By Paul Wright
How would you describe the state of your relationship with Nature these days? I don’t mean to pry into private matters best kept from nosy strangers. But Nature happens to be “something” all of us have a connection with (you know…Mother Nature, right?), so my apologies if the question seems out of line.
After all, the noted Harvard biologist (and supreme fan of Nature) E.O. Wilson reckons humans have enjoyed a close association with Nature for over 99% of our evolutionary history. It’s what’s happened during the other 1% of our history I’d like to talk about here.
Take Time to Appreciate the World Around Us
When was the last time you gave Nature a close look? I frequently enjoy quiet time on our porch late in the day. I like to let myself get lost in the complex tangle of the maple tree just beyond our porch railing. My gaze wanders to the St. John’s wort and yarrow dotting the verge down below with splashes of yellow. I watch the occasional crow cutting a diagonal across the early evening sky, and in the distance the sunset glow of golden hillsides.
Rossmoor, of course, presents a domesticated, skin-deep version of Nature. The genuine article lies just under the surface, including the physical, chemical and biological systems that drive our environment. Consider the wildlife we share this valley with, the cycle of the seasons, the shifting sky overhead (and everything beyond), or the complexity of oceanic tidal action and river flows at work nearby whose effects reach even landlocked Rossmoor. It’s all Nature, baby!
It’s easy to imagine Nature as a movie we watch that’s happening right outside our front door. Bambi? Jurassic Park? The Perfect Storm? Choose your genre and pull up a seat. The problem with this approach is that we’re in the movie, too. Which is where things start to get especially complicated.
Agriculture’s Mixed Blessing
Somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago in various parts of the world, humankind made a revolutionary decision. To feed ourselves, we decided to become farmers, planting crops and raising livestock. Life was never quite the same and the consequences for our species were huge. Our indispensable relationship with Nature began to change. One particularly momentous implication was somehow we humans began to assume we live outside Nature. Nature became something for us to manage, manipulate and tame where possible. But also to destroy.
Of course, we comfort ourselves that this approach opened the door to “progress.” But our triumphs over Nature have also led to unintended consequences. Although humans may have essentially declared independence from Nature, Nature never received the memo. Natural principles are still at work and natural systems still function. But by perceiving ourselves out of the relationship, we’ve made it harder to appreciate our place in it and easy to underestimate some important guardrails.
Reorienting our indispensable relationship with Nature
Putting ourselves back in the picture raises awkward questions. Questions prompting us to understand our propensity for impinging on systems that actually support us. Maybe we need to think more about climate change, watershed damage and land overuse. Or to ask where our attitudes toward non-human creatures may lead us (consider the impact of industrial-scale livestock operations). Or to question our assumptions about Earth’s carrying capacity. How many of us can Earth actually accommodate, now that we’re pressing 8 billion?
All this helps explain recent warnings that our habit of butting up mindlessly against Nature can trigger major disruption – like the current COVID-19 pandemic. Natural systems emit signals that call for attention. Honeybees suddenly die off; 356 elephants fall dead suddenly in Botswana; dozens of gray whales wash up dead on Pacific beaches; the planet heats up. Or a new coronavirus appears. Perceiving ourselves as a part of Nature might encourage us to value these signals more, aware that we’re all on this planet together, a key driver behind sustainability efforts.
Appreciating the gifts of Nature
Our carelessness about this critically important relationship may even have more mystical consequences for us – like how we see ourselves and one another. I suspect this was what the great Russian writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy had in mind when he observed that “one of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken.”
Several astronauts have described experiencing a moment of epiphany when they first view Earth from space – a very real sense that our planet is a whole system that’s part of something larger, whose fragility calls poignantly for care and protection. From that moment – sometimes referred to as the Overview Effect – they’ve reported tracing a mental shift, a shift in perspective and priorities, a recognition that our lives are intertwined with what we call Nature. Few of us will have the privilege of experiencing our own Overview Effect from space. But we can start now, wherever we happen to be, to recognize our indispensable relationship with nature.
So … tell me again about the state of your relationship with Nature.
Courtesy of the Rossmoor News, July 22, 2020. Email Paul Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.