The end of every summer in Scotland brings a plague. Wasps.

One would think that as the days and nights get colder through September the wasps would die. But wasps have this meanness, this audacity that keeps them alive. They’re everywhere, and I’m sure they’re everywhere purely out of spite. Any attempt at eating lunch or enjoying a coffee in the sunshine is target practice for them. Chatting to a friend outside the supermarket? Wasps. Walking down the street? A wasp just flew onto my neck. Inside my home will be safe, surely? No. They find a way through the walls of an unfinished attic bedroom and wake me from sweet slumber with their ceaseless buzzing. They’re brazen, unashamed little devils that won’t leave me alone despite the fact that I want nothing to do with them.

Autumn brings respite from the wasps only to replace them with hairy, fleshy, clementine-sized spiders. Winter kills the spiders, but then there is the damp and mold. Spring would be fine, except moths have managed to get busy and produce a sizable wool-eating commune in my primarily-wool closet.

And it’s Scotland. So, I’m always getting rained on. The arctic winds bring it in sideways. Even when it is not raining, it is still somehow raining. It’s too dark to work in the winter and too bright to sleep in the summer. It’s usually cold enough to make being outside unpleasant, but when it’s warm, it’s too warm and close and humid. And then the wasps return.

This is a portrait of my life in what is, I’m told, a picturesque little fishing village in Scotland.

Photograph by Bianca Berg.

These experiences of nature seem to be peculiar to me – wasps, spiders, moths, mold, none of them the least bit interested in my friends. But I’m persecuted. Nature is obsessed with me. It won’t leave me alone. It’s everywhere, and it’s unpleasant.

Frustratingly, it’s never the nature I want that shows such fascination. The Grand Canyon, the Amalfi Coast, a herd of wild mustangs running slow-motion through the desert in impossibly saturated sepia tones. Where is this nature? I like this nature. But this isn’t the nature that likes me back. Despite my protests, my many traps and repellents and tricks, it is the most annoying, trivial, and malicious manifestations of nature that are always, already everywhere.

I have always thought – I have always been told – that nature is sublime. Nature is grand vistas and great storms that change the way we see the world and our place in it. They are beyond us. They may surpass or threaten us, but we get pleasure from contending with the impossibly large and impossibly dangerous because, in the end, we remain safe.

Immanuel Kant, who might as well have invented the word sublime, insists that the sublime isn’t inherent in nature. In contrast to the beautiful, the sublime doesn’t necessarily have a form corresponding directly to the magnificent or dangerous. In his Critique of Judgement, he writes, “For the sublime, in the strict sense of the word, cannot be contained in any sensuous form, but rather concerns ideas of reason, which, although no adequate presentation of them is possible, may be aroused and called to mind by that very inadequacy itself …” Sublimity is not found in the object itself. It’s not in nature but in how our minds move. Nature excites the imagination, and imagination moves to extend itself toward what is beyond us. “Hence,” (I love a good “hence”), “it comes that the sublime is not to be looked for in the things of nature, but only in our own ideas.” The sublime is a kind of feeling aroused in our minds, a pleasure we get by contending with things greater or mightier than we are.

Nature is hardly ideal. In reality, it is more like our neighbor. And like our neighbors, it is often annoying. 

Maybe others have a more romantic view of nature. The romantics did have a soft spot for it. And their nature seems to be quite nice, too. Yes, let’s idle in the shade of an old tree. Let’s wander above sea fog. Let’s write some lines about the lilies of the valley and the birds of the air. I know trees and flowers and mountains exist. I don’t deny their reality. But their romantic characterization seems to be the stuff of poetry and painting.

You can call it sublime or whatever else you want, but the feeling we get from rhapsodizing over nature isn’t about nature. Often, when we think of nature or speak poetically about it, we’re just looking at the literally far away – we’ve reduced nature to an ideal. We’re chasing an idea of the natural world for the feeling it gives us, whether that’s sublimity, serenity, or piety. But much more common than these fleeting, self-aggrandizing moments are the wasps. Wasps remind us of their stinging existence.

Nature is hardly ideal. In reality, it is more like our neighbor. And like our neighbors, it is often annoying.

I’ve always been sympathetic to Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. He says, “One can love one’s neighbors in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it’s almost impossible.”

It’s easy to love someone abstractly; they’re far away and have little effect on us. We can have sublime thoughts about humanity when humanity is a thought experiment. At a distance we can imagine noble and tender things, avoid unpleasant interactions, and focus on the good in people or the benefits they might supply. But a neighbor is someone in proximity, and in proximity we find that people, and nature, are difficult.

If we take away the sublime and romantic caricatures of nature, mountain ranges and harmonious landscapes and thunderstorms observed from indoors, would we still say we love nature? We’re keen to enjoy nature as a beautiful, faraway thing. We love to love it abstractly. But those things that are closer to hand, things that can sting and disrupt and cause minor chaos, are more difficult to love.

It’s easy, the Gospels say, to love those who do good things for us. But enemies, it’s hard to love them. It wouldn’t be quite right to call nature our enemy. Wasps behave how wasps are supposed to behave – though, I do often suspect they have concocted a plot against me. The wind blows because that’s what wind does. Mold grows where it can. But just because nature doesn’t behave the way I want it to, just because it doesn’t serve the purpose I have in mind or neatly fit into some category, that doesn’t make it my enemy.

Of course, it’s a bit dramatic to claim that nature is obsessed with me. Nature is just there, nearby and taking up space. It is, as I’ve been saying, my neighbor. A neighbor that has no understanding of manners or personal space, but my neighbor nonetheless. For a neighbor to really be a neighbor, not just an idea, it must be recognized as particular. Particulars are annoying and threatening; abstractions are easy, safe. Not to acknowledge this would be to spend the rest of our lives cursing wasps and chasing waterfalls that don’t exist, hiding ourselves from the possibility of love and care.

Maybe, in this case, annoyance is better than abstraction.