Seeing only nurture in nature is missing half the point
by J.B. MacKinnon
OF ALL THE FEELINGS said to sweep over us in wild places—awe, peace, a sense of the divine—there are a few that rarely get mentioned. My last two-week trip into the woods, for example, was frankly depressing. The year had been a cold one, and the forest was not its usual refulgent self. A black bear was hanging around, skinny and sickly from the bad berry crop and probably bound for death by starvation in its winter den. Pink salmon had just begun to spawn in a nearby creek, where their battered bodies were a reminder of the grand cycle of life, yes, but were also an intimately dismal spectacle. Then I discovered a colony of bats, the year’s pups just learning to fly. Not a lot is known about the mortality rate of bats in this fledgling period, but I am inclined to predict it is high. The little ones peeped fearfully before their maiden flights, and with good reason—I watched several crash into the tall grass, unlikely ever to make it home again. They might, at least, make easy meals for the garter snake I saw that had somehow lost half its face.
All of this took place in a valley that, blessed with steep slopes, icy winters, wet summers, and remoteness from the world’s stock exchanges, has somehow retained the full complement of predators, including wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions. I do indeed feel awe in that place, but not much peace. By day I carry pepper spray, and by night I sleep with a twelve-gauge shotgun close at hand, because a couple of years ago a bear tried to break into my “cabin”—a ninety-year-old homestead shack that can’t even keep out the rain—in the first light of dawn. If a god is in charge of the area, he is surely of the mercurial, Old Testament variety.
The idea that nature is a bittersweet and sometimes forbidding place is not, as they say, currently trending. More prevalent is the view reflected in a recent caution from the Chicago Manual of Style editors that capital-N “Nature” is to be used only to denote “a goddess dressed in a flowing garment and flinging fruit and flowers everywhere.” The comment is tongue-in-cheek, but the point is well taken. The natural world is increasingly seen as a gentle and giving realm of the spirit. In some cases, this view is actively religious or quasireligious, whether we are speaking of the biosphere as the provident Earth Mother, the being-of-beings that is James Lovelock’s Gaia, or simply the handiwork of one or another god. But above all else, the actual experience of being in nature seems to affirm its essential holiness. The natural world feels like a spiritual respite: a literal sanctum, where we are safe to reconnect to what is larger than ourselves. Compared to the cosmic rhythms of mountain, sea, and sky, it is ordinary daily life—driving at rush hour, punching security codes, navigating a shape-shifting digital culture—that seems hostile.
Yet there is a serious problem with our idea of sacred nature, and that is that the idol is a false one. If we experience the natural world as a place of succor and comfort, it is in large part because we have made it so. Only 20 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is still home to all the large mammals it held five hundred years ago, and even across those refugia they are drastically reduced in abundance. The seas have lost an estimated 90 percent of their biggest fish. For decades there were almost no wolves, grizzly bears, or even bald eagles in the lower 48, and modern recovery projects have brought them back to only a small fraction of their former ranges. Scientists speak of an “ecology of fear” that once guided the movements and behavior of animals that shared land- and seascapes with toothy predators—an anxiety that humans once shared. In much of what’s left of the wild, that dread no longer applies even to deer or rabbits, let alone us. The sheer abundance and variety of the living world, its endless chaos of killing and starving and rutting and suffering, its routine horrors of mass death and infanticide and parasites and drought have faded from sight and mind. We have rendered nature an easy god to worship.
If humankind’s relationship to the wild were to be embodied by just one of the gods we have invented, I would nominate Janus, the twin-faced deity of the ancient Romans. Our sense of the divine can connect us to nature, but it can divide us from it as well. Spirituality can help us see ourselves as kindred to every living and nonliving thing, all sprung from the same celestial dust. This primeval understanding remains deep and broad today, revealed everywhere from the Garden of Eden story shared in one form or another by Christians, Jews, and Muslims; to the Tibetan name for Mount Everest, Chomolungma, the Holy Mother; to $2,995 shamanic journeys of reconnection to Mother Earth in Sedona, Arizona, complete with one-night vision quests, “weather permitting.” On the other hand, spirituality has long been used to place ourselves on a pedestal above the rest of creation. The Garden of Eden story includes instructions to “fill the earth and subdue it” and to “have dominion” over every living thing, among other phrases that amount to a mission statement for latter-day capitalism; Mount Everest is a challenge to be conquered; and that same Arizona wilderness retreat promises to refresh the “natural power that is your birthright.”
Old Janus has been staring in these opposite directions a long time—the tension between being a part of nature and standing apart from it is elemental to what it means to be human. “The archaeological record encodes hundreds of situations in which societies were able to develop long-term sustainable relationships with their environments, and thousands of situations in which the relationships were short-lived and mutually destructive,” wrote the Arizona State University anthropologist Charles Redman in his seminal 1999 book Human Impact on Ancient Environments. The pattern Redman points to is not, as some might suppose, divided neatly between destructive societies in the lineage of so-called Western civilization and sustainable societies in the more earth-toned traditions often associated with, for example, Native Americans. A recent scientific review of human impacts on the oceans found “overwhelming” evidence that aboriginal coastal cultures “often” depleted their local environments; in fact, the editors speculate that it may have been the struggle to survive in increasingly degraded surroundings that gave rise to the conservation values that many Native Americans appear to have held at the time of European contact. If so, then 1492 was a clash of Janusian timing: European nations reveling in the discovery of God-given riches just as Native American cultures were formulating a spiritual understanding of natural limits.
We know which of those two worldviews prevailed in the centuries that followed—a history that astounds us with the extinction or near-extinction of even the most superabundant creatures, from the great auk to the buffalo to the Atlantic cod, though these iconic species are best thought of only as reminders of a wholesale assault on animate life that left no species unscarred. In the midst of it all, a countercurrent emerged. A small minority of people still mark the beginnings of that turning with the 1864 book Man and Nature, by George Perkins Marsh, a pioneer of ecological thought. With the exhausting thoroughness of autodidactic science-geekery, he presented an inventory of “the extent of the changes produced by human action in the physical conditions of the globe we inhabit.” For the most part, however, Marsh is a footnote, massively overshadowed by his more lyrical, less empirical contemporaries. I don’t even need to use their first names: nature writing in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, of Wordsworth and Coleridge, has called on us to see the face of God in every trembling leaf ever since. To do otherwise is to fall into the cold rationalism so often said to have betrayed the wild world.
This modern love of the earth is ironic—it is a reaction against the destruction of nature, but is also a product of that destruction. Witness Great Britain, once home to deep forests, bears, wolves, wild boars, wild oxen. We celebrate England’s Romantic poets for seeing divinity in a landscape that others found dark and threatening. Yet the Romantics were only opening their eyes to a new reality: Almost every threat posed by that wild landscape had been vanquished. By the time of the Romantics, Britain was much as it is today—a deforested island, its fauna largely reduced to butterflies, birds, and hedgehogs.
The pattern repeated itself on the American shore. Thoreau wrote from a forest that had lost its capacity to instill fear in a young man’s heart. (Marsh could have detailed this history for him; Marsh’s childhood home near Woodstock, Vermont, had in his lifetime lost its moose, wolves, and mountain lions, and seen its spruce and hemlock forests replaced with European trees.) Annie Dillard’s pilgrimage to Tinker Creek plays out in a denuded Virginia, and even Edward Abbey, that singular voice of wildest America, went to his deathbed never having seen a free-living grizzly bear. Such versions of nature still inspire wonder—I held a wild hedgehog in my hands last year and was speechless with the thrill of it. In fact, one might argue that the works that have brought us closest to nature have depended on a more welcoming wilderness. But another truth should be foremost in mind: that what we call nature today is a kinder, gentler, more depauperate world than at any time since at least the late Paleozoic, some 300 million years ago. Nature is not a temple, but a ruin. A beautiful ruin, but a ruin all the same.
According to recent statistics, most people on earth now live in cities, with few if any daily reminders of things ecological. There is considerable evidence that this disconnect costs us at a personal level. Among the most durable findings in the field of environmental psychology, for example, is that we prefer natural settings over the built environment. Among natural landscapes, we show the greatest preference for open spaces dotted with trees, with a little water nearby. (Picture the views from the apartments that border Central Park in Manhattan; as the biologist E. O. Wilson puts it, “To see most clearly the manifestations of human instinct, it is useful to start with the rich.”) These preferences have a consistency across cultures and generations that approaches evolutionary natural law.
I want to call attention to two aspects of these discoveries. The first is that the salient feature of our most preferred environments—savannalike spaces—is long sightlines, which would have helped us to survive the eons when our species was still a link in the wild food chain. In other words, we prefer nature when it is unthreatening, and on that count, we have had our wish. The second point is that we nonetheless have a deeply embedded psychological attachment to the living world. Having lost our daily communion with that world, our modern spiritualization of it can be seen as a kind of prosthetic—or, if you prefer, a way of turning up the volume on a signal that is increasingly faint. We have created an imaginary connection with nature because we lack a tangible one, and we carry that connection in spirit because we no longer follow it in body. The sense of the divine that many feel in wild places is less a bond with nature than it is another symptom of the absence of that bond.
Ecologically speaking, this sanctified nature is not nearly enough. “We live more and more in an enchanted illusion of what nature is, which I think is counterproductive to conservation,” says the Cornell University biologist Harry Greene. It’s the back half of that statement—counterproductive to conservation—that contains surprises. At the time, Greene was responding to the movement that seeks, in effect, to protect feral mustang horses in the American West from natural life and death, permitting neither human culling nor wild predation nor starvation from drought or harsh winters, and instead using pharmaceutical contraceptives to control the population. This approach falls close to the farthest end of the spectrum of enchantment, where we find “end of suffering” activists who see a high moral calling in technocratic intervention against every cruelty that regulates natural systems: no more frogs swallowed alive by snakes, no more calf elk gored by grizzlies in front of their mothers’ eyes, no more exhausted hummingbirds drowned during their arduous migration across the Gulf of Mexico. “Let’s aim to be compassionate gods,” concludes one essay from the end-of-suffering sect, “and replace the cruelty of Darwinian life with something better.”
But such extreme examples aren’t necessary. We might instead simply reflect upon the ecological consequences of our having created a wild world that has, for the most part, liberated us from fang and claw and distanced us from unseemly reality. Writing in the 2010 book Trophic Cascades, editors John Terborgh and James Estes, both prominent ecologists, describe the simplification of nature’s architecture by human actions as a crisis “every bit as serious, universal, and urgent as climate change.” When fishermen’s nets fill not with fish but jellyfish; when pestilent tsetse flies spread with the scrublands once held in check by browsing elephants; when overpopulating deer eat the flower gardens of suburban America—all of these bear the markings of the ecological cascade. Here’s one example that hints at the scale of the losses: The best available estimate suggests that whales before whaling ate up nearly 65 percent of the energy—as transformed into living things—produced yearly in the world’s oceans. Paradoxically, however, the same seas that teemed with ravenous whales also brimmed with other creatures great and small, from swordfish to shad to oysters. They did so, paradoxically, in seas that despite the whales’ ravenous appetites would have seemed nearly to burst with creatures great and small, from swordfish to shad to oysters. “We know very little about the direct and indirect effects of reducing whale populations by more than 90 percent, but they must be substantial,” note Terborgh and Estes, with the typical restraint of lifelong scientists. It’s knowledge that could be of some use to us right now. By conservative estimates, a single animal—us—now consumes at least a quarter of the annual productivity of the planet, with the critical difference that our myriad hungers are satisfied only at enormous expense to the abundance and variety of species.
Are we to blame a global society’s accumulating insults against the biosphere on people who meditate in the desert or find divinity beneath the redwoods? No. But the way you see the world determines much about the world you are willing to live in, and the spiritual lens has failed us as a tool for seeing clearly. Here are Terborgh and Estes again: “There is little public awareness of impending biotic impoverishment because the drivers of collapse are the absence of essentially invisible processes . . . and because the ensuing transformations are slow and often subtle, involving gradual compositional changes that are beyond the powers of observation of most lay observers.” Our collective response to these shifts in our surroundings, as Michael Soulé, a founding figure in conservation biology, puts it, is to “excuse, permit, and adapt.” The romanticization of a denatured living world is one such adaptation. We have turned a fierce and ambiguous nature into a place of comfort, and if we embrace the result as a sanctuary of the soul, to be visited every second or third long weekend, then we may ultimately see little purpose in returning to a deeper and more risky engagement. We’ll end up with the twin faces of Janus both looking the same direction, having found all the wildness we need in the tamed.
Every year, I try to return to that cabin where the bears roam and the salmon spawn and die, and the baby bats risk their new lives in fragile flight. There is no road; the access is by train, or by boat across a river of terrifying cold and current. I once told people that I went there for the peace and quiet, to escape into the sublime, and that was not entirely a lie. But I have to admit that I often feel a growing dread as the moment of entry into that wilderness approaches. It’s not the solace of mountain and forest that keeps drawing me back. It is something more demanding.
Every day in that wild place is an opportunity to pass time with eagles, ravens, toads, snakes, moose, grouse, salmon, and the year’s local black bear, which somehow always seems to be everywhere at all times. I often find myself filled with wonder, but the challenge of living nearer to nature will never be having to cope with more beauty, or that our hearts may explode from so much swelling. Instead, the challenge comes from the wilderness’s countless mortal shocks, from maggots teeming in the brainpan of a dead deer, to the steady watchfulness required of life among large predators, to weirdly disturbing realizations such as that adult mayflies have no mouths, no digestive tracts, no anuses. Yet another memory from this past year’s visit leaps to mind: a strange preponderance of bleeding tooth fungus, Hydnellum peckii, which weeps transparent beads of red liquid across the white pulp of its mushroom cap. If the bleeding tooth fungus is the answer to any question, that question could only be, “Why?”
If the modern spiritualization of nature is the product of distance and diminishment, observations such as these are the opposite, the outcome of muddy hands and scratched skin, of having time to waste in places where our species is a curiosity and potential source of protein. Slowly, haltingly, I am coming to see the community of species around my cabin with the same eyes with which I have come to see other communities—to the extent that even that word, community, sounds clinical and precious to my ears. Think instead of your friendships, or your neighborhood, those fragile constructions of toleration and embrace, of the heartwarming and the bleak. We understand our friends and neighbors as imperfect, even essentially tragic, and yet, at our best, we know that they are a part of us—that we are enriched when they are enriched, impoverished when they are impoverished. I am still new to the neighborhood of salmon, cedar, and raven, and I won’t claim any insight into their world that is more profound than this: I feel their absence when I leave, and it’s their presence that always draws me back again.
It hasn’t been my experience that full-force nature directs the mind toward thoughts of positive vibrations or divine master plans. Nature itself is enough, its stories written in blood and shit and electrons and birdsong, and in this we may ultimately find all the sacredness we seem to need.
One final story: Several years ago, I interviewed a woman named Sally Mueller who had moved with her family from New Mexico to the remote Tatlayoko Valley of British Columbia. She had, in effect, made the decision that I have never found myself quite ready to make—to seek a life in the wilderness. There, many happy years later, she was charged by a sow grizzly protecting her cubs. The animal stopped only inches away and, roaring, swiped with a paw, slicing through two layers of clothing and the flesh of Mueller’s thumb. Only then did the mother bear’s fury drain away. The grizzly retreated; the scales of life and death tilted back into balance; the crawl of time returned to its regularly scheduled programming.
“It was really a highly spiritual experience for me,” Mueller said. She shared that revelation cautiously, aware that it would be difficult to understand. But in those terrible instants, she said, she knew that the bear was only doing what it must, and so was she, and so, too, were even the meadow grasses and the trees, the earth and the sky, and all of it was blurred into a pattern too infinite and ancient to explain. At last, Mueller found the words for the feeling: “It was just like coming home.”