When your nature is not nature

Most moments—in my life, at least—do not involve terror or euphoria. Most moments do not bring extreme pain or some unforgettable lesson about this weird world where we all live. All of them pass somehow or other, though. They make up minutes, and then days, and then a life. Some are shared, some are solitary. In some you’re running late and in others you’re out of breath and in others your back hurts and you’re trying to subtly stretch it in public. In a few you’re wondering if swimming in water this cold can harden and freeze your lungs as you, for some reason, keep kicking away from the shore, your cheeks hurting from laughter or hypothermia. All of these moments, you survive.
And then there are more: You’re thinking of what to say as your “fun fact” in a circle of strangers or you’re wishing you could chop carrots really fast or you’re looking up at bare branches rattling in the breeze. Once in a while, maybe you notice that the mist in the air is coating your hair and clothes with diamonds: thousands of tiny beads of water stuck to the fuzzed stitches of your sweater. You smile. You close your eyes. It’s not quite crying but it’s close.
So: How to live? Just filling a day, I learned in my little cabin, is a tricky but essential business. I could much sooner tell you the way I’d like to spend a life than the way I’d like to spend an hour. Lives are fun to play with: I’ll be a writer! An astronaut! A world traveler! It’s harder to make yourself into a noun in the span of a day. Days are about verbs. In the cabin, there were too many options, and none of them very exciting. Read, write, walk, run, split wood, bake bread, pick berries, call my mom, hunt the mosquitos that had snuck into the cabin? Most of what I did in that cabin was mundane. There aren’t many stories worth telling. There aren’t many moments I remember.

In “The Terror and Tedium of Living Like Thoreau,” Diana Saverin writes with candor of what it was like to live alone in the Alaskan wilderness.

I was in Yosemite for a wedding this weekend, and during a hike I confessed that I had no desire whatsoever to retreat to nature and live a disconnected life. At some point in my life, perhaps it was always my “nature,” perhaps it's the result of coming of age in the information rich internet age, perhaps it's some combination of the two, I became a city cat.

Over a decade ago, during a sabbatical from work, I did a trek in Chile and didn't see another human being, or even a trace of another human (such as trash or a man-made object or structure like a road sign or a house) for three days. By early the second day I was talking to myself, just to hear the sound of a human voice, even if it was my own. I understood, for the first time, why people who live on their own in the woods for extended periods turn into babbling, primal beings.

It's not that my introverted side doesn't love time on my own, but only for short stints, and only of my own volition. One reason I loved living in NYC was the ability to be home alone yet feel like millions of people were just outside my window (or, as was literally true, just on the other side of a thin wall, floor, or ceiling). It's not just the sheer volume of people in NYC but the spatial density. Every so often it would feel claustrophobic and one would need to get away for a weekend, but most of the time it was a cozy shawl of humanity.


Another question I hear a lot is, "What can we learn of moral value from the ants?” Here again I will answer definitively: nothing. Nothing at all can be learned from ants that our species should even consider imitating. For one thing, all working ants are female. Males are bred and appear in the nest only once a year, and then only briefly. They are pitiful creatures with wings, huge eyes, small brains and genitalia that make up a large portion of their rear body segment. They have only one function in life: to inseminate the virgin queens during the nuptial season. They are built to be robot flying sexual missiles. Upon mating or doing their best to mate, they are programmed to die within hours, usually as victims of predators.

Many kinds of ants eat their dead -- and their injured, too. You may have seen ant workers retrieve nestmates that you have mangled or killed underfoot (accidentally, I hope), thinking it battlefield heroism. The purpose, alas, is more sinister.

As ants grow older, they spend more time in the outermost chambers and tunnels of the nest, and are more prone to undertake dangerous foraging trips. They also are the first to attack enemy ants and other intruders. Here indeed is a major difference between people and ants: While we send our young men to war, ants send their old ladies.

Edward O. Wilson on the marvel that are ants.

While reading the article, I had a thought. Are human societies also like superorganisms? As if he were reading my mind, Wilson answered that exact question three paragraphs later.

You may occasionally hear human societies described as superorganisms. This is a bit of a stretch. It is true that we form societies dependent on cooperation, labor specialization and frequent acts of altruism. But where social insects are ruled almost entirely by instinct, we base labor division on transmission of culture. Also, unlike social insects, we are too selfish to behave like cells in an organism. Human beings seek their own destiny. They will always revolt against slavery, and refuse to be treated like worker ants.