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Vol 20 No. 1
April 2009

Beyond Nature-Deficit Disorder

By Gene Sager

These days many of us are circling in what I call a cycle of de-naturing. Here is my nephew’s spin: 

On a recent visit I met him at the end of the work day in his windowless cubicle in LA and joined his dizzy cycle for one full loop. This modern warrior marched me down the elevator to the parking garage. From thence in his BMW onto the freeway to his yardless condo. From the condo parking garage up the elevator to his unit, which provides TV, computer, video games, and a place to sleep. Next morning we came full circle: condo elevator, freeway, work parking garage, elevator, and cubicle.

The work day is 8:00 am to 5:00pm, and the commute is an hour one way through the LA megalopolis. The condo provides electronic entertainment and a place to sleep. Weekends are for night clubbing, and for inviting friends over to shout at football and basketball games on the mammoth TV screen.

Our silicon faith tells us there is nothing seriously wrong with this picture, although perhaps people living some version of this lifestyle may need vitamin D fortified cereal? But when I think outside the modern mindset and reflect on the picture, I sense more implications. What happens to us when we are virtually cut off from nature? What are the emotional and spiritual implications along the cycle of de-naturing? This question has taken me on a journey deep inside, back in history, and projected into the future.

The cycle of de-naturing has a semblance of normalcy today because of a deeply ingrained mindset which now dominates in our culture. For our ancient ancestors, nature was filled with kindred spirits which they revered as sacred. This animistic culture was eventually supplanted by monotheism: there is only one God, and God is above and beyond nature. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share this basic belief which de-sacralizes nature. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, evangelism and political pressure divided Europe (and subsequently the New World) into two cultures – Christendom and paganism (nature religion). Paganism was seen as theologically false and politically incorrect.

Witch hunts drove paganism underground and further de-sacralized and de-moted natural forces. Pagans ally themselves with natural forces, so nature is guilty by association with those “awful women”. The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer Against Witches, 1486), a Catholic manual for identifying and arresting witches, is a sign of those strange times in Europe. Nor were Protestants in New England more tolerant at the Salem witch trials.

Industrialization has so impressed recent generations that the primary importance of nature is now as it serves us – that is, its use as a resource. Finally, television and computers have virtualized our lives and absorbed our attention to this extent: We would rather surf the net than walk in the woods; and we find it easier and “safer” to sit the kids in front of the TV than have them play outside.

The safety issue just mentioned is part of what many observers call our modern “fear culture.” Nature has already been de-sacralized and de-moted; today our natural surroundings may even feel threatening to us. Parents see news segments showing bears roaming near residential areas, coyotes approaching elementary school playgrounds, and shark attack victims being whisked away in ambulances. When crimes occur in our national parks, the media jump on the case and follow it through for months. The repetition of these reports in our media make us fearful; people advise their children and friends to take their cell phone if they are going into the woods. Or, perhaps it is better to stay out of the woods. The problems are multiplied by obsessive litigation: a walk through a vacant lot or a pasture can become a law suit if an accident occurs, and well-meaning environmental protection laws may prohibit hiking where endangered species have their habitat. The upshot? – the “great out of doors” is just not fit for humans any more.

Nature-deficient humanoids are grossly unbalanced, yet we do not realize how deprived we are because our modern mindset has us in denial. Some honest reflection can reveal the sorely needed benefits of exposure to nature. Nature fascinates, sooths and calms us, and triggers a sense of awe. Who has not marveled at a butterfly or a hummingbird flitting among the flowers? Scientific studies have shown that even watching fish in an aquarium can calm us and lower elevated blood pressure. Howard Franklin of Emory University points to a statistical study over a ten year period which shows that post-surgery patients recover sooner if their windows look out over a grove. (Patients whose windows look out at a brick wall are much slower in recovering.) Statistical studies are informative, but as Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” The time-honored wisdom of common sense is due a hearing as well; viewing a starry night sky, or walking on a beach or shoreline can calm us down and give us perspective when our nerves are frayed.

The deepest and most important experience brought on by natural surroundings is that of awe. The terms “awe” and “awesome” are so overworked nowadays that their meaning is extremely vague. An ice cream can be “awesome”, and the Grand Canyon is “awesome” too. My friends breathed “awesome” with one accord when a Chinese gymnast flew around the huge arena suspended on wires at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. It certainly was impressive and amazing, but I am using “Awesome” (with a capital A for good measure) to refer to something that is vast, not created by human beings, and incredibly old. The ice cream and the flying gymnast don’t measure up to this standard.

When we suffer from de-naturing, we begin to forget; we lose the feeling of how vast the physical universe is. When asked to identify the biggest thing of all, my friend’s second grade student had it right: the sky is the biggest thing of all. And even the experience of a tiny hummingbird or a brook is a glimpse of a vast ecosystem. Though human civilization is now large and impressive, it does not compare to nature in size or age. Nature existed before human beings. We depend on nature for our very life. Human civilization may be awesome with a small a; nature is Awesome with a big A.

When we allow ourselves to experience nature and savor how Awesome it is, we are released from the tension and narrowness of modern human civilization. We are given respite and our lives become deeper and broader. There is clearly a spiritual dimension here. One of the fundamental principles of spiritual life is the transcendence of both materialism and worldly success. Spiritual experience helps us rise above worldliness. This does not mean literal withdrawal from the world; it means not being emotionally committed to these worldly values. Even an atheist or agnostic can accept this principle of transcendence. Experiencing the Awesome qualities of nature is a benefit anyone can enjoy.

Do we have to go to a pristine wilderness to experience these qualities of nature? Purists would insist on wild, pristine nature as the only “real” nature. However, domesticated nature such as landscaped yards and green areas of parks are nature nonetheless. (“Green” here means natural surroundings and can include natural desert.) Whether pristine or domesticated, we obviously need to conserve natural surroundings for ourselves and our children. Some of us have the time and inclination to campaign for large scale programs to create green areas. One of the more creative ideas is roof top gardens; Chicago’s city hall is a lovely example. Some cities, such as Portland, Oregon have general plans to control growth and create a “green belt” around the city. Support for environmental organizations can open up and maintain green areas such as National Parks. In the cities, there are perennial battles to create more safe natural recreation areas and to institute more environmental programs in the schools.

But these changes can take time. In the meantime, how can an urbanite find already existing places to experience nature and keep body and soul together? Outings that require some preparation like camping may not be practical for many of us, especially if they involve travel time and fuel. So, consider starting at home: don’t hire out landscaping and gardening. Even if the space is small, get your hands dirty. Moving beyond the home, each of us needs to know the local environs by using maps and by scouting it out. I was surprised to find out how many lovely, safe parks, large and small, are available near my home. Depending on the location and time of day, walking with a friend or family member may be advisable, and a good sharing experience. Some cities (Cleveland, for example) have residential areas with large yards of trees, shrubs and grass. A walk through Cleveland Heights is a domesticated nature walk. Other such areas include high school and college campuses and some church properties.

Experience of natural surroundings should be frequent because emotional and spiritual balance require regular maintenance. Weekend nature experiences and occasional visits to National Parks are not enough. But people tell me that when it comes right down to it, there is just not enough time in the day to spend even a half hour in natural surroundings. The solution I offer in a single word is “simplicity.” If we reduce the complexity of our lives by reducing our expenses, possessions, activities, and commitments, we open up more free time and new choices. If we stop driving gas guzzlers and stop buying needless gadgetry, we reduce our expenses and we conserve nature at the same time. Less work to gain income, less to manage, less to do, and less to worry about. In a phrase, unclutter your garage and you unclutter your mind: an unexpected spiritual perk. Practicing simplicity means more free time, so more time is available to refresh ourselves in nature surroundings. Simplicity yields manifold benefits: less strain on nature, less strain on ourselves, and more time to spend in nature.