After reading about the sometimes ragged, sometimes technical, and always human-influenced future of wild nature and conservation strategies in Rambunctious Garden (Emma Marris), I decided to dwell a little in the aftermath of her book and reflect on the idea of what nature means to people. Whereas Marris’s book focused on what conservation efforts might look like in the future, it didn’t step into the fuzzier realm of why nature is important to people personally, culturally, spiritually, psychologically or otherwise. Enter Yale University professor of forestry and environmental studies Stephen Kellert. His book, Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World promised to examine “why human beings need to connect with nature and what is lost when they are disconnected from the natural world.” I thought the two would be interesting to read back-to-back, to let their ideas bump into one another in my head—and I was right.
Kellert argues that human health and well-being are indelibly linked to nature, and that having a connection with nature is an essential birthright of being human. Whereas Marris dove deep into the idea of what qualifies as “nature,” “natural,” and “wilderness,” Kellert spends little time on this (birds in the backyard will do), and instead focuses on the characteristics of our interactions with nature. He believes that our intellectual and emotional capacities, even our ability to find meaning in life, hinge on our relationship with nature. And in a world where people increasingly live indoors, with less direct experience of nature, he believes that we are losing vital elements of ourselves: our health, our intellect, our capacities for affection and reason.
Along with E.O. Wilson, Kellert was a developer of the biophilia concept. He writes that it’s a complex process, involving not just a “love of life,” but also a framework that describes how we “attach meaning to and derive benefit from the natural world.” Attraction, reason, aversion, expolitation, affection, dominion, spirituality and symbolism form the warp and weft of this framework, according to Kellert and Wilson’s theory. These categories also form the structure for Birthright, with each one becoming a chapter unto itself.
In Chapter One, Attraction, I was able to see how this is the main gateway that draws people into nature studies. Many people are initially drawn to nature for reasons of aesthetics: a beautiful bird such as a roseatte spoonbill or baltimore oriole gets them hooked on bird watching perhaps. Or a stunning sunset gets them into landscape photography, and so they seek out places with beautiful scenery or where attractive birds live or migrate. But as they look deeper, they become attracted on a level deeper than mere looks. They learn about the processes of the ecosystems in the landscape they love; or the life cycle and behavior of the birds they adore gazing at. And upon learning they are even more attracted to these things because they find wonder or intellectual stimulation or a deeper kind of beauty. I’m like this, in that I find myself drawn to certain animals or certain places. It’s often difficult to say why exactly, you simply know you enjoy it; it seems so fundamental that I often wonder why other people don’t seem to feel this too.
In the following chapter, Reason, Kellert discusses the various ways in which exposure to nature from an early age can foster intellectual development. He references research on a people called the Fore from Papua New Guinea who have no written language and no formal education and yet they can name at least 1,400 species of plants and animals and they can correctly identify 110 of the 120 scientifically named birds in their forests — without the use of binoculars or spotting glasses. Drawing on research done by Jared Diamond, Kellert writes: “like all peoples, [the Fore] utilize their knowledge of the natural world to advance their intellectual development, a capacity every bit as fundamental to human fitness and well-being as is the material utilization of nature.” Although many of the species they could name had no practical use to them, Kellert argues that they used them to foster cognitive development and growth of their minds.
I found the chapter on dominion (Chapter Six) to be one of the more interesting. I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with the idea of humans having dominion over nature and yet Kellert showed me there is value in dominion. As an example, he cites nature programs like Outward Bound which teach adolescents wilderness and survival skills as ways of fostering self-esteem or helping them through troubled times. By mastering the ability to take care of themselves out-of-doors, they learn compassion, cooperation, respect, and communication. They develop friendships and gain a sense of belonging. That’s a sort of dominion I can understand. This chapter showed me that what I’m uncomfortable with is the scale that dominion can be taken to, which can be dysfunctional both for wild nature and for us (for destroying so much of it). But here again, Kellert surprised me. He references ideas put forth by conservationist Rene Dubos who recognized that there are many landscapes in the world that society cherishes and which were transformed by people, for example, the southwestern cliff dwellings and the terraced rice slopes of Southeast Asia. These and others have been transformed by people and yet they remained “ecologically productive and appealing to residents and transients alike.” Kellert acknowledges that societies that created these tended to emerge and execute their changes on the land rather slowly, whereas today technologies and machines have enabled people to enact radical and large-scale changes to the land rapidly. Still, Kellert somehow manages to be buoyed by optimism. He writes: “I share… conviction that the human need to control nature, even in the modern world, can be shaped so as to sustain and even enrich nature.”
Wow. And that last point is where I can envision Marris and Kellert sitting down to share a coffee and discuss how wonderful Earth will be in 1,000 years, while I struggle to remain hopeful we’ll still have forests and large mammals a few hundred years from now. But perhaps by exposing my son to nature as much as possible (we currently speed hike on the wooded trails around Asheville, he gets tucked into a shoulder-backpack so I carry an extra 28+ pounds which is QUITE the workout), I can help ensure that his childhood is saturated with nature. According to Kellert’s chapter on Childhood, “Freeplay and other spontaneous contact with the outdoors can be an especially potent source of children’s learning and development.” It definitely was for me — growing up, my dad took us fishing and snorkeling in the Gulf of Mexico at least once a month from the time I was in elementary school to high school. Those trips not only fostered bonding between our family members, but they had a great influence upon me. I can recall, quite clearly, feeling completely out of place all week at school, then being out on the boat with dad on the weekend, and literally feeling myself exhale and relax as we wove between the channel markers with land at our backs, a gentle wake spreading out behind us. Being afforded those opportunities to be out of doors, and to explore the Gulf, probably fundamentally structured my interest in and appreciation for nature. Considering that the average kid today spends less than 40 minutes per week outside, I can only hope that my son will grow up a statistical outlier. Like Kellert, I believe he’ll be mentally and intellectually healthier for it.
Kellert ends the book with an argument for a “transformative environmental ethic.” While he acknowledges the scale and urgency of the crisis we’re facing as a society may make this sort of metamorphosis “irrelevant,” he still belives it is necessary to try. And here is where Kellert surprised me again. While most human-centered views of saving nature rely on the tenet of ecosystem serviecs (the idea that we need to save nature because it provides us with beneficial things), Kellert makes a plea to save nature in order to save our humanity. He writes: “A transformative environmental ethic neccessitates a faith that only by living in right and moral relation to nature can we ever flourish and find fulfillment. We come to recognize that in nourishing our emotional attachment to the natural world, we deepen our capacity for love. We see in the beauty of the earth a magnificent accomplishment accessible to us each and every day. We find in even the tiniest of creatures and the smallest of elements an awesome power and strength. We realize that by building a tapestry of relational ties to the natural world, we can weave a cloak of enduring security that may be worn for all our days. We come to recognize that through our reverent respect for the earth we can participate in a community that will always embrace us with an ineffable feeling of connection to the vastness of the universe.”
Overall, this is a very thought-provoking book. It’s written in an academic manner and tone, but without any jargon. Kellert draws both on his personal opinions/observations as well as published peer-reviewed literature. And it’s his personal interjections that infuse this book with a sense of wonderment and respect for the natural world. He shares his feelings toward nature at specific points in his life, from the visual wonder of snorkeling a Caribbean reef to feeling afraid when he heard a pack of wolves chorusing nearby. By revealing his humanity in relation to nature, he helped me to better understand a bit of mine.