Nature is not just window-dressing, not just a backdrop for our busy lives; it’s where we live and what we are. It’s what flows in our arteries and endocrine systems, and it’s the whole-grain cereal that gives us energy to start the day. Interwoven with everything we do, nature directly meets our needs for air, food, fresh water, materials for shelter and products, beauty, recreation, serenity, nutrient and waste recycling, disease prevention, flood control, climate regulation, and many other quintessential values.
But sadly, the more sidetracked we get chasing possessions and the money to buy them, the poorer we become in other forms of wealth, such as connections with nature. When natural systems are healthy, they spin off benefits far more valuable than gold, or $100,000 bills. For example, the world’s predator insects, such as ladybugs, naturally control far more pests than expensive, environmentally destructive pesticides do. Why not spray less and let colorful little allies like these proliferate? Why not use knowledge about how nature works, to meet more of our needs?
The truth is that humans used to value nature as the greatest and most sacred wealth of all, but now it’s being traded for convenience, comfort, and perceived security. In our current way of seeing the world, the environment is just a collection of problems; we won’t protect it until we correctly see nature as a collection of solutions—a regenerating form of wealth we literally can’t live without. If we let it, nature can take care of us, energize and delight us, free! In research studies, when people view slides of nature, their blood pressure counts fall; and when those with ADHD spend time in nature, the results are often as effective as if they’d taken the widely used drug Ritalin. A classic ten-year study reported in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine documented that hospital patients with a view of trees went home sooner than did those who viewed a brick wall. In a similar study, Michigan prisoners whose cells overlooked farmland had 24 percent fewer illnesses than did those whose cells looked into the prison courtyard.1 Many universities now offer degrees in “horticultural therapy,” including Michigan State, Kansas State, University of Maine, and University of Cincinnati.
Describing positive questionnaire results from more than a thousand wilderness trips (both adult and child), Robert Greenway says that 90 percent of the participants felt an increased sense of aliveness, well-being, and energy; 76 percent of all respondents reported dramatic changes in quantity, vividness, and context of dreams; and 77 percent described a major life change upon return (in personal relationships, employment, housing, or lifestyle).2 Nature’s hard wired into our genes, and into the human nervous system. Humans are blessed with what E. O. Wilson terms “biophilia,” the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.
In our high-tech world, we often turn away from biophilia, considering ourselves above other species. In my opinion, each animal or plant is the very best at being that particular species, but no species is “better.” Whenever I begin to think humans are somehow superior, I remember how various animals headed for higher ground before the imminent 2004 Asian tsunami. I think about the 176-year-old tortoise that recently died, possibly transported from the Galapagos Islands to England by Charles Darwin in 1835. (And we think the average human life of 77.6 years is old.) I recall a newspaper story about how dogs can smell cancer in humans: In repeated experimentation, not only did dogs conclusively demonstrate a 90 percent success rate in identifying human patients with biopsy-confirmed cancer, they were also able to detect cancer incidences a full year before medical technology did.
One very charming example of biophilia occurred recently in San Francisco Bay when a fisherman spotted a whale in great distress, weighed down and entangled in hundreds of pounds of crab traps and fishing lines. The fisherman called an environmental group that sent a crew of divers, and although a single thrash of the whale’s fin might have been lethal, the rescuers worked patiently for hours to cut her loose. When she was free, she swam around in joyous circles like a dog let off its leash. Then she returned to each diver, one at a time, to say thank-you with a gentle nudge. Hearing stories like these makes us smile, because more than anything, at our very core, we want life to thrive! It really doesn’t take more than a walk in the park, past an ecstatic baby in a stroller, to make my day. But in our world, we have fewer and fewer of these direct, outdoor experiences, for several reasons—we don’t give ourselves time, nature isn’t at the edge of town anymore, and we’re simply out of the habit of being in nature.
Last Child in the Woods
For the most part, mothers want us to be happy, right? When they used to tell us, “Go outside and play,” it wasn’t just because they were sick of us, but (also) because the components of nature and the way they fit together are the most instructive and enjoyable curriculum on the planet, no tuition necessary. These days, though, parents aren’t as likely to urge their kids to go outside. Unfortunately, both kids and adults often perceive “outside” as a place that lacks stimulation and is also dangerous.
The engineered planning of towns and cities often reduces nature to concrete water channels, manicured petunia beds, and rectangular soccer fields, removing the rough, wildish edges that kids like the best. Many American schools have reduced or eliminated outdoor time, even as the epidemic of childhood obesity spreads. In fact, as Richard Louv points out in Last Child in the Woods, education boards in a dozen or more states have “outlawed” recess because they consider it less important than national test rankings, it presents perceived liability issues, and it has the potential for violence on the playground. On some school playgrounds that do allow outdoor play, signs read, “No Running!” Tracking the origins of what he calls “nature-deficit disorder,” Louv has observed many other obstacles to natural play, including municipal and homeowner association laws. For example, building codes prohibit or inhibit the construction of tree houses in some towns, some cities forbid climbing on trees in parks, and many of the country’s HOAs (there are now nearly a quarter of a million) frown on basketball hoops and skateboard ramps in driveways.
Add to these restrictions the specters of “stranger danger,” DUI-heavy traffic, and “ecophobia” (the fear of spiders, skin cancer, mosquitoes, snakes, Lyme disease, and poison ivy) and you’ve trained kids to retreat indoors to their video games, TVs, and computer screens. My friend Marie held her ground when her son kept asking for the latest video games: He could only play games that didn’t involve killing, and he had to buy them with his own money. But this teenager knew how to play more than video games; he did a research paper at school on violence in video games, and thus, he convinced her, had no choice but to do the research....
Richard Louv cites a study documenting that in 2003, the average American devoted 327 more hours to electronic media than in 1987. But Louv asks a probing question—very relevant to the theme of this book: “What drives us to virtual reality?” He believes that lack of time and the changing patterns of our cities and towns are key reasons, but that fear—a spell being cast by the news media—is the main reason.3
And I believe there’s still more to it: kids (and adults) don’t value or understand nature because it’s not an action-packed commodity sought after by their peers. Nature is subtle, not in-your-face like virtual reality, and we need to be taught to slow down and appreciate its subtleties and interconnections. We need mentors who can lead us back to nature. Louv interviewed a camp counselor who was awakened by an inner-city girl when she had to go to the bathroom. “We stepped outside the tent and she looked up. She gasped and grabbed my leg. She had never seen the stars before. From that moment on, she was a changed person. She saw everything, like a camouflaged lizard that everyone else skipped over. She used her senses. She was awake!”4
Lost Child in the Woods, Found
When I was four or five, I wandered with a young friend into the woods near our house. My recollections of that distant morning include splotches of bright sunlight projected through the trees onto the dark forest floor, the earthy fragrance of leaves and rich Illinois soil, and knowing what it must feel like to be a butterfly. We fluttered farther and farther away from our yards, clueless that back home our moms were beginning to panic. After an hour or more of frantic searching, someone drove to the other side of the forest and found us near the highway, still in the throes of discovery and exploration. I seem to remember that everyone was very agitated, insisting that we’d gotten lost and could have been killed! But we didn’t see it that way. All we had lost was a sense of time, and a sense of imposed boundaries.
About fifty years later, I experienced a similar, unbounded feeling in a Costa Rican rainforest north of San José. I’ve always thought of myself as a nature guy—a backpacker and fanatical gardener who’s learned about the cycles and meaning of nature by observing them directly—on switch-backed mountain trails or in rich garden beds teeming with vegetables. But I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered at Rara Avis, a biological reserve that is true, undeveloped wilderness. I was like that delighted young preschooler again, fluttering into the woods in search of anything. My girlfriend had gone home and I stayed in a casita without electricity for eight days by myself, drifting further and further from the pace of life back home, where the president was sending the first troops to Iraq.
The story of that experience begins with a rigorous three-hour, tractor-drawn wagon ride over boulders and potholes, the exact opposite of “luxurious” (probably a little like having a baby in an earthquake). But the other travelers and I somehow survive it, and within minutes of arriving near Waterfall Lodge and its outlying casitas, the forest begins to speak to us! A tiny, strawberry poison-dart frog hops across the trail; his bright red skin contains toxins so strong that he has no predators. He just hangs out in his territory—he needs no more than 100 square feet—and waits for females to come to him. What a life!
A little farther up the trail, a boa constrictor wraps around the trunk of a small tree, in no hurry to get out of our way. Instead she relies on her camouflage, ability to constrict, and (maybe) trust in humanity. A regiment of leaf-cutter ants ascends the trunk of a 100-foot-tall tree to prune its leaves, increasing by a third the light that reaches the forest floor. The leaf fragments they bring back (like surfers carrying bright green surfboards) are composted underground to fertilize the fungus crop they find so tasty—an operation that puts nutrients back into the soil. En route, some ants become snacks for birds and other insects, so their niche provides several basic resources the rainforest needs—sun, soil, and food. Thousands of other species make similar contributions, weaving the rainforest together like a tapestry. Creeping over the forest floor toward the shadows is a Monstera vine, which “knows” that by climbing the tallest trees that cast the darkest shadows, it will ultimately bask in full sunlight.
Rara Avis is like a 2,500-acre lungful of fresh air—a masterpiece of biological abundance that provides undisturbed habitat for 362 different species of birds! Twenty different species of orchid were recently counted on a single fallen tree. In a way, this virgin parcel of land is a living self-portrait—the rainforest is painting itself in the bold colors and shadowy nuances of its many species; for example, the red, green, yellow, orange, turquoise, and black of a keel-billed toucan (called a “flying banana” by another traveler); the dark, iridescent blue of a morpho butterfly; and the dappled red of a stained-glass palm.
I walk down to dinner one evening in the foggy twilight and my flashlight beam falls on the orange and black stripes of a coral snake. I’m startled, knowing she’s poisonous, but fascinated that she’s slithered into my life. As I bend closer to get a better look, she retracts from the path into the bushes, like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the Wicked Witch’s striped sock melts away under the house that smashed her. With the hair on the back of my neck still bristling, I step gingerly from one stepping stone to another, watching the miniature headlights of fireflies hovering in the descending darkness, lit only by a rising crescent moon.
After dinner in the big log cabana, biologist Amanda Neill explains why she puts her energy into studying a single species of rainforest flower: the bright red gurania, or jungle cucumber. “Think what might happen if the taxonomists mistakenly lump two similar species together,” she says. “We might assume that there are plenty of these—don’t worry about saving their habitat—when really there are only a few of each species left, that have traveled a billion years to get here.”
The sense of ecological urgency in this blond-haired thirty-year-old woman mixes well with her sense of delight. Even in her narrow niche of study, she’s traveled widely—to Ecuador, Belize, Peru, now Costa Rica—to study the taxonomy and ecology of her focus species. In effect, she’s found her own symbiotic niche in the rainforest, trading her skills at cataloging and protecting the gurania for the privilege of living a month at a time under the lush, protective canopy of the rainforest.
That night, when the cicadas, tree frogs, trogons, owls, howler monkeys, and hundreds of other species all join the chorus, the forest sounds like a smoothly running factory—Taca, taca, taca... sissit, sissit.... Given that the mission of each call is to be heard among a symphony of other calls, there are all varieties of pitch and syncopation—creating an incredibly rich and complex symphony. Over the eons, rainforest species don different colors and improvise different shapes so all nutrients will be used, and all niches occupied. (They utilize information and design rather than superfluous resources, an important lesson for our civilization.) In the morning I’m awakened by a cuckoo clock that turns out to be a bird with a very complex, mechanical-sounding call. I count the hours, groggily, but even in half-sleep, I know it can’t be nine o’clock already....
Waking Up in the Rainforest
On a remote jungle trail toward the end of my retreat, I’m dressed only in shorts and rubber boots. I’ve taken off my t-shirt to feel the rainforest on my skin, despite the warnings that deadly fer-de-lance snakes could strike from overhead branches and vines. I’m thinking, “Remember this moment. Remember the way you feel, right now, as howler monkeys growl like lions way off in the distance, and the sun filters through the dense foliage onto your stupefied, grateful face.”
Sure, we can read about the rainforest and see it on TV, but until we spend quality time there, letting ourselves slow down, we don’t really grasp what tropical biology is all about. It struck me on that Costa Rican rainforest retreat that we overconsuming humans need to somehow absorb these colors, this bold brilliance, into our hearts, and revalue nature’s wealth all over the planet. There’s so much more to life than the gray of concrete and the drab green of paper currency! My feeling is that until we acknowledge the butterfly, orchid, rose, maple, and wisteria colors inside each of us, we can’t feel truly at home in ourselves. We can’t see the deficiencies of our economic system clearly enough—that it isn’t programmed to preserve nature, or to optimize human potential. Until we launch an unwavering mission to Planet Earth, we’ll keep postponing the homecoming until there’s not much left to come home to. In that rainforest, I saw and felt complexity-in-balance, and realized how far out of balance our industrial complexity is—infantile and clunky by comparison, with only thousands of years of experience as opposed to billions. Rather than cooperating to make the overall system sustainable, our industrial species compete to attain their own, narrowly defined goals. The name Rara Avis comes from a medieval poem containing the phrase “Rara avis in terris.” The phrase means, literally, “a rare bird in the world”—or figuratively, something new and fresh happening in human civilization. And so there is!
The Zen of Gardening
What’s the opposite of a suicide bomber? Maybe a community gardening activist—like a Green Guerrilla—lobbing a benign grenade filled with seeds and fertilizer onto a vacant lot. The mission of the New York City–based Green Guerrillas is to “help people turn vacant, rubble-strewn lots into vibrant community gardens that serve as outdoor environmental, educational, and cultural centers.” About 25 years ago, I became a green guerrilla in my own yard, and what I learned along the way changed my life.
Growing vegetables and fruits taught me the value of filling time with something that feels right. I’d spend Saturday planting vegetables and digging a new plot in the crazy quilt I called a garden; then Sunday morning, I’d just want to do more of the same. Getting so much exercise and good food taught me what it felt like to feel great, and I wanted more of that feeling. (My then-wife customized a t-shirt for me that read Mr. Vigor, which I wore proudly as I ate organic broccoli or battled slugs and hailstones.)
I learned what a passion is about—something you did whether or not it seemed like a good idea to others. I noticed, though, that people would tour my little garden and comment on how much work it must be; then the next year, they’d call with questions about how to start their own gardens. It’s not that we gardeners are trying to be “old fashioned” or unsocial with our time, more that we are reviving a skill we can take with us into the future—a pastime that doesn’t cost money but saves it, while also delivering wide-ranging health and environmental benefits. If I eat a sweet pepper or a handful of raspberries as I work, I can count on an energy boost that lasts for hours, because that food is still charged with life as I’m eating it. Rather than traveling an average 2,000 miles to my mouth, it’s more like two feet. The fuel savings are huge. The food that comes from my garden also doesn’t require pesticides, but rather skill—again, a great energy-saver and environmental bonus. Gardens create habitats, absorb stormwater to reduce flooding, and give us something to take care of—a basic, primordial human need.
In the book The Zen of Gardening, I wrote, “In the garden, life’s struggles, snags, and snafus decompose into rich, black earth. I see and feel things happening—things that are real, not just white-knuckle policies and commercial blabber. As I plant seedlings or hoe a sturdy crop of basil, I don’t think about operators who are ‘currently busy helping other customers.’ I can touch, smell, see, and taste where I live; I know about Golden, Colorado, partly by making horticultural deals with it. I learn what it can provide and what I can coax from it, as my knowledge and skill continue to expand. In the garden, life and death dance before my eyes every day, and I come to a better understanding of my own health and mortality. The garden literally brings me back to my senses.”
When the garden becomes a lifestyle, we begin to rethink where we spend our time, energy, and money. We go out to eat less, partly because what comes out of the garden is vastly superior to what comes out of a typical restaurant’s kitchen, and partly because we just want to keep working in the strawberry bed or planting the broccoli seedlings. It occurs to us in a flash of insight that time isn’t money—it’s life.
So consider these passages to be an uncommercial for gardening. Turn off the tube and take a few gardening classes. Start small, with a raised bed or two. I guarantee you’ll like it, or “double your time back.”
The Nature of Heaven: Adventures in the Great Beyond
One of the many people Richard Louv interviewed for Last Child in the Woods was a twelve-year-old girl who commented, “I really think there is something about nature—that when you are in it, you realize that there are far larger things at work than yourself.” I know what that girl meant. I remember a suddenly-spring day at Hampstead Heath in London (where I was an exchange student), wading barefoot in a shallow stream, mud squishing between my toes. Although my learned reaction to the squishiness was, “yichh,” I realized in a flash of insight that mud isn’t really dirty—in a sense, it’s the essence of clean—the place where life originally came from and where it ends up. What I hold sacred is life itself, and that includes even the life that teems in soil and squishy mud. The incredible beauty and complexity of living things assures me that everything’s alright; that I’m part of something that goes on and on. There’s no need for fear, and no need to hurry.
I do have a strong suspicion that there’s an afterlife, but I’m not convinced we each carry personal identities with us up some cosmic escalator like beat-up pieces of luggage. Instead, what I think may happen is that after a transition period at the Pearly Gates (while our luggage is inspected and gratefully acknowledged), departing souls melt back to a wavelength that courses through all of life. And I strongly believe that if Heaven in whatever form does exist, it’s not just a comforting, unknowable fable, it’s biology and physics. If it’s made out of reality rather than fiction, we should be able to make contact with it, with all our expanding, awesome technologies, from spectroscopy and astronomy to magnetic resonance imaging.
Just for the fun of it, let’s say we do retain our identities in Heaven. One day as you listen to the car radio, you pick up a staticky message from some deceased air traffic controller trying to get in touch with his daughter. As the frequency gets sharper and reaches listeners from Delaware to Darfur, there’s great rejoicing on Earth! Holy wars cease when we learn that all of life—and death—are governed by natural law that treats everyone equally. But then (this is the cynic in me and in many of us), I’m imagining that some of the more enterprising folks here on Earth might see a huge new market opportunity. “Even you angels will be much more blissful if you have communication links with family members you’ve left behind, won’t you?” they coax. “Won’t videos from home make you feel more secure about your reputation back on Earth...?” These masters of public relations will make even angels feel insecure, and, in the end, Microsoft and AOL, Wal-Mart and Target will trade digital uploads for heavenly balls of energy.
The fact is, we don’t know the nature of that other side, or other frequency. Sometimes I wonder if our brains have learned to filter it out (despite vivid glimpses during near-death experiences) because it’s not critical for dealing with more immediate survival issues here on Earth, like saber-toothed tigers and broken fuel pumps.
But we do know that nature is fundamental to our survival, and that it needs our help, now. Standing in my galoshes and shorts in that Costa Rican rainforest, I was completely amazed; completely in the moment. A shiny blue dragonfly with a body about the size of a clothespin decided to orbit my head three or four times, showcasing its remarkably shiny, helicopter-like wings. By that time, I’d become completely open to everything the rainforest had to offer. At least temporarily, I’d gained a wider, more holistic sense of self. “I” was not enclosed by my skin, but extended out into the infinitely patterned rainforest and beyond. I remember thinking as the dragonfly hovered comically around my head, “That’s me, saying hello to myself!”
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