My family and I are vacationing on the west coast of Florida – a stand-in for our preferred destination of Costa Rica as I am seven months pregnant and avoiding Zika. I am walking at an early afternoon high tide, feet in the subtle waves at the water’s edge. At first, the idyllic scene washes over me: the blues of the water, the white sand, the gentle breeze. My bare skin soaks up sun and warmth, foreign at this time of year in Maine.
As I walk, however, the feeling grows that I am tracing the steps of a sharp divide. On one side of me, human society sprawls over the sand. Plastic beach loungers are filled with travelers, not unlike myself. They drink from plastic cups through plastic straws and play beach games with plastic toys.
On the other side, nonhuman nature ebbs, flows and soars. Pelicans glide purposefully over the water, then suddenly pierce the depths. Terns dart, sea gulls swoop. The water glistens in the afternoon light as currents flow.
The contrast is stark and startling. Like me, many of the people to my right were drawn here by nature’s beauty. Like me, they dip into the water, scoop sand, and marvel at the bird life. But as I watch the two sides of the divide, I am struck by how sharply it is just that: a divide. And I wonder. I worry, as I do daily, about the future of the natural world, human and nonhuman alike. I wonder: as long as human interaction with the rest of the natural world is so clearly defined by our terms, terms driven by our wants and demands, will we ever be motivated to truly question the ultimate impact of those lounge chairs, air miles and plastic cups and straws?
My toe grazes something hard and smooth. I bend to examine. A shell, a wide spiral. Like the rest of the natural world, perfectly designed for purpose with a simple, elegant beauty. I pick up the shell. My daughter is napping as I walk, and I imagine her delight over the shell when she awakens. I can hear her: “Ooooooh, Mama!” – eyes and fingers spreading wide in a desire to experience the shell with as many senses as possible. Earlier, she darted in and out of the waves, not unlike a sandpiper. Occasionally, she would fling herself down on her belly, completely unbothered by the wet sand, completely propelled to immerse herself as fully as possible in her surroundings. Or she would sit herself down in the water, cross-legged, gazing out to sea as waves ebbed and flowed around her small body, for all the world like a little bathing suit-clad Buddha.
Amongst all the people along the water’s edge, the children are consistently the ones most immersing themselves in the sounds, sights and feels of the rest of the natural world. They have not forgotten that they are a part of this world, after all. I say this while wanting to be very careful not to over-romanticize that relationship. The natural world deserves our respect. It is strong, powerful and holds an overarching wisdom and sense of purpose that many of us humans have forgotten.
I notice a sole person venturing to swim the deeper water. His strokes aim him straight for a bobbing group of pelicans. I stop to watch. He draws ever-closer and I almost hold my breath. And then – the inevitable – the pelicans take flight. Nonhuman nature once again is moved aside. It almost appears to be placed in a way to accommodate human needs first and foremost. But this is an illusion. We humans will not be accommodated endlessly. To everything, there is a limit.
I dip into the water myself. As I swim, I watch a large group of pelicans fly over the tall buildings that were constructed practically on the sand. Like fortresses, the buildings stand prepared to protect their inhabitants, with air-conditioning and refrigeration and running water and electricity and Wi-Fi and the many other modern technologies that allow us to believe that we function apart from the rest of the natural world. These technologies support that illusion that we can meet all our wants regardless of what happens to the water and the air and the fish and the birds just outside.
The pelicans soar in formation straight towards the buildings, like a group of fighter jets. But what can they do? Peck at the roof-tops? Push their bodies through the windows?
We humans have made ourselves too impenetrable, too unyielding, too aloof. We have built too distinct a divide, there at the water’s edge and in many other parts of our lives. We have erected walls so thick they allow us the comfort of our delusional separation.
As I shake salt water from my eyes, I pray for greater clarity, for all of us. May we not just know, may we experience our interconnection. Every decision and action we take impacts the rest of life and, in turn, comes back to us. There is no divide. There is only all of us, all of life, together. We can seek the wisdom of the perfectly spiraled shells or we can stay on our beach chairs. The choice is ours. The consequences are extreme.