The Relentlessness of Nature - Observations at 50
Updated: May 26
The power of nature is truly formidable, but unless you inhabit a house near a cliff-edge with rock erosion it usually takes a mercifully long time to become apparent. I have never been so acutely aware of its clawing relentlessness as I was in the months before I turned 50. It started one day when I glanced up from my laptop to notice a battalion of ferocious tentacles driving horizontally through the gaps in my garden trellis. They hovered menacingly half a metre over my lawn, and affronted by this sudden invasion I leapt into action.
Kneeling on the platform of a shaky set of ladders, I lashed out at the thick source of these viciously thorny branches, and shoved them vigorously down the other side of the fence. They drew blood as they slashed at me through my gardening gloves. I could gain no real satisfaction from this dangerous scrub clearance though since I knew the amputated, organic stumps were merely regrouping for the next onslaught.
I would have been angry with my neighbours for this outrage were they only to know about it, but this was all happening at the back of their thick, manicured hedgerow and so they remained blissfully unaware. I could not find the courage to knock on their door and suggest we fight our way through their undergrowth or invite them round to my garden to show them the evidence. So instead, I waited and monitored, pumped like a coiled spring ready to rush once again for the secateurs.
It seemed that everywhere I looked, nature was opening a new battlefront on my personal space. The small footpath that linked the crescent roads in my patch was usually an inoffensive open thoroughfare. In that same period, however, I had to pause at one end to contemplate the narrowing channel of visibility to the other. I found myself twisting and turning at regular intervals on my way through it to avoid being nicked by the wild arching fronds of ivy and shrub that threatened my safe passage. This was surely an annual phenomenon, yet that sudden feeling of the unyielding advance of nature’s walls, shrouded me in a pall of insecurity.
Rarely a day went by without some new halo of weeds ravaging the sandy spaces between the bricks on my driveway, or the wild lilac bushes at the side impolitely shunting my car towards my neighbour’s. And if the latter were not an encroachment too far, I noticed an audience of fat, lazy mushrooms gazing down at me from my porch roof chuckling “your time’s tickin’ lady!”
A tree wraps itself around a bicycle left leaning against it in the 1950s
As mere mortals we are clearly but a small part of the earth’s great story. Yet in our cultivated, first-world environments it is not always easy to remember that we face a daily existential fight between our space and nature’s grander plans. One dramatic image that represents this is of an old bicycle that was left leaning against a tree by an 8 yr old boy in 1950s Vashon Island, Washington. He abandoned it there one day in what was once a swampy area, and over the decades it was literally drawn into the tree’s trunk.
What I believe drives home the uncompromising force of nature are our emotional milestones, and those moments that accentuate our mortality. For me certainly, it seemed to be connected to the amount of inevitable death that surrounded me as I headed towards 50. First to go was my poor mother after 7 cruel years of Alzheimer’s, then my brother shortly after from a severe stroke. Then I lost my father just short of 101 through human ineptitude over the removal of gall stones. Stones; there you have it, nature at its most basic.
My losses were, for the most part, the natural order of things, but they took a great swathe of my family in a short period. Turning 50 is a time when many people face similar family situations. It is just a shame that it clashes with the point at which we should be focused on the joys a second half-century may bring.
Thus with heightened awareness I started noticing the vast array of the good Lord’s simple creatures vying to share my space. When I entered my house at night, I occasionally came face to face with a pulsating, slimy snail suctioning its way up my front door. I wondered why they were not content with their own soil-filled nooks, choosing instead to enter my lofty space and drag me down into the damp and darkness.
To further my melancholy, when I flipped open the brown lid of my organic waste bin one day, I was horrified to find a writhing mass of maggots emerging from the bag, the likes of which I have only seen in a Vincent Price horror movie. Momentarily submerged in gloom, I was driven to question the divine message in these events. Then I reminded myself that my taxes were paid up and my myriad lists required action, and I regained my fighting spirit, dealt with the maggots and evicted the snails.
Meantime my poor apple tree produced an annual crop of precisely two fruits for my 50th. Perhaps my sawing off several of its branches, spraying pesticide to rid it of black fly, and blow-torching its bark to eliminate those that remained, finally traumatised it. What it did prove was that anxiety works both ways.