I'm skipping ahead to the last of these essays (which I wrote about 9 years ago, in my early 50s), because I was really kind of on a roll when I wrote this one. I'll still go back and fill in the missing 3 -- on the death of youth, the effects of gravity, and the contemplation of cosmetic surgery -- and put them all in a sidebar, soon.
You've noticed how I take a nasty little swipe at Nature every chance I get. This is a whole new attitude for me. In fact, it's a 180. It is the fury of a lover scorned.
I come from a generation of notorious nature-worshipers. In reaction to the crude techno-exuberance of the 'Fifties -- decade of DDT, the tailfin and the mushroom cloud -- the 'Sixties counterculture had no higher word of praise than "natural." If you were a hippie, that was the statement made by your long hair and/or untrimmed beard; if you were black, it was the other name for your Afro. Hair clippers were the personal-grooming equivalent of bulldozers: diabolical devices that destroyed in the name of improvement. Nature's pristine creations, we believed, needed no improving. Nature was innocent and good. Nature could do no wrong. It was the drive to control and dominate Her that was evil.
A young urban journalist in real life, I was a hippie wannabe and armchair back-to-the-lander: my tiny Manhattan studio apartment was piled high with back issues of the Mother Earth News. I reviewed ecology books and wrote reverently about Indians and whale-watching. My childbirth, needless to say, was going to be natural; my medicine, natural (in the unlikely event that there was anything a natural lifestyle couldn't prevent); my diet whole-grain, vegetarian, organic; my far-off old age, sage and serene. I pictured myself one day gazing out over the Earth with a face wise and weathered as a Navaho grandmother's, peacefully awaiting my return to Her.
So what's wrong with this picture? Don't we live better, and probably longer, when we learn to work with, not against, nature? Sure. I'm grateful not to have PCBs in my drinking water, and impressed by what homeopathy has done for my cat. You won't see a "Nuke the Whales" bumper sticker on my car. But neither will you find me throwing any ceremony to celebrate my "cronehood." Like the frosts and pests that drove most real back-to-the-landers back to the city, the oh-so-natural aging process will disabuse you of any lingering sentimentality about Nature. Turns out it's easy to be a nature-worshiper when you're young, because it's a mutual-admiration society: nature worships you, too. But it's nothing personal -- a fact that is artfully concealed from you as long as nature has a use for you.
When you're young, see, you are the seed-bearer. And as such, you're Nature's darling, the focus of all her fuss and solicitude. That seemingly endless energy that powers your partying and lets you pull all-nighters? You're surfing the crest of a great wave called Procreation. The vitality and ease that fill your body, that you take so for granted? It's no different from the sap rising in the trees. Even your deep engrossment in your own personal drama, that feeling of intense importance about everything you do, is a front for the impersonal fact that for nature, for now, you are where the action is. And the action is reproduction. Whatever we may think we're here for, to nature only one thing matters: that life should go on . . . and on . . . and on. That's why I remember the feeling of being young as sort of a cross between Cape Canaveral and Yankee Stadium -- the breathless anticipation, the mission support . . . As the moment of truth approaches, the chanting rises and deepens. All the force of nature is within you and behind you, igniting your fuse, packing the stands, cheering you on -- till you hit that home run and put the next generation into orbit!
Or not. But no matter whether you score or strike out (in nature's terms), in time your turn at bat comes to an end. And then, as inevitably as a high fly ball turns at its sunstruck apogee and starts to fall, nature turns on you.
At fifty, you can feel the broken wave of nature's favor ebbing out of your cells. You no longer leap out of bed in the morning; instead, you wake up with puzzling little aches and pains you didn't do anything to deserve. What's impressed on your short-term memory tends to vanish like a footprint in wet sand, while names you know perfectly well can be as hard to pry out of hiding as impacted wisdom teeth. There's the humiliating fact that nature, once your very own fawning beautician, now could care less how you look, leaving it entirely up to you whether to scramble to stay in the game or "let yourself go" with a vengeance. But there, at least, you have a choice. When it comes to surveillance, though, inaction is not an option. From now on, the perimeter of your body requires vigilant patrolling.
Those rough little brown patches my skin has suddenly sprouted, for all the world like fungi on a rotten log? They must be mapped and watched, lest one of them go melanoma. (That's like going postal.) Merely to possess breasts or a prostate, once potent founts of life and pleasure, is to carry around capricious time bombs that may or may not go off, silently spewing metastatic shrapnel. There is a whole sinister catalogue of possible lumps, shadows, hardenings, blockages, and occult bleedings for which your flesh should now be mineswept yearly. You who may once have shunned the lowly hair clipper must now submit your body -- gratefully! -- to the mashing mammograph, the bitter endoscope, the claustral CAT scan. In an ironic reversal, technology is now your faithful bodyguard, while you have a dawning suspicion that your old friend Nature is . . . is . . .
Nature is trying to kill you!
Tell me this: if it's really just stress and toxic pollutants that are killing us, and natural wonders like fiber, dong quai, and beta-carotene that are going to save us, how come most Stone Age skeletons that have been found died in their thirties, back when life was as "natural" as it gets? Since then, it seems that every way we've found to outwit nature, nature has twisted into a new way to outwit us: goodbye hunger, hello heart disease; acquire more comforts and years, get more cancers for free. Coming soon: the dark side of cloning and genetic engineering. The hard fact is, from nature's point of view your continued existence after fifty is more than just a matter of indifference; it''s an active nuisance. Move along, you! You''re taking up space and breathing air that could be used by someone who is reproducing! Nature would just as soon be rid of you, which is why the rate of most major illnesses -- and your annual life insurance premium -- rises sharply after fifty.
You're rediscovering for yourself one of the main reasons why a sizable chunk of humanity turned away from Nature, a deity who frankly doesn't give a damn, to a God who watches over the sparrow's fall. Individuality is natural -- I know that every cat has it, and I don't doubt that every mouse does too -- but the cherishing of the individual is not. The raw materials for love -- sex, maternity, sociability -- are natural. Love itself is not. To treasure someone's voice and face and presence just for its own sake, for no advantage -- indeed, sometimes at great disadvantage -- is an unnatural act. To struggle to keep an ailing parent alive, to devote yourself to a handicapped child, to keep your marriage when all about you are losing theirs, to save a nondescript animal from the street and watch its uniqueness blossom -- these are profoundly unnatural acts. When you turn fifty, and nature turns on you, you are forced and freed to recognize that some of the best things in life are not natural. And what nature did not create is not hers to destroy.
William Butler Yeats, among other distinctions surely the greatest poet of aging who ever lived, wrote a poem when he was 62, called "Sailing to Byzantium," which was assigned reading in college freshman English when I was 17. "That is no country for old men," the poem begins. It goes on to detail all the fervid, heedless celebrations of the flesh -- "The young/ In one another's arms," singing birds, spawning fish -- that surround and ignore the poet, making him feel like nothing but a "tattered coat upon a stick." For an older person not to despair, that "sensual music" must be drowned out by the louder singing of the soul, which is inspired by "studying/ Monuments of its own magnificence." In search of these, the poet has set sail for "the holy city of Byzantium."
Our instructors patiently explained to us (as we squirmed in our plum-smooth skins, daydreaming of being back in one another's arms) that "that country" was the natural world with its "dying generations," while Byzantium, a ""holy city" of gold mosaics and stiff, iconic saints, was Yeats's metaphor for the realm of the spirit -- that infinitely consoling refuge from mortality that we find in faith, and art, and intellect. "Natural," in this poem, is a dirty word. Whatever is born breeds and dies. But the things and thoughts and vows we make -- like the poem itself, an enameled form singing to us from "a golden bough" -- can aspire to "the artifice of eternity."
I was like, "Huh?" Why on earth would anyone prefer a cold gold bird to the warm, throbbing real thing? Who could find a picture of some stiff old saint superior to an armful of supple young lover? At seventeen, the very word "artifice" offended me. This is no poem for young students. But it is high on the reading list for anyone who's turned fifty and had his or her own shocking falling-out with nature. (Read Yeats and you'll see that he was very much the lover scorned. In another poem, at 61, he admits, "only an aching heart/ Conceives a changeless work of art.") To worship nature is, unavoidably, to worship youth; to live through the death of youth is to develop a new respect for artifice. And not only the lofty kind that preserves life's precious, perishable moments in an eternity of words or paint or gold, but also the humbler kind that buys time for more such moments.
So let's hear it for mammograms, and colonoscopy, and all those other unnatural acts that keep us around longer to savor birdsong and Beethoven, sunsets and the Sistine ceiling, Yeats's poems and the young -- and not so young -- in one another's arms.