A recent article got me thinking about our contact with the natural world. After reading more about the Social Justice Movement and in particular Extinction Rebellion I agree with one of the commenters that “the left is on an ideological crusade to promote its doctrines and that the climate change issue is merely an opportunistic vehicle to do so”. It isn’t that I don’t agree there are social justice issues that need confronting, but I think there is a danger when political groups use the issue of climate change as a reason to promote social revolution. I agree, “we need to confront the material, scientific and institutional causes of climate change”, and I don’t see how we can do that if our rebellion isn’t about climate change. I believe the way to confront climate change is with more environmental awareness.
What exactly is environmentally awareness, and why should we care about how we connect with the environment? For those fortunate few who grew up (or still live) with abundant exposure to the natural world connecting may be as easy as stepping outside your front door, taking a walk in the woods, or working in your garden. For others it may be more difficult to find such opportunities. If we didn’t grow up with access to nature communicating may seem like asking us to speak a foreign language we’ve never learned.
Scientists have described the importance of outdoor play for young children’s healthy development. Our perception of plants, animals, or insects is strengthened from early exposure. As children we tend to be curious about the natural world, we like to search for bugs and catch butterflies. Similar to learning a new language, a child’s mind is still developing and neural networks more plastic. Children observe life with curiosity and open mindedness, creating neural pathways that perhaps increase their potential for environmental awareness. Children who play outdoors feel more comfortable in the natural world because they don’t see themselves as separate from it.
As we grow older we form concrete conceptions of the world and how it works. We develop a “mind set.” We rationalize more and develop fixed ideas that define and limit our perceptions. Our conscious mind decides what is real and our attention becomes selective. We chose the signals to focus on and let our subconscious mind filter out the rest. We process subconscious input in our dreams. It takes more effort for an adult to become environmental aware than a child, especially if that adult never formed the connections when they were young.
Environmental awareness develops at many levels. We can get a house plant or pet, start a garden or create more natural outdoor living space around our home. We make space for a few plants in our life for their beauty, for food, or for simple pleasure. We might grow or shop for fresh herbs and fresh food. We develop hobbies that take us outdoors and experience nature by camping and hiking, or simply taking a walk. Intellectually we can study books about earth science, biology, forestry, and natural resources. Eventually with more experience we might even take steps to practice permaculture, to learn about the environment in which our life is embedded, the ecosystems in our very neighborhood and how to restore or preserve them.
Our awareness of nature is derived from direct experience and observation. Take for example house plants. My mother and grandmother grew house plants and I adopted the hobby. My awareness of plants is second nature to me. Many times I have pointed out to someone that their house plant needs more water, or less water, or more sunlight. They look confused and ask me how I know this, and I wonder silently how it is they don’t! I suppose it has something to do with experience. I’ve tended house plants, so I know what they need. But sometimes it seems that the awareness I feel for plants is more than just my experience. I actually feel a connection to plants when near them. I can feel their life mingling with my own.
I’ve been told I have a “green thumb” and by that I suppose people think I have a gift for growing plants. Yes, this might be true for some types of plants. I know I am good at growing tomatoes but a failure at growing blueberries (no matter how many books I read or what I try). I don’t really understand why they die. If I am able to grow some types of plants why not all types? The ones I grow easily I can almost neglect and yet they still thrive. Others I struggle to get them to live. Why is that I wonder?
My personal theory is that plants, animals, insects, and humans form affinities for each other. I know there is some truth to this from reading about symbiosis. Life connects with some but not all forms of life equally. We are attracted to and enjoy tending some plants and animals more strongly than others. Some people are dog lovers, for others its cats. Some people grow flowers, others vegetables, and some just like trees. Some people like to be in a forest and others prefer floating on a river. When it comes to environmental awareness we all form preferences and connect differently to various parts of the natural world.
Environmental awareness may simply be about finding the right affinities. Maybe our affinities strengthen neural networks that facilitate bonding. Which came first the chicken or the egg; the affinity or the neural network and bond? Maybe because we are attracted to a given plant or animal we bond more easily. Seems to apply to our relationships with other humans so why not plants and animals! Our communication to others is strengthened or enhanced because of our neural network and our desire to get to know them better. It may not simply be a matter of wanting to spend more time in nature for us to develop environmental awareness. We may need to find those aspects of life with which we feel a stronger affinity and focus on those bonds. In other words if you don’t feel connected to nature maybe you just haven’t found the right mate yet.
Like all life plants communicate and interact with their environment. Communication in non-sentient life forms is often based on chemicals (organic compounds such as pheromones) or electromagnetic waves. Most are outside of the human range of physical sensory perceptions. Insects perceive heat and light differently than humans. Plants learn to communicate with beneficial insects using the electromagnetic spectrum in ways that facilitate pollination and reproductive success. Human communication evolved to rely on vocalization, vocabulary, and speech patterns. Our brain devotes a large amount of cranial space and energy to cognition and speech because human culture requires it.
Humans and animals have many cues with which they communicate; body language, behavior, and auditory signals. Consider differences in our relationships with plants and pets. Our dog signals to us by whining or standing by its water bowl to let us know it needs water. There are visual cues that a plant is thirsty, such as the color of their leaves or their droopiness. Plants also signal what they need with chemical cues that we may not be able to smell yet they still affect us.
Learning to domesticate plants and animals we also learned to communicate with them. Our communication with plants is different from that of animals. We ‘feel’ plants in ways we don’t think of as communication, but our feelings or emotions send chemical signals that plants are able to “sense”. Scientists have shown that plants talk to each other through the “internet” of fungus. The microbes on our skin communicate with our skin cells as well as the microbes in our environment. We can’t “hear” the signals but we do receive them at some level. Perhaps some people perceive signals and our brain turns them into intuitions we “feel”. Maybe the neural connections we formed as children playing outside allow us to be more intuitive towards plants and insects. When indigenous people are asked how they knew a specific plant medicine worked for a specific disease they said “Because the plant told us.”
Awareness is formed with observation, and the scientific method is based on observation. Advances in our understanding of biology came about because someone saw the connections. Take for example “The Origin of the Species” published in 1859 by naturalist Charles Darwin. It is not surprising that his theories were based on his detailed studies of natural organisms. Early naturalists were often highly accomplished artists. Darwin spent much time drawing and painting the things he observed and drew in his notebooks. If you’ve ever tried drawing something in detail you will understand how difficult it is to do. When we take time and look closely at something our observation informs both our conscious and subconscious mind. Sometimes it takes years for our mind to sort it all out and then suddenly “eureka!” Years of patient observations fall into a coherent picture.
Whatever form our connection takes, whether we can measure it or not, we know that communication between animals, plants, soil microbes and fungi has been an important part of life’s evolutionary processes. Life evolved in community with other life forms, and the ability to exchange information with our environment is critical for survival. It’s been proven that we feel “happy” working in fertile soil. This is because fertile soil releases an ‘earthy’ smell (from actinomycetes) that rewards us with dopamine. Fertile soil also increases our ability to grow food and survive. Our physical, mental, and emotional health can be improved by contact with the natural environment; the soil and microbes, even our pets and house plants. Look at it any way you want. When we cultivate connections with a healthy environment we are rewarded by feelings of happiness and greater chance of survival.
It seems perhaps strangely odd that we can lose our sense of connection to the natural world when we evolved within it. I don’t believe humans are alien to our planet! We are as much a part of the natural world as all the other species with which we evolved. Connecting with the environment should be….well, natural! Yet it seems environmental awareness is no longer a “natural’ sense, but one that must be learned and one that some find difficult to acquire. The question of how humans lost the ability to connect with nature is interesting but likely of less importance than reestablishing the ability. So how can we develop more environmental awareness? Having spent most of my life associating with soil, gardens, compost and plants I suggest the first place to start is to get outside and smell the air, feel the sunshine on your face, the wind across your skin, and start digging in the dirt (if you have any available). Connect with natural materials and living things.
Environmental awareness is also a process of learning to be quiet and listen; to be “conscious” of the natural world within which we live. If we want to develop this awareness we need to stop now and then and “smell the roses”. Have you ever tried to smell wine and describe it? Senses need training to discern nuance.
We also have to actually spend some time with nature, commit to slowing down and taking a needed pause. Find something living in the world, in your home or outside your door, and just sit quietly next to it and see what you feel. What does this tree need to survive? What does this place want from me? What is nature trying to communicate to me? Quieting our mind is a skill we can only learn through practice, learning to become aware of what happens in the space between our thoughts. It takes practice, learning to quiet discursive thinking. Try it. Stop for a moment, close your eyes and see what goes though your mind. We all find it difficult to stop the stream of conversation that is constantly going on in our head! Turn off the radio in your car and see what is happening in your head. There is a reason psychologists recommend we find time for peace and quiet!
With practice we can learn the skill of quieting our mind, of being mindful. When we take time to sit quietly out of doors, nature has a way of reaching in and opening up lines of communication. We become better listeners. We become more conscious of what we are feeling, the messages we are receiving but have previously ignored. We become receptive to the subtleties of nature, mindful of the network of relationships, the interwoven patterns that make up the natural world, and we find our place is within it not outside of it. I’ve never found that revolution brings peace. Passion is always a flame that burns itself out and we are once again left confronting our feelings.
Where does our life belong? It is clear that humanity is using resources unsustainably. It is clear that if we over-exploit the natural systems we rely upon it prevents those systems from renewing and threatens our survival. Not only are non-renewable resources being depleted, renewable natural systems are also depleted when we don’t allow them to renew. As the sixth great extinction event continues to unfold, as our climate is destabilized by the combustion of fossil energy, as humans consume ever larger quantities of earth’s resources we need to stop and think about how our actions and consumption are affecting earth’s natural systems. We need to become environmentally aware, to grasp the tenuous connections with life on earth in order to change before it’s too late. We need to find affinities with the natural world and connect with them. For when we do we will find it is easy to love the world, to naturally care for and renew it… just as it cares for and renews us.