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  • The Unnatural World
  • Speer Morgan

I couldn’t tell nothing about voices in a fog, for nothing don’t look natural nor sound natural in a fog.

—Huck Finn

The older and more experienced one gets, the closer the zones of the natural and the unnatural become, to the point that one begins to wonder if these categories are of much significance. We could all describe a list of realities that beginning in early childhood struck us as impossible or unnatural, then, as we learned about and got used to them, gave way to new impossibilities. In some ways, we remain children throughout our lives, learning and adjusting to an ever-changing understanding of the world. In Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, James Miller describes Socrates as starting his philosophical quest partly out of sheer irritation with the complacent, false confidence of experts he queried in various fields of knowledge. After going around Athens and talking at length with many of the presumed masters of a range of subjects, he decided that most of what they commonly accepted as true was either wrong or highly questionable. His quest for understanding began with a learned and quite essential mistrust of the accepted.

As much as we recently have gleaned from various fields of thought, we continue to uncover new facts and even new zones of knowledge almost by the year. The latest example, according to science writer Michael Specter (“Germs Are Us,” The New Yorker, October 27, 2012), may be our new understandings about bacteria. The century-long, all-out battle against germs is now being called into question, as biologists are learning that the over ten thousand different species of bacteria, viruses and fungi that most of us carry—and which congregate in various places in our bodies, [End Page 5] weighing about the same as our brains (three pounds)—have recently been discovered to have a number of positive roles, including helping us digest food and aiding our immune systems and probably offering many other benefits that we don’t yet know about. Understanding the ecology of bacteria and the existence of the “good germ” is already leading to major medical improvements. Such breakthroughs in knowledge continue to occur in physics, geology, biochemistry, astronomy, climatology, linguistics and other areas at a pace that should turn us all into our own versions of Socrates, doubting the current knowledge, assured only that there is much to learn.

In his story “Vanishing” Joe Davies’s young family man deals with the disappearance of a cyclist friend—the friend’s sudden and utter vanishing. It is a wonderfully written tale about the baffling closeness of nihility to our happy, “normal” lives. Dave Kim’s “The Good Stone” describes a retiree who has found himself in the middle of a strangely empty, lonely retreat from life. He falls into an unlikely and not entirely sensible friendship with a neighborhood kid, which calls to mind and clarifies a great loss in his own life. Matthew Baker’s “A Cruel Gap-Toothed Boy” is about a happy but eccentric couple of parenting uncles, both of whom make their livings in the dustiest corners of linguistics. Their peaceful and altogether moderate lives are suddenly overturned when an outrageous bully starts picking on their niece. It’s a well-wrought comic story about the lust for revenge lurking even in our most reasonable linguists.

Susan Detweiler’s essay “Under the Cloud” describes her experience of growing up during the Cold War years and living as a child with the threat of obliteration. It is about living in a culture where nuclear threat loomed, duck-and-cover drills were common practice and people built bomb shelters and prepared for a holocaust in their hometowns. Detweiler juxtaposes imagery of the bomb and Hiroshima with the natural beauty of the California coastline of her youth. “Stealing Pears” by Cynthia Miller Coffel contrasts the legacy of the Christian intellectual reading passed on to her by her father with a particularly smutty book that she stumbled onto as an adolescent. Miller writes of her admiration, now, for Augustine, who recognized that “our inner worlds are so large and deep, so wild and...


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