Unnatural Disaster, part II: Nature's Indifference

A Cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert. It lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet.
— Hope Jahren, Lab Girl
 Sunset just outside Death Valley National Park, California.

Sunset just outside Death Valley National Park, California.

Heard or read in the recent aftermath of the Thomas Fire:

“The fire raged across the landscape, claiming 1,063 structures.”

“It’s so sad they lost their home—they are such good people.”

“Mother Nature is pissed at us.”

These statements either anthropomorphize natural forces as if they have an agenda, or they confound natural disasters with divine providence. This is a mistake.

Natural disasters don’t have wrath, or fury, or take revenge. They do not punish us for our moral inadequacies. If we anthropomorphize natural disasters, whatever our intentions, we tread on similar ground as Pat Robertson. Natural disasters happen because we live on a dynamic planet with a carbon cycle, a water cycle—ever-transforming, and now even more so because of anthropogenic climate change. If there is someone to blame, it’s us.

Here’ the thing:

Nature doesn’t care about you.

This may come as a surprise for some folks, since I’ve written about a deep, abiding connection with nature.

These two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the relationship is a one-way street when it comes to feelings. When we fall into the trap of believing that nature cares about us as much as we care about it, we delude ourselves at best; and at worst, we learn the hard way. Just ask Timothy Treadwell.

“Mother Nature” is a misnomer of sorts, since we tend to think of mothers as providing the ultimate unconditional love and caring. Mother Earth mythologies are very common around the world, reflecting the truth of the matter which is that our planet gave birth to us, in a way. But we take it too far when we start to think that we get anything emotional out of the deal, good or bad.

Nature is our lifeline for a healthy world—we chip away at it, and we lose. It doesn’t matter that nature doesn’t care about us—this is just a fact of life. We need the natural world and its ecosystem services in order to survive and thrive. End of story. Experiments to limit ourselves to a tiny fraction of nature and its processes didn’t work out so well.

Nature sustains us, has given us the raw materials for survival and even the modern world we have built up around us. More time spent in nature supports our health and well-being. As nature disappears and we spend less time with it, we lose these benefits. We need the natural world and its biodiversity, for sure. But it has no agenda other than to persist itself.

There is a great freedom in this that generates hope.  As I mentioned in Part I of this series, Rebecca Solnit explains it so well. We have a choice to preserve as much as we can of nature despite the struggles that its extremes can present to us.

In college, I worked as a grocery checkout clerk. One regular customer, a woman who appeared to be perennially angry, would emphatically choose paper over plastic every time. Because, she said, she hates trees. Her son, a timber worker, was killed by a falling tree.

When we suffer at nature’s extremes, we can feel powerless. One of the ways we humans try to distract from or control our feelings of powerlessness is to place blame.  As Stephen Levine writes in his book, Unattended Sorrow:

Without meaning, life has no direction, so we scramble through the stars to augur an acceptable future. Actually, the mind seeks a reason (a cause, a blame) so the meaning (which can make sense of it) can be found in the heart. We are looking for a cosmic coincidence to interpret it all, to reinforce that there is any meaning to everything after all.

Nature does not hate us. It is not something outside of us; it is us. Whatever we do against it or in support of it, we do to ourselves.

Uncovering a species' past to inform its future

While planning the dissertation work that would ultimately consume the next 6.5 years of my life in graduate school, I learned an intriguing bit of information about the native amphibians of southern California. I was familiar with all of the amphibian species I could find in different habitats in the region, and was surprised to learn that a species—one I had never heard of—was missing, and had been for almost 40 years.

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Saving Salamanders

Conservation biology has long been held as a crisis discipline. We work hard for modest gains, and setbacks are the norm. But every once in awhile, evidence that blood, sweat, and tears expended for the perpetuation of Earth’s biodiversity effects positive change, and that is worth celebrating.

From 2008 to 2015, I worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During my last year with the agency, and because of my dissertation research on amphibian disease and my years of regulatory experience with an endangered salamander species, I was asked to join a team of agency scientists to write a Lacey Act rule that would list certain salamander species as injurious.

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Summer in the Sierra – Trip #4 – Descent of Autumn

This was my final trip of the summer, and fittingly the season was fading just as my time there was. This week brought on the weather—thunderstorms, blustery winds, and cooler temperatures day and night. The frogs are showing the shift—an adult mountain yellow-legged frog sat on a rock in the stream very near where we saw her last week, but this time flattening herself, trying to warm up in the waning rays of late summer.

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Summer in the Sierra Trip #2: A frog reintroduction, Mt. Lyell salamanders, and effervescent wildflowers

This week, we hiked to the site where my field partner and I will spend our next three 10-day trips. This basin is very different from the last, and about 400 feet lower, with more trees and fewer frogs. Having been hit by the amphibian chytrid fungus, the mountain yellow-legged frog populations here are persisting at a very low level. Frogs are even being flown up to higher fishless lakes in the basin to try to bolster their numbers, and this basin harbors one of those lakes.

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Sierra Nevada Backcountry Trip #1: Frogs, micro botany, and the resurrection of diversity


This was the sound of a coworker's reaction to seeing mountain yellow-legged frogs for the first time. These aren't just any frogs. They live only in these high elevation lakes and have suffered catastrophic losses from non-native fish predation and infectious disease. At a series of lakes that perfectly mirror the craggy, snow-flanked peaks above, we do our restoration work for these frogs.

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