Henry Adams said “Chaos was the law of nature; order is the dream of man.” There is something in the chaos of nature that startles us and so we strive to put order to the most intimate details of our existence.


By Peter D. Schaller

The Chaos of Clouds

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m driving home from the mountainous, northern region of Nicaragua, to the arid flat-lands of Managua. The sun is making a mad dash for the horizon, sliding quietly across the clear sky as I drive. Hot air rushes through the open windows, left over from a sweltering day.

When I reach the final pass that descends to sea level, to the dusty plains outside of Managua, the sun disappears behind lake Xolotlán, leaving the sky with radiant, earth light. This last mountain before Managua, La Cuesta del Coyol, winds its way down unhurriedly, offering spectacular views of the flatlands, the lake and a few of Nicaragua’s active volcanoes.

The sky is filled with a perfectly chaotic array of clouds, absorbing the declining light of dusk. There are so many shapes, textures, colors and layers of clouds; it’s all I can do to keep one eye on the highway. Ever since reading Annie Dillard’s, For the Time Being, I have been paying a lot more attention to clouds—not looking for animals or faces, but just enjoying the amazing diversity of form and composition. These clouds, on this day, are the most spectacular I have ever seen. I can feel the tension releasing from my body, a sense of calm and peace seeping from the clouds into my pores.

I drive slowly down the mountain in the right hand lane, appreciating every second of the view. The clouds are layered in an impossibly muddled community.

There are wisps of cirrus clouds, tinted the deep purple of a ripe eggplant, stretched deftly on the front most layer. Behind those are towers of cumulonimbus, closer to the sun, stained with the pastel pink of a grapefruit. Lower, hovering over the lake is a gathering of cumulus clouds, acting out a grayscale with surprising dexterity. I can only observe in awe. There is no order, no reason to this unruly gathering of clouds, but all is in perfect balance.

In its purest state, nature is chaos.

Henry Adams said “Chaos was the law of nature; order is the dream of man.” There is something in the chaos of nature that startles us and so we strive to put order to the most intimate details of our existence.

We have become far detached from nature and so we have lost our connection to chaos. If we look at human creation, we find straight lines, ninety degree angles, parallelism and symmetry. Nature does not use this kind of order, but creates perfectly in her chaos. The more we try to impose structure and order, the further we distance ourselves from nature.

The Chaos of Waves

High tide progresses persistently at the Masachapa beach, on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. The afternoon sun has lost some of its potency, though it will be two hours before it disappears into the patient ocean. Blue on blue, the sky is free of any distractions, complementing the deep waters of the Pacific with a softer tone, the kind of blue that could be found in the innermost petals of a hydrangea. I sit with my feet and hands buried in the sun drenched sand, hypnotized by the waves.

The mid-afternoon sun glows proudly, spreading an amber light on the tops of the relentless waves. Without sequence or priority, they roll towards the shore, obeying only the wind and the invisible course of momentum. I stare blankly at the waves, focusing on nothing but confusion. Each wave decides its own, private destiny, some breaking early, others advancing to the near empty beach. Some of the waves approach at uncalculated angles, others straight and unfaltering.

Looking out across the collective progression of waves, I find again—chaos. The ocean does not need to systematize the tides. Each wave has a unique purpose, a perfectly unknown trajectory. When the tide has completed its journey, the waves will recede, in a precisely disorganized procession. It pains me to know that I cannot watch them forever.

Our lives are subject to chaos, yet we do everything possible to eliminate unpredictability. We schedule, calculate, plan and categorize until we have removed the most reasonable doubts. True enough, we cannot live with complete improvisation and spontaneity, but a life with excessive order is unnatural.

When we permit a margin of chaos into our lives, we more closely emulate nature.  Allowing nature into our lives, in its most chaotic glory, is allowing for peace and balance. The closer we can return to natural processes, to the perfect order of chaos, to the essence of creation, the more fulfilling and productive our lives will be. We are, after all, products of nature.

We were not produced in a laboratory in some Brave New World. As John Muir noted, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.That includes us.

The Chaos of Green

Sundays should be designated exclusively for hiking. On this particular Sunday, I am mesmerized by the seductive cloud forest atop Mombacho, an inactive volcano located just west of the city of Granada, Nicaragua. Mombacho reaches 1344 meters into the sky and is usually graced by a crown of precious clouds. Mombacho’s four craters form a unique and delicate ecosystem, one of only two cloud forests on Nicaragua’s Pacific seaboard.

The top of the volcano has been declared a protected area by the Nicaraguan government, though many television, radio and cellular phone companies are allowed to place antennas on top of the drowsy volcano.

There are only three trails to choose from and without hesitation I choose the Puma trail, the longest and most difficult. It’s only a four kilometer hike, but the steep path through the dense cloud forest is an immense, natural tranquilizer. As soon as I smell the humid, organic perfume of the forest, I can feel stress dissipating in small drops, sliding and soaking into the forest floor. The vegetation in some parts of the forest is so dense, it blocks out all but a small, essential amount of light. Death and life coexist symbiotically in the cloud forest. Fallen trees and plants decay rapidly, creating a rich nutrient base. Often before even abandoning form, the dead trees provide ideal birthing grounds for seeds of all varieties, reaching enthusiastically from decomposing trunks.

At one particularly steep climb on the trail, I stop (mostly to catch my breath) but also to observe the intricacies of the forest. I gaze into a pallet with endless tones of green. There are more types of plants and shades of green than I could possibly begin to count or categorize. I feel an instant surge of appreciation for the brave biologists who survey such areas and recognize the contributions of each individual specimen of flora and fauna.

Again, I am captivated by the inexplicable chaos before my eyes. The trees grow at will, competing stoically for light and nutrients. They grow where their seeds are blown by the wind or deposited by anonymous birds and mammals. Ferns and moss, flowers and insects are abundant on the forest floor; each innovating for survival.

Nature’s plan for chaos has been altered by the dangerously ordered development of humanity. With each new housing development, strip mall, beach resort, eco-lodge, factory and highway, we are eliminating the peaceful chaos of nature. Let us limit our addiction to order and appreciate the unspoken wisdom of nature. Gary Snyder reminds us that “Nature is not a place to visit, it is home.”

In chaos we can find peace and balance. In nature we can find ourselves.


Photo: Peter Schaller

Editor: Dana Gornall