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Nature has powerful ways to remind us that we are not in charge
The snapshot is old, the image grainy. I’m young, in the middle of nowhere, hair blowing around in the wind.
Our teenager unearthed it and put it in her bedroom, as kids do. It was taken the summer I fell in love with her father. He and I had driven out to Trabuco Canyon, the air hot, the Santa Anas whipping down from the mountains. A red-tailed hawk was circling overhead and we had pulled over to take its picture. It had taken less time than you’d think to run out of civilization, for boulevards and malls to give way to steep cliffs and dry creek beds. I remember getting out of the car and hearing nothing but birds, smelling sage and live oak and wild fennel.
I remember my husband’s strong profile, his sunglasses, the hawk spiraling high against the clouds and then diving, the sense that something real was transpiring, that something bigger than us was in charge there.
“You know those two Costa Mesa teenagers who got lost in the mountains around Easter?” I tell my daughter. “That’s where this picture was taken.”
She nodded absently—some reality show had her attention—so I didn’t add that her father and I had made that drive from our offices and were back at our desks in the space of a lunch hour. That’s how easy it is here to slip into wilderness.
So much of Orange County is man-made, and we often forget how much of it lies beyond our control. We know nature is out there, but our memories are as grainy as that photo. As far as the civilized eye can see, civilization seems to have everything handled.
Our streets are this width, our roofs are that tile, our children play organized sports on this grass, behind hedges trimmed to this height and configuration. Gates guard $3 million homes, lest they be confused with the $2 million ones a block over. The GPS guides our cars over ribbons of asphalt. Should we miss the feel of the earth, we can mow the lawn or sign up for a Mud Run. Adventureland is just up the freeway.
It’s the Orange County bubble, we sigh, ruefully but with some pride. And who can blame us for protecting our paradise? We toil and grind, wheel and deal, sometimes even lie and cheat to claw our way into this place; it’s only natural to want to secure it for our children.
But like those TV shows about the supposedly “real” us, that childproof Eden is an illusion. Pull back, above offices and roofs, above the desert and the Santa Ana Mountains, and you’ll see that nothing actually shields us. We are just a slightly more populous part of the middle of nowhere. This is what I wanted to tell my child: There are places where something bigger than us is in charge. Please don’t learn that the hard way.
But I hold my tongue, and I suspect I’m not the only parent with mixed feelings about keeping the real-er realities grainy. “We wanted to touch the clouds,” one of those teens said after her Easter hike turned into a four-day ordeal that ended when a search helicopter plucked her from a brush-covered cliff; her hiking buddy was later charged with drug possession.
It was the kind of thing you say only if you are young and think the wilderness is just another fun place to play in the bubble. The kind of thing you say if you don’t know how little in life can be taken for granted, if you’ve never learned that wild things—wind, heat, love, danger—are always with us, whipping down from the mountains, circling like a hawk.
Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue.