Wild Things

Man, nature, and coexistence along life’s ragged edge

My friend Nancy lives in a canyon, in a house that backs onto wild, wild wilderness. Coyotes roam there, and rattlers, and black widow spiders; she worries about West Nile virus and brush fires. At night, when she parks her Prius, she props open the hood so rodents seeking a cozy, enclosed space don’t nest underneath and gnaw the wires of the hybrid engine. It’s a pain, she admits, but what can you do? Get a restraining order? No, this is the price you pay for touching the beautiful face of nature: the realization that the wilderness wants what it wants.

My neighbor Linda has a Mexican fan palm. It is by far the tallest, skinniest, ugliest thing on the block. Also the messiest. The city may trim its trees, but hers aren’t so assiduously tended. So each time the Santa Anas blow, giant dead fronds whirl through the air in every direction. No year is complete without some parked car getting buried in brittle palm branches. What it’s doing in her yard is unclear—she didn’t plant it. It just showed up and began growing. It provides next to no shade and adds next to no value, and one of these days it’ll probably topple and knock a hole in her tile roof. But no amount of pesticide or neglect seems to kill it, and odds are if she chopped it down it would only grow back. So everyone on the block just keeps a broom handy and covers their cars when the winds come. What can we do? The thing wants what it wants.

Southern California is famous as an environmental war zone, a place where man and nature clash in sweeping and often dramatic terms. Earthquakes, brush fires, mudslides, rising sea levels—the elements here give people a lot to contend with. And vice versa: air pollution, water pollution, development. 

Our tendency is to lecture one another on our responsibility, given the situation. Ours is a land of a thousand “shoulds.” Use less water. Avoid building on fault lines or too close to the ocean.

Of course, we don’t listen, because we don’t like to be lectured. We want comfort and convenience, we want security and plenty, we want SUVs and central air and cats in coyote country. We want homes so close to nature that we can pretend to own it. We want to imagine that we won’t learn the hard way that we aren’t the only ones who want things—that the mountainsides want to fall, that the chaparral wants to burn, that the rising Pacific wants Huntington Beach and Balboa Island the way Superstorm Sandy wanted New Jersey.  

But what else can we do? It’s human nature. No less than the tree rats and the Mexican fan palm, we are wild things. And as God is our witness, we, too, want what we want. It feels like a stalemate, doesn’t it? Still, it’s hard to imagine ours is the only struggle that the natural laws have refereed since the world began. 

The other day, I was at the beach, walking as close as I could to the edge of the surf without getting my feet wet. It was hard—the beach always shrinks in the winter. As the waves chewed up the sand that had been so abundant last summer, it seemed to whisper: “Everything’s a negotiation.” 

Even at the ends of the Earth, even now, mighty forces are cutting deals. With each step, the shoreline moves, now wetter, now drier, now more for one side, now more for the other. It feels peaceful, but it’s a wild, wild place and it wants what it wants forever. And now it wants a little more water. And now it wants a little more land.  

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue.

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