Last month, standing in a park outside Chattanooga as the afternoon sun went dark, I could easily think that nature was mine to shape. I’d traveled to Tennessee with my brother and his friend to watch the solar eclipse, which obliged us by performing as planned.
As efficiently as a locomotive answering a train schedule, the moon slipped in front of the sun at the precise moment predicted by our smartphones, a bright summer day thrown magically into momentary darkness. The crowd applauded, pleased that the heavens had done exactly what they were supposed to do. Like the rooster who takes credit for the sunrise, maybe some of us had been fooled into thinking that because we’d plotted the progress of sun and moon across an August sky, we’d somehow made it happen ourselves.
But within a few days, nature brought a potent reminder that it lives its own life, something far beyond our control. Hurricane Harvey’s march across Texas, then into Louisiana as a smaller storm, revealed once again how small we are in the sometimes dangerous dance of creation.
As a child of the 1960s, I grew up as Houston became famous as the launch pad for our exploration of space. The mere mention of the city evoked the ingenuity of the age. Nothing seemed impossible. Humanity looked poised to position itself as master of the universe.
Seeing Houston underwater these past few days underscored the real truth. Our species, clever as it is, doesn’t control everything, or even most things. Something bigger is in charge.
Every day brings subtler signs of our limitations. As part of our family vacation this summer, my wife and I drove our son and daughter to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We’d gone there before, awestruck by its expansive view of the neighboring peaks and the play of shadows from passing clouds.
But we arrived at the summit this summer to discover that we weren’t looking at clouds, but enveloped by them. Mist surrounded us, obscuring the scenery. We stood in fog a few moments before returning to the car.
The trip’s more memorable moment with nature happened in the parking lot of a hotel outside Atlanta. While returning luggage to the car, I heard birdsong in some neighboring pines. The sound was like a tea kettle, but the notes were so expressive that they seemed to verge on human speech.
They were familiar, too, like something I’d heard around my own yard. On the ride home, I remembered. I was hearing song sparrows, birds easily found beyond my front porch. When not on vacation, I rarely take the time to notice such things.
All I know is what anybody does: Nature is a great mystery — sometimes terribly dark, and sometimes brilliant. Usually, all we can do is pay attention and hope for the best.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.