Recently, I read two almost antithetical essays about the value and meaning of nature, one in Sierra Magazine and one by an unschooling advocate. While the Sierra Club president went old-school in his defense of wilderness and the need to preserve it, the unschooler said that not only is there no such thing as wilderness, there’s hardly such a thing as nature. As an environmental communicator, I’ve thought a lot about this subject. I also know that I want to pass on a love of the outdoors and ecological values on to my son.
Considering both articles’ points of view, here’s what I want to teach Sprout while we’re out in nature:
1) Nature is beautiful – and so are a lot of other things.
I’m a Christian, so I believe that God shaped the natural world, albeit through evolutionary processes. Personally, I see His/Her fingerprints on every tree leaf and ocean wave. Likewise, I believe many human-made things are beautiful too, from a hand-crafted quilt to a well-planned streetscape. But saying they’re the same thing undermines the uniqueness of each, undervaluing both the complexity of biology and the human eye for artistry.
2) Not everything is nature, but nature can be found in the unlikeliest of places.
Sure, your plastic dinosaur may be made of oil, which was once natural (and even organic, going with the biological definition), but it isn’t nature. Neither is a city sidewalk, as useful as it is. But you can find nature even in places dominated by people – in weeds fuflilling their evolutionary duty of recolonizing disturbed places, hawks nesting in tall buildings, trees rising from city streets, insects pretty much everywhere. Finding and appreciating those places and creatures can help you remember that people are never truly alone – other species are trying to make their way as well.
3) Both Wildness and Wilderness are valuable.
Unlike the popular belief that Thoreau was referring to wilderness, the actual quote is “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” To me, wildness is that fighting spirit of survival independent of humans that guides evolution and ecological relationships. Even non-living objects maintain their strength and momentum (albeit by physics, not consciousness), with rivers cutting through rock if ypu give them enough time. The wilderness is where that wildness is most evident and human interference is minimal. (With global environmental issues, there is no such thing as a complete lack of intervention, and even in pre-industrialized times, it was very rare) As people, we tend to be preoccupied with our own species, both as individuals and society. Observing wildness on the small scale and wilderness in the large one helps us see the bigger picture, both in terms of geographic and time scales. Comprehending the size of a redwood or understanding the age of a Galapogus turtle puts our concerns into perspective.
4) Nature is dangerous. But instead of being afraid of it, we should be prepared.
Because of that wildness, nature’s citizens don’t care about us. The Disney version of nature is about as real as the Disney version of Paris. While we control nature in many places and ways, it’s never truly tamed. There are some places I find too risky – I’ve never been interested in mountaineering – but you can experience most wild places with a reasonable level of safety as long as you’re smart about it. Being prepared is a good motto for everyone, not just Boy scouts.
5) Everything is interconnected, but also has value on its own.
My undergrad degree specialized in ecology, so I completely appreciagte the vast complexity of the food web and every other type of ecological interaction. But as important as keystone species are, it’s also worth appreciating each plant and animal’s incredible coolness. I’m a big fan of weird bugs and funky plants, even the ones that aren’t big, beautiful, or ecological building blocks.
6) We will never not have an impact. But there are ways we can mimic and work with nature to minimize the negative impact or even have a positive one. There are way too many humans to eliminate our impact, unless someone pulls a Crake (from an excellent series by Margaret Atwood) and unleashes a worldwide virus. But by mimicking and learning from nature’s patterns, we can find new ways to work within ecological systems instead of against them. This is why I love the permaculture movement – it takes as a given that we can combine ecological principles with agriculture to get what both we and the ecosystem needs. The sustainability movement has picked up the ball on this one, helping us better understand how we can build our cities, food system, and transportation networks, ideally in ways that are both environmentally and economically just.
7) Because all humans are part of a larger ecosystem, human health and well-being is tied to those ecosystems’ health.
Even if you don’t give a whit about polar bears or whales, environmental issues are fundamentally human issues. From air pollution to clean water to climate change, our world’s most vulnerable folks are the most negatively affected by environmental problems. They get stuck with dealing with respiratory diseases, high levels of mercury from coal plants, and intensified natural disasters from climate change, because of our unsustainable policies.
8) Just as we can be healed when we’re sick, so can many ecosystems.
While wilderness is wonderful, one of the big problems with the original movement was that it was just about preserving “untouched” places and didn’t have anything to say about places people actually lived. Too much policy treated polluted places like Edward Abbey claims to have – as if you could just litter in them because they were already ruined anyway. Fortunately, thinking has shifted away from this, leading to clean-ups of the Chesapeake Bay, the decanalization of rivers and streams, and the re-wilding of European forests.
9) We have a responsibility to each other to respect and care for those around us, no matter their species.
That really what this whole list comes down to. As many challenges as we face, we as humans are very powerful. And to quote good old Uncle Ben from Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”