The Things That Get On Without Us

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

A few weeks ago, I witnessed the unfortunate end of a caterpillar. My wife and I were driving one of many lengthy back-and-forths from our then-current town to our now-new town, and not for the first time, we pulled off the road in the middle of a forest. The trees weren’t what caught our eye (at least, not more than usual), but rather the dramatic wall of sedimentary rock layers on the other side of the two-lane highway. After a careful glance for traffic, we scampered across the lanes to the crumbling cliff. It was the sort of thing you could picture in a kids’ science show, accompanied by the narration, “But what were the bones of a fish doing in the middle of a forest?” We facetiously scanned the rock for fossils, but my eyes soon adjusted to other things, picking up more and more detail the longer we stood there.

From the car, we’d seen nothing but broad, colored stripes. Up close, however, it was clear that the stripes were made of tiny fragments, and between the fragments were gaps, and in the gaps was a whole world of flora and fauna we never would have noticed while traveling at forty miles an hour. Lichen. Spiders. Moths. It was there that we crouched down to watch the luckless caterpillar, pale green and slender, being carried away by a stream of ants. It was enormous compared to them—a mammoth. The ants struggled to manage it, even as its writhing became more and more feeble. I was unsure who to root for in that moment, in the same way that I never know whether to feel happy for the lion or sad for the gazelle. I was rapt by the little drama we were witnessing, one of countless other unseen dramas happening along every inch of the road we were barreling down, in the walls and dark corners of our home, in every shrub I’ve walked past on my way to something serious and important.

We did not stay long at the cliff face, but it was something I’ve thought of often since. I have a real soft spot for the things you find when you slow down.

I wasn’t sure how to define my topic when invited to write this post. “Hiking” wasn’t right, because the only ones I do can be solidly categorized as light (“all my talents are from the neck up,” as my mother puts it). “Amateur naturalism” was disingenuous. I don’t keep a notebook full of leaf rubbings or log the appearance of particular types of butterflies, or any of the other acts of citizen science I wish I had the patience for. I do sometimes carry around a magnifying glass or a field microscope, but it’s only to better aid me in what I really do when encountering other animals: shouting with all the nuance of a two-year-old who has just learned words like lizard or bee. I couldn’t say “my hobby is going outside and looking at stuff,” so I said I was going to write about “nature walks,” which sounds respectable and is decently close to the truth.

But in seriousness: My hobby is going outside and looking at stuff.

To be fair, walking out into nature is often a key part of that. While I can spend hours poking around a botanic garden or a backyard (I have my own now, and I can’t get enough of it), the further away from reminders of humanity I can get, the better. A half-day trip to a state park or a wildlife preserve is something I am always down for, though I’m quite lazy in my approach. I like hot showers and real beds too much for proper camping, and a challenging hike means I’m focused more on the inadequacies of my body than my surroundings, which defeats the purpose. But if I encounter a sign that reads something along the lines of “nature trail” or “family hike,” I’m gone. That’s exactly what I want—a mellow, effortless stroll where I have all the time and space I need to breathe deep and look closely.

I have my preferences. I grew up with shorelines and tidepools, which are lovely, but mostly bring about nostalgia for me. Deserts are magic, but I haven’t had many opportunities to explore those. The tundra is breathtaking so long as you bundle up. Marshes and grasslands leave me flat (oh ho). Forests are my favorite, redwoods in particular. Some people go to church; I hang out with big trees. I love the moss, the humus, the critters. I love the way the fog clings heavy in the mornings, the way the sun shoots down in columns as the damp burns off.

When I am stressed, when I am afraid, when too many emails and notifications and to-do lists have turned my brain to shivering static, there is no better fix than to dive into the woods for an hour or two. It’s amazing how fast your thoughts reset when you get away from buildings and screens for a bit. You realize that most of the things you find so important aren’t, really. It’s hard to feel like your flaws or failures are that monumental when you’re staring up the weathered bark of an organism that’s been around for a thousand years. It’s hard to feel special or singular when you encounter other species—deer, salamanders, tragic caterpillars—who have their own lives, their own struggles, who get on just fine without any of the things we humans have filled our world with, who have bodies and lifecycles more alien than anything I could ever come up on my own. And as for the environment itself, it’s hard to feel afraid of mortality when you’re surrounded by a living, dying tapestry made up of that same ebb and flow.

Everything in and around me gets quiet when I find bones, bits of fur, young shoots growing out of decaying stumps. These things remind me that all we know is and always has been impermanent, that we’re all clinging to this little spinning ball within a sliver of breathable air for as long as we can keep scrabbling along, that nobody knows why and probably never will. No, it’s not fair, and no, it doesn’t make any sense. But when I look out at something that no one built, something that just grew without any of us helping it along, I am okay with that unanswered question. I’m here. I’m here with the bugs, the birds, the braying mammals and the creepy crawlies, the plants that will outlive all of us. We’re all here together, right now. We’re here, and it’s wonderful.

Top image from Star Wars: Battlefront

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet Becky ChambersBecky Chambers is the author of the award-nominated science fiction novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, as well as the upcoming stand-alone sequel, A Closed & Common Orbit. She can be found online at Other Scribbles and as @beckysaysrawr on Twitter.

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