacities evolved for a reason, and that reason is not the pursuit of objective truths nor acceptance of things as they are. Cognitive dissonance is not a bug of the human software, it is a feature. Knowing this, it may serve us well to recognize that we also possess, at least to a degree, the capacity to override consciously, and to correct, some of our irrational intuitions: those that evolved to solve problems we no longer face today, and that may exacerbate those problems we do face and that may decide our fate as tribes, as individuals, as a species. Put another way: we can, if we choose and if we are prepared to invest conscious effort in it, make peace with change—with the transient nature of our lives and our experiences, with the fact that bad things happen to all people sometimes, and often for random and arbitrary reasons.

It is therefore false to conclude that the nature of change—which is the nature of Nature—is something to lament, even if painful at times to witness or to experience. Certainly, the loss of some cherished experiences is never pleasant and may instinctively result in such feelings as sadness, anger, anxiety, or despair; but to conclude that the remedy to uncertainty is to be found in senseless fighting, denial, indignation, superstition, rumination, or some form of misery, often will prove incorrect if put to objective analysis. In those cases, it will serve us well to consciously spare ourselves the morass and skip to acceptance (acceptance being the precondition to, in the words of Nietzsche, “see as beautiful what is necessary,” and to love our fates, whatever they may prove to be).

We all live out our individual fates, but there is one fate we all share: we exist as living, thinking, feeling, beings. Inevitably, things, circumstances, and other lives will change, and at times their changing may be a cause for concern or even grief for us; but such is the nature of things and no platitude will make “everything” OK. Most important, none of us is getting any younger. To accept and to see as beautiful what is—the naked, unvarnished reality before us and to accept that change is in its nature—is within our power; and as a general attitude toward life, is one of the greatest means we possess to make the most of our living experiences.

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8 thoughts on “On the Nature of Change

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  1. Nature is neither good nor bad. It is simply consistent.
    I mostly agree with you in your remarks. But in parts I sympathize with the nature conservation of the status quo. This applies, for example, to the vast heathlands of northern Germany. If nature were to be given free rein, there would only be forest here. Biodiversity would decrease. I therefore plead for a meaningful cooperation between preservation of the actual state and development of “wilderness”.

    1. Biodiversity is correlated with the health and carrying capacity of an environment. If leaving nature alone reduces diversity, the problem is not natural forces but the qualities of the environment: it means the laws of nature “decided” it’s time for a new biome to evolve. Certainly this may take longer than any of us will get to witness, maybe longer than humans will still be around, but if the environment is kept in place by artificial means when it “wants” to change, then it can’t be considered natural.

  2. I respect the way you positioned thoughts on change and our reaction to it. You challenged me to really think, which not that many writers do anymore. Thanks for your efforts.

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