What is Alive Will Live

March 20, 2024

Even if you’ve never slept outside you probably know about the spiders. But have you ever thought about the dew?

Of course, I wake to a creature with a body the size of my little fingernail and eight legs spinning its silk between my pillow and the wooden flowerbed. The inevitability of sharing my bed with insects was my initial protest when Mum insisted my sisters and I sleep under the stars for the first night of summer. But it doesn’t harm me. I use my index finger to lift the web off my pillow and attach it to an upright perennial so I’m free of the spider’s intimidating scuttle without undoing any of its hard work.

What surprises me is the cool dampness of my hair and the tickle of droplets flicked like nature’s freckles across my cheeks. 

I will confess it’s an unpleasant sensation to wake to the blinding sky – the sun does not need to have fully risen for the sky to be bright – feeling as though I’ve just had a cold shower. I attempt to dry my face with the corner of my sleeping bag, but it’s absorbed the dew like a face cloth and only makes it worse.

I allow my vision to adjust to the morning light. For this I squint with one eye at a time until it hurts less, then open them both. Eventually, the whiteness softens to blue, and I’m able to recognize individual clouds floating like cherubs high above the earth.

The sunrise is pretty, I decide, but not worth the effort it takes to see it.

A green bug climbs a blade of grass, tiny legs kicking, yet barely covering any ground. It’s a miniscule creature, easily stepped on without noticing. I’m lying on hundreds of insects and many of them are alive, crawling underneath my foam kit-mat, probably wondering why their sky is still dark.

Every morning looks like this for these creatures. Exposure to the elements is all they know. They are baked in the sun and drowned in the rain.

As humans, we believe our species is special. We think we are different from the insects, fish, birds, animals – somehow superior. Is that really the case or do we just believe we are special as a species in the same way we believe in our own individual uniqueness?

There is a word for this: anthropocentrism. It’s the belief that humans are more important than anything else in the universe. Are we? Or do we simply want to be?

Later that afternoon, I sit in a wicker chair that strains when I move, giving the impression that it’s about to fall apart. My notebook lies abandoned on my lap, open at a blank page.

I want to write about nature, but the density of barbeque smoke suffocates my lungs, and the rumble of an engine from the other side of the ivy-covered fence offends my ears. I’ve exhausted all descriptions of the apple tree and water fountain, vibrant wisteria and patchy lawn. Mum has dug up the flower bed and hasn’t refreshed it with new greenery so it contributes a brown splotch to our already North London-sized garden.

At least there are birds.

They come to our garden all year round, bathing in the water fountain, chirping and cheeping and splashing water over the sides. Mum keeps the feeders full by hanging seed and suet from the branches of the apple tree for the sparrows and goldfinches. On the other side of the garden, next to the shed, she puts a nibble feeder with a perch for the pigeons so they don’t disturb the smaller birds.

Their melodious songs soothe my mind.

I happen to be looking at the apple tree when a wren lands on one of its branches and catches my eye. It has the most ordinary-looking brown feathers, thorn-like beak, and spindly legs. For the first few moments I spend staring at it, its black eyes appear unextraordinary too, like beads or marbles. They make me think of the robin made out of styrofoam and plastic feathers we hang on our Christmas tree year after year.

But then I look closer.

The wren stares back, regarding me, considering me. Wondering whether I’m a threat. Wondering what it’s going to eat for dinner. Wondering where it will sleep tonight. It ruffles its feathers and shakes its head.

There’s no concrete evidence that wrens do or do not have a soul. They are intelligent creatures with large brains compared to the size of their heads; complex like humans. Of course, there’s no concrete evidence that I have a soul. 

I consider a soul to be a spirit of sorts, something of my essence that will detach from my physical body when I die. Humans, going back to the Ancient Egyptians as far as historians can tell, have questioned where they go when this happens. If the wren has a soul and I have a soul, do they come from the same place and will they return to the same place?

And then I check myself: why does it matter?

There are a million Quora threads asking who has a soul and who deserves one, but why does it matter?

Who, really, in their right mind argues with creatures unable to argue back about superiority? Nature’s gift of birdsong is not another force to be reckoned with but simply the wild minding its own business.

Insects, fish, birds, and animals downsize their populations, squeeze themselves into nature reserves, back gardens and cages while we try to discern whether they have the right to exist as a wisp of themselves when their lives on earth have ended.

I know as well as anyone that nature is as easy to hate as it is to love.

My parents take my sisters and me on a picnic in the stifling heat of midsummer. Flies swarm above us like black clouds. Buzzing green bottles help themselves to our sandwiches, and mosquitoes feed on our exposed skin, leaving us with itchy, irritating bites.

Dad dozes on the picnic blanket using his backpack as a pillow, and Mum reclines next to him with her Kindle. My younger sisters and I leave our socks and shoes with them and run around the grass with children whose names we don’t remember. 

Our feet bleed from stepping on hidden rocks. Our legs break out in painful welts from brushing up against stinging nettles. Dirt creeps under our fingernails.

The game ends in shouting and tears. But is nature to blame?

We condemn it for the smallest things: bitter fruit, dry skin, runny noses, rain locking us inside, hot weather forcing us into unflattering clothes. Is that really fair?

Winter is the most hated season. I get it. I hate walking in the rain.

My raincoat clings to my skin, clammy on the inside and soaking wet on the outside. When I inhale, water fills my nose, and when I exhale, it sprays everywhere. It gets into my eyes, making it difficult to see and even drips into my ears, muffling the din of the storm.

My hair tickles the back of my neck, and I squirm. It’s impossible to fix, since my hood is velcroed tightly beneath my chin.

Rowans, alders, firs, and oaks sway under the weight of the wind. Their leaves rustle with furious whispers. Their limbs remain persistently outstretched, fighting off the rage of the storm.

They seem to hate it as much as I do. Maybe I’m just imagining it.

Detesting the clouds for cooling the air, nourishing plants, and feeding the river is selfish of us. They merely exist – play their role in the ecosystem. Who are we to hold it against them when, without them, we would die?

My forehead hurts from scowling, so I raise my chin to the heavens and let the water wash my bitterness away. I savor the crisp, earthy air. I splash, jump, leap in and out of puddles. The water pools into my boots and darkens the shade of my grey leggings, soaking them all the way through.

Streaks of electricity alight the heavens in a blur, obscured by grey-violet cumulonimbus clouds. A raindrop rolls down the nape of my neck, and my shoulders shoot up to my ears as I shiver.

There is a beauty in storms. They are much needed temper tantrums for the natural world. Loving nature comes easily to some, but many, like myself, must learn as we mature.

The natural world – that is to say, everything that is not made or dictated by humans – is the most permanent force there is. Humankind may not exist forever. We are not invincible, not immortal. We are not superior.

But nature is not kind. It doesn’t care about humanity. The clouds spare no thought for the trees. The grass holds no love for the field mice. Birds sing, the sky paints, the night twinkles, and the breeze dances, but lightning strikes, volcanoes erupt, rivers flood, and hurricanes demolish.

It’s time to acknowledge nature’s place in our lives, the joy it has to offer if we open our eyes. We can’t destroy it without destroying ourselves.

Deborah Rose

Deborah Rose is the Managing Editor for Hey! Young Writer and assisted in starting this amazing blog but now spends most of her time helping our founder, Alee Anderson, with her ghostwriting business. She is the author of two middle-grade, fantasy novels and a fan of all things history related! You can follow her on Instagram at @deborahroseintheforest or visit her website, deborahrosegreen.co.uk to read more of her writing.



Featured image by Steve Harris.