I grew up with a healthy respect for nature. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. My childhood was basically a John Denver song. My elementary school was Rocky Mountain High – we were at about 7400 feet in the Colorado foothills – we learned how to read and write, yes, but only so we could understand the rest of schooling which was food webs and birds of prey and DDT and chlorofluorocarbons and how to snip the plastic rings from your six-pack so that a sea turtle didn’t die.
As a preteen, I moved with my family to a little town outside of Missoula, Montana, which is where hippies get to be reborn if they live a very good life and minimize the pain they inflict on other creatures. It’s basically where granola was invented. It’s a lovely little place where everyone you know has some sort of a connection to heirloom tomatoes or colloidal silver and your younger siblings come into the world at the hands of a midwife in your mother’s bedroom downstairs while you’re asleep.
This is all to say, I have had a fair amount of steeping in the rhetoric of Mother Nature’s omnipotence and benevolence. She may as well be the Virgin of Guadalupe who graced the shrines of my education. She is all-knowing, gentle, wise and brave, and the man-made foes who oppose her are misguided at best, malevolently destructive at worst. Whenever anything is amiss we turn first to her and, like a loving matriarch, she hands us a vial of essential oil and soothes away our pains.
Only, some things I’ve found out about her sordid past are troubling me.
Last summer, my husband and I stayed with my mother in Montana for a few weeks. My mom has two adorable little dogs – they’re Chorkies, Chihuahua-Yorkshire Terrier crosses. My favorite of the two is Vixen, a sweet, tiny little thing we’ve had since she was a puppy, and while we were there last summer Vixen’s little belly was swollen and rotund with the puppies she was expecting. We were hoping she’d have the puppies while we were there and were delighted when she gave birth to three cute little squeaking, shut-eyed things. Two were black and one was white. But we found out quickly that something was not quite right with the white puppy.
While the two black puppies would squirm and push their way in to get to their mother’s milk, the white puppy seemed weak and tired. I assumed she must be the runt and would try to angle her in there and get her a good spot between her brothers. But Vixen wouldn’t have it. Every time the white puppy got near, Vixen would pick it up with her mouth and go place it at the side of the box. She was telling us she didn’t want to have anything to do with that puppy.
We took the puppy, who we had named Ghost, to the vet, and found out quickly what the problem was. Ghost had been born with a cleft palate – quite severe from the looks of it – and would have a hard time nursing naturally. I asked the vet if this is why Vixen seemed to be so disinterested in her and she confirmed quickly – “Oh, yes. Mothers can tell that there’s something off and will often abandon or ignore a malformed puppy to give the maximum in resources to the stronger ones.”
As a competitive organism, this makes sense. Not that I think that Vixen was concerned much with sense-making, she was just following instinct, but that’s just it – instinct tells her to maximize her progeny’s chances for survival by weeding out the ones who are too weak and incapable to survive without help.
But as humans, this is horrifying to us. I know I’m guilty of anthropomorphizing an animal, but I couldn’t help but watch my cute little dog heartlessly set her deformed puppy aside and think “You cold-hearted little bitch.”
So where did that distinction come in? If we’re products of nature; if Mother Nature knows best, how do we explain our discomfort with the more horrible parts of the natural world? Another blogger I was reading, and a quick search can’t reconfirm to me who it was, spoke of how disheartening it was for him to watch an animal documentary in which a lion hunting a zebra gets kicked in the face and then walks around with a broken jaw. The Circle of Life is all beautiful and poetic until you look at the pain and disease and deformity inherent in it all. So when did humans become so unnatural that these things bothered us?
I’m a bit of a deformity myself. Tomorrow marks a year since I had surgery to repair what Mother Nature gave me – to fix my mistake. I was born with a septate uterus, a condition that afflicts one in a thousand women in which a wall forms in the middle of the womb. It’s possible for women with this condition to have successful pregnancies, but it’s a lot more likely to end badly. My particular variety of the deformity meant I was prone to early miscarriages if the baby implanted on the blood-poor septum rather than the robust uterine wall. Other women who have a more complete separation face problems in later pregnancy and a higher rate of preterm births. But I fought back against Mother Nature this time; or rather, the highly skilled doctors in Nanjing, China did, and with tiny lasers they removed the septum and increased my chance of bearing a healthy baby.
That wasn’t the end of nature’s attack on my ability to reproduce, though. I was also born Rh negative, which meant that my blood would produce antibodies to attack future children if I happened to conceive a baby with a positive blood type. Again, medical science had to go into battle for me and I received Rhogam vaccines after my miscarriage, after some initial bleeding in my second pregnancy, and then halfway to term. A hundred years ago I would have been consigned to an uncertain future in which my own body would attack at least half of the babies I was able to conceive, but thanks to humans meddling with the natural world, I was confident that this, at least, wouldn’t be a problem.
And so, a couple weeks ago, against all of Mother Nature’s odds, I gave birth to a perfectly healthy little boy. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with him (though if he inherits his papa’s eyesight he’s not going to be very good at hunting mammoths) and he gets to carry on our genes in spite of all the obstacles thrown in our way. It’s nothing short of miraculous and I can’t help but marvel at my fortune to be born in a time where we understand enough about the natural world to make something like the ease of my baby’s birth possible.
And in the midst of it all I’m up against the incongruity of everything. Nature is best says every well-meaning friend and self-help blog post out there. I need to trust Mother Nature and not “Big Pharma” – I need to rejoice in the beautiful naturalness of it all. And it gets hard to keep hearing. As if one “one in a thousand” condition weren’t enough, I found out soon after my baby was born that I have what appears to be a condition called breast hypoplasia or Insufficient Glandular Tissue – basically, I can’t produce enough milk for my baby to nurse because I’m one of the lucky one in a thousand women that Mother Nature has decided to mess with again. And everywhere I go there are all these great support groups for women who are going to feed their own babies the way Nature intended and I’m just walking around like the lion with the broken jaw. Like the unfortunate little white puppy. And I’m sorry but sometimes I feel that Mother Nature, like my little dog Vixen, is kind of a bitch.
So I’m not sure where that leaves me. I do know that medical science is imperfect and that we don’t know everything. I do know that nature is full of amazing, complex, beautiful things and to the extent that I’ve been able to take part in them I rejoice – I can’t help but look into my baby’s eyes and marvel at the fact that they work. I can’t even fathom that a little biological blueprint made of amino acids built this perfect, functioning little human out of the popsicles and pupusas that I ate. But at the same time, I can’t reconcile the loving, nurturing mother of the natural world with the jerk who gave me the broken equipment to begin with. And I can’t even begin to be able to understand what our proper relationship with it all should be.