Destroy It Before It Destroys You: Part I
Nature is uglier than we admit, but so are we.
This story comes in two parts. As I got to what would become the second part, I realized I was laying a heavy philosophical task on you, dear reader. I’m not in the business of leading people into a vast and foggy forest of thought only to leave them on their own to navigate through it.
Part 1 of this story will acclimate you to the terrain we’re heading into. Part 2 is a steep climb into new territory where you’ll need to know the tricks Part 1 will give you. Enjoy wandering into the depths of Part 1 but don’t panic when you reach the end and find no path outwards; just camp there before we start ascending in Part 2.
I hiked through a sequoia forest in Yosemite recently. Sequoias are those giant, reddish trees that have towered above us far longer than our buildings have towered above them. Sequoias are trees meant for dinosaurs or yetis, something much bigger or other-worldly than us.
My relationship with nature has changed as I have. Nature was a hippie utopia to fit my teenage naivety, it was a lost paradise to be saved from monocle-wearing entities to fit my past politics, then it became a foreboding reminder of reality’s cold apathy when I lost that teenage naivety.
Today I look at trees with less of an agenda. Instead of trying to see what I want, I try to see what’s there.
Letting the world tell you what it knows is harder than forcing what you think you know upon it. If you want to know the reality of something, you have to stop your clinging and pushing for long enough to let something outside your small world enter.
Most people aren’t interested in knowing what anything really is, not the world itself or the people in it. You can barely finish a sentence before someone smothers you with their perceptions.
Just one look at you—the words you use, the place you live, the way you dress, vote, and think—all it takes is a single data point and your entire existence is tossed into the corresponding category.
If you don’t seek complexity, you won’t find it. If you refuse to let the world unfurl as it is and rush to tell it what you think it is, your life will remain a signature blend of superficial confusion.
Nature is a place for listening. If you listen carefully, you’ll uncover an infinite chain of your own ignorance; every word becomes a door that a single question opens to a new path.
A good listener thinks very little about themselves while listening. That’s the reward for listening; you escape the torture of your own ego-strangled mind.
What did the trees of Yosemite say as I walked among them for hours? They judged silently as I spent half the hike battling to get outside my own mind. If you look too hard for some deeper meaning in everything, you miss the forest for the trees. I gave up on finding an epiphany in Yosemite and was rewarded with the idea for this essay.
What Ugly Can Teach About Beauty
I know nature is beautiful, you know nature is beautiful. The appeal of waxing on about nature’s beauty hit its peak around the late 1800s, when nature had more sway over us than it does in the temperature-controlled fortresses we now call homes.
I’m not that interested in how beautiful nature is to someone that has never felt how cruel it can be. Everyone can appreciate the majesty of a lion from the outside of its cage.
On the final stretch of my hike, I let myself think a thought that’s sacrilege in California: some of this forest is ugly. Like the first time you question the media, as soon as I was willing to see it, the unsightly side of this famously majestic forest overwhelmed me. Tree trunks scorched to a wicked black, downed trees disintegrating like decomposing bodies, and entire patches of forest in the awkward, aesthetically uninspiring stage before regrowth.
These Instagram-unworthy parts of the forest weren’t obviously beautiful or offering any quotable cliches. Should I ignore the ugly parts and focus on the famous sights, those celebrity trees that are so eye-catching they’ve earned their own placards?
Only bad artists are afraid of ugly.
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