The bucking steel sloop heaves through monstrous blue undulations. Into her sails, the wind is singing her instructions—no, she is now screaming her message: move south, move south! But the captain turns the rudder north and in a few moments the hulking ship is slowed to a near-standstill, sails luffing in exhaustion or perhaps defiance—no, I will go this way!
Abruptly, we dip into the doldrums. I am on the foredeck, where I’ve been balancing precariously for the past hour, bare feet planted wide, safety line taut to the railing. With the ship slowed, my body relaxes. A calm, shining, blue oasis unfolds well past the horizon. There are no other ships, no other people in sight. My heart swells with love for the ocean, a crashing force greater than even the biggest cresting wave can muster. This is a beauty that seems ancient, everlasting. Like it never has been, and never will be, spoiled.
That is what I believe and what I feel, until I look down. Suddenly, myriad artifacts of humanity stream past the ship’s hull, carried in a slow but sure current: a pink dustpan, a green wire brush, a rope, a foam triangle, a turquoise shampoo bottle… All of these things are made from humanity’s favorite and most ubiquitously used material: plastic.
This does not belong here, a warm offshore breeze whispers in my ear. I lean over the railing. My heartbeat quickens, because my arm cannot reach the flow of garbage—because no one alone can stem this deadly tide before some of it it reaches the mouth of a hungry whale or ensnares itself on the shell of a sea turtle.
Here between the shores of California and Hawaii—a thousand miles from any human community—and in every other ocean, people are wielding an enormous and dangerous influence, without being present.
* * * *
My eyes open to a glowing screen. I’m sitting on a couch in a cramped Copenhagen apartment, deep in the throes of writing a book about bearing witness to plastic pollution. To recall my story, I close my eyes and think about what it felt like to cross the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the notorious mass of trash that’s traversing the eastern side of the North Pacific Gyre. The gyre, a clockwise-swirling current extending from the edge of North America to Asia, pulls in massive quantities of plastic items that humans produce and use on land—which blow, roll, flow, or are dumped into the sea, where they spend an eternity breaking up into microscopic, impossible-to-remove pieces.
The ocean’s menagerie of sea creatures—whales, dolphins, seabirds, turtles, sharks, fish, rays, jellies, octopi, crustaceans—consume or become entangled in this plastic detritus, and often they die.
These days, spent alone, writing about the plastification of the oceans, the deaths of my beloved oceanic kin, I find myself in a constant state of grief, rife with pain. That the headlines today contain news of a deadly pandemic, destructive wildfires, uncontrolled oil spills, rollbacks on environmental regulations, and plans of expansion and development drafted with disregard for all other life piles it on—thick as the hundreds of millions of tons of plastic now polluting the oceans.
I must often remind myself that grief and love are sister ships. You cannot sail one without knowledge that the other is out there, sailing a different journey on the same vast ocean. At some point, grief and love are likely to intersect.
During this time of great isolation from other people, I want to underscore the importance of opening our eyes to the possibility of love outside humanity. I believe humans have a natural affinity for loving all of nature, not just other people who are also part of our vast and curious world. In fact, I think most people’s hearts’ connections to nature run deep.
Nature worship is often considered foundational to modern religious beliefs and can be found in theism, panentheism, pantheism, deism, polytheism, animism, totemism, shamanism, paganism, and sarnaism. Yet industrialist cultures emphasize quickness and brevity, which makes it harder for us to connect to the nonhuman world around us. As a result, now more than ever, we find ourselves disconnected from, and living incongruously with, the rest of life on Earth, and with the nature of the Earth itself.
The truth is: even if we feel lonely, nature ensures we are never really alone. Listen to the wind that carries the messages we need to hear, feel the ground beneath your feet that holds you up, taste the salt air of the sea from which life on earth evolved, touch the bark of a tree that provides the oxygen in the air we breathe. My hope is that all people may find or rediscover their love for nature, have compassion for nature, and treat nature with respect: because all species are our kin.
But I must admit, I have trouble trusting that most people, after they have settled into a worldview of human exceptionalism, are capable of loving nonhuman nature.
My deepest hope is that they prove me wrong.
* * * *
My love for nature began early, very early. I grew up in a difficult family full of secrets and complication, of barely audible whispers and shouted words that cut like knives. This pained me, confused me, eroded my trust in people.
So I found the love I needed elsewhere. As a six-year-old, I wandered my family’s suburban two-acre yard, fringed by forest. This was my refuge. Consulting tattered field guides procured from the library, I filled spiral notebooks with drawings and simple descriptions of the wild animals I encountered. I was careful to write quietly, lest the sound of my pencil scratching the paper scare my nonhuman friends away.
As my family’s quarrels intensified over time, I began to lose hope in humanity. It became evident to me that if I could not trust the people around me, I would have to learn to trust other beings. The blue jays and robins were always reliable companions come spring, as sure as the grasses and lilies and irises that sprouted from the soil that covered my backyard universe. In the summers, young raccoons scratched at the back door with small paws, in a quest for easily procured human food, and I looked into their masked faces with intense curiosity—and sometimes creaked the glass door open and tossed them small crumbs of bread. Come fall, I’d watch the squirrels collecting their spoils for winter, piling up acorns and burying them in the dirt. I wondered how many of these they’d lose track of, and whether I’d see oak saplings appear the following spring. In winter, the deer trotted through fresh drifts of snow, bodies cold and thin but still searching for food—and I’d throw them oats and fill bowls with fresh water, hoping they’d drink it before it iced over.
I kept pet cats, frogs, hermit crabs, mice, lizards, fish, and tried to give them the best lives possible. A life with someone who loved them was better than a life spent in a pet store tank, I figured. Then, when I was sixteen, I found the being who became my best friend: a dog named Foosa. She was an Alaskan malamute with deep brown eyes, more soulful and forgiving than any other pair I’ve gazed upon. I gave them all, especially Foosa, the purest love found in my heart. I will always remember their companionship, and the love they gave to me, simply because I loved and cared for them. Not all humans are capable of reciprocating love in the unconditional way that nature predictably does.
* * * *
To me, nonhumans are invariably absolved from blame because they lack the brand of premeditated selfishness that has sadly come to characterize so much human behavior. I learned a lot about the borderlands that separate acts of selfishness from acts of survival by rehabilitating the wild animals who inhabit the coasts and forests of Long Island, New York, as a teen and young adult.
People are focused on wants, and will do many despicable and hurtful things to fulfill those wants; nonhuman animals are focused on needs, and try to meet their needs by making do with what they have. Nonhuman animals possess a unique enlightenment, the type bestowed only upon gods and a few mortal humans. Love can help us all see the world from this elevated place, and perhaps compel us to repair the immense damages we’ve caused. If we can love all of nature, we may come to understand living beings are more alike than different. Our shared goal is to thrive on this wondrous planet. When we damage Earth, we harm not just ourselves but the entire project of life.
We’ve normalized “typical” human actions, and even consider the traumas we inflict as forgivable—“we’re only human, after all”—yet we call wolves murderers for doing what they need to survive in completely selfless ways, in ways congruous with all of nature. Why does it often seem like humans are the only living creatures who do not have the big picture in mind? Why do we choose to swim against life’s tide? We have so much to learn from the others.
Slowly, I have come to regain some of my trust in people, including a few members of my family capable of showing selflessness. There are indeed good people, doing good, magnificent, and loving things that honor their place in nature and acknowledge the challenges and pitfalls of being human, and who walk the path toward what it means to be a member of the vast community of planet Earth.
Humans have amazingly big brains but do incredibly stupid things, like continue to heat up the planet with an ever-increasing amount of carbon dioxide—a problem we’ve created in an attempt to shape the planet in our image. Now, as all life slips down the precipice of catastrophe, humans are increasingly questioning whether it is acceptable to force global warming upon ourselves and all the rest of nature. There is a beach in Hawaii covered with more plastic than sand; there is a remote island in the South Pacific where plastic bags are burned in toxic cooking fires because there’s no place to get rid of them; there’s a place in Iceland where swarms of plastic fishing line tangle precisely where whales feed. I know this because I’ve been there. I’ve stood on land desecrated by plastic, poisonous chemicals, industrial development, and widespread death. I’ve seen the “waste products” of cultures beholden to fossil fuel.
It’s the curse of the human hand, or maybe heart. There is absolutely no other species like us, and that’s probably a blessing given how destructive and toxic we can be.
* * * *
My own love of nature will never die; it is unconditional. I am sometimes baffled by what feels like a simple question: Why don’t all other people share this love?
I have made great efforts to seek out nature, particularly in some of the most remote parts of the world, if not for any other reason than to see these places before they are spoilt by humanity. I’ve spent time visiting critically endangered killer whales in the Salish Sea; searched for nudibranchs (the otherworldly and lavishly decorated slugs of the sea) on reefs in Nuku Hiva; spotted languid sloths inching their ways along branches in the Costa Rican rainforest; listened to singing humpback whales in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; gazed up the great trunks of giant redwoods in Olympic National Forest; laid on my belly on a high cliff for hours watching Atlantic puffins nesting on a tiny Icelandic isle; immersed myself in curiously ice-cold waterfalls; traveled across volcanoes in Hawaii; swum between the winding silhouettes of poisonous sea snakes in the tepid waters of the Andaman Sea. All these experiences deepened by love and conviction.
Here in Copenhagen, nature is a bit harder to come by and perhaps a bit less spectacular than elsewhere. There’s a whole lot of brick and pavement and concrete to navigate in order to get to the good stuff. Yet that doesn’t dampen my love. Here I feel compelled to show my love for nature, too. I sit in the grass to feel it graze my legs. I gaze inquisitively at the cooing pigeons and doves nesting on roofs. I watch clouds without trying to categorize their nebulous shapes. I open the windows of my apartment and close my eyes and feel the wind grace my skin. I look into the deep pools of knowing that are the eyes of dogs. I leap into the sea. I revel in the quiet beauty of wildflowers sprouting up on a highway median. I am growing, I know, if I can find nature, if I can love, even here.
Cities are hard for me. I find them too homogenous, overpopulated with one particular species: humans. How many of them could I trust to love nature, I wonder? How many of them should I not trust, whose hearts may never change? I live here and I learn more about how to answer that question every day, protecting my heart by traveling the streets with my latest companion, a dog named Sabi. If a person can smile at us, or asks to greet her, this is a decent barometer of a love extending beyond human lives. And that is common ground we can share. In this gift of presence we give one another, there lies the seed of being present to the commons—the grounds and waters and airs—that give us life, and, in return, call for our love.