Lessons Outside the Classroom

I work in the personal growth industry. For many years, I’ve worked with thousands of people who, though focused on different goals, share in common the desire to become happier, healthier individuals. While the personal growth industry offers countless tools and techniques for improving one’s life, I feel compelled to address an aspect of personal development and exploration close to my heart. That aspect is nature. More specifically, the connection – or lack thereof – we have to nature.

I suppose it’s rather normal to look to nature as a means of personal transformation. It’s certainly not a new concept. Thoreau, Carson, Muir, Bugbee, Beeston, and others have demonstrated that when we can become silent, reverent, and watchful of nature, it will teach us a great many of things untaught in classrooms. Although it no longer feels like it to most of us, watching nature is really a way of watching ourselves.

Watching nature is not merely observing something “out there,” but also “in here” in the deepest, most existential way. The more we gaze into the ocean, the more we see a reflection of ourselves. The more we spend time among the trees, the more we are reminded of our kinship with them. The more we go into the deserts, the freer we are to see ourselves without distraction. So nature isn’t just a series of places or things, but an environment, our natural environment, the environment from which we humans were planted and grew. And no matter who you are, or how you view nature, you are, in fact, a product of the physical environment.

But for most of us living in the new millennium, nature is “out there,” beyond the steel and glass of our cities, away from power lines and power lunches, removed from the fabricated environments where we spend most of our lives. To most of us, nature is mainly a place without the things we’re accustomed to having around us; not just objects, but also sounds, smells, tactile sensations. Indeed, nature has become, in light of our industrialized, mechanized, digitized environments, something “other,” like a foreign land, with different customs and citizens speaking in unknown tongues. Even in this age of SUVs, state-of-the-art camping gear, and Global Positioning Satellites – things designed to facilitate our contact with nature – we somehow seem more removed from nature than ever before. I sit before my laptop, in the certain and comforting environment of a thriving metropolis. Yet only a few miles away, the din of city life is silenced, and replaced by sounds and sensations I’m not attuned to.

Ironically, when we are in nature, away from “civilization,” it does not often feel “natural.” It feels alien, uncertain, perhaps even scary. Few of us live more than twenty miles away from a forest, river, mountain, lake, desert, or ocean. Yet aside from occasional excursions, we rarely really get to know this territory. Nature exists on the vague periphery of modern awareness, and because of this it has become a place of uncertainty and danger.

A friend of mine who lives in a rather crime-ridden urban area recently went to spend a week hiking in the Alaskan tundra to get away from the tension and turbulence of city life. What had inspired the trip was that he had been mugged at knifepoint in a church parking lot a month before. After that trauma he decided he needed a break from the city. Before he left, his mother warned him not to go to the wilds of Alaska for fear of the many dangers “out there.” Despite what he had been through with the mugging, she would have preferred that he stay home, where he would be “safe.”

A mother’s well-meaning concern. But it shows not only the degree of separation we’ve developed in our relationship with nature but also the kind of desensitization we’ve developed about the very real dangers of human society all around us. It’s not that being away from our cities and offices and houses is any more or less dangerous than traversing a cascade ridge, or sailing the high seas. Indeed, being in the wilderness is often safer than walking the well-populated streets of our cities. But life and risk go hand in hand. And sometimes it seems that we have become too comfortable with the known set of risks we’ve generated for ourselves. We’re so used to crime, pollution, and mental and emotional stress, that we barely recognize them as threats anymore. Of course there are risks in nature. But when we’ve exhausted ourselves on the challenges and excesses of the digital age, where can we turn but to nature for new experiences?

Perhaps what disturbs us most about nature is that it reminds us that our manufactured sense of “control” over our environment we’ve created is illusory. It does something unusual to one’s ego to stand at the brink of the Grand Canyon, to stare into the vastness of space from high desert at midnight, or to walk along the edge of a continent with the immense ocean surging at your feet. It reminds us of our utter smallness.

Small or not, we have managed, through our constant struggles against each other, against nature, against disease, against death, to wreak enormous damage on the ecosystem designed to sustain us. Yet while we affect these forces, we do not control them; indeed, we’re often at their mercy. And when we spend time in their direct presence, we may feel that the stored up sense of power we have in our ego-selves is immediately siphoned out of us, stolen by forces we neither control nor completely understand. We are, in a sense, drawn out of ourselves and into something greater through this vulnerability. For some, this is a blissful experience of connection with something divine and mysterious. For others, it’s a terrifying object lesson in the flimsiness of human ego constructs.

Either way, the point is that nature is not “the other.” We are not separate from nature but a manifestation of it. We need not vilify nor deify nature in order to understand our place within it. Nature is not a foreign land – not heaven or hell – but home. Perhaps nature can be thought of as an element of our collective identity we’ve forgotten. “Human nature” seems to stand in stark contrast with nature proper. But while we may have withdrawn into the recesses of city and suburban life, only venturing into nature for a weekend fishing trip or drive along the coastline highways, nature remains a powerfully compelling presence capable of transforming and awakening us to ourselves and to our natural home.

I feel that it’s important to develop a balanced perspective when we talk of our “relationship” with nature. We ask of nature things nature does not always willingly provide. We want to see beauty, order, purity. Author and naturalist Barry Lopez provides a thoughtful sense of this balance when he reminds us that our collective notion of nature has grown somewhat nave. Today, our contact with nature is often made through the sanitized interface of video, books, television specials. Media lends itself to whitewashing the more mundane elements of reality while sensationalizing those aspects that appeal to our sense of aesthetics and fantasy. Lopez believes that many people today have developed a kind of idealized “made-for-television” concept of nature where the sun always shines, butterflies flutter sweetly overhead, and all is beauty, peace, and grace. This, Lopez reminds, is not nature in its entirety. Nature is not always rated a safe “PG.”. Nature can challenge our sense of beauty, perfection, and goodness. It can open us to the very things we often seek to escape; pain, death, violence. Some speak of the “harsh reality” of nature. But while we barely flinch when hearing of the daily murders, rapes, and train wrecks reported on the evening news, we feel ill-prepared to watch a pack of wolves stalk, attack, and kill an elk after a long, exhausting, and bloody battle between hunters and prey. The clear irony is that our minds are far more tolerant of the needless cruelty perpetrated by our own kind than to witness the simple actions of natural survival.

Nature is not an idealized fairyland. It’s sometimes dirty, gritty, bloody, even unfair and ugly by “civilized” standards. But this makes nature capable of providing our minds and spirits with something sorely lacking in many lives today; contact with something genuine. It can challenge us to embrace the more difficult facts of our physical existence on a planet alive and ever-changing.

I went to college with a talented artist named John Farrell. John is a sculptor. When I first met John he was sculpting using tools; he always carried around a little bag full of chisels, picks, knives of various sorts. He used these implements to make beautiful little carvings of animals, totem poles, and fish. One day I noticed that he didn’t have his carving implements with him and I asked him what was up. “I got rid of them,” he said matter-of-factly. “I realized that those tools were keeping me at a distance from the art. I was using them to make art, rather than using me.” John explained that he felt he had lost touch with the medium of the clay he was working with because he never really touched it. His hands were always clean and soft. He always used his tools. So by using his own two hands rather than the implements, he began to make some truly outstanding pieces. It was hard work, and in some ways, his art took on a rough, unrefined appearance. Yet they also looked the way he wanted them to; as a piece of nature produced by another piece of nature.

The moral here is simply this: our contact with nature ought not to be solely through the media, but through a direct contact with it. It’s ok to get your hands dirty.

That we are products of our environment is an undeniable fact. As I write this I sit at a local pub. I’m surrounded by the elements of modern life. There are five high definition television sets broadcasting the latest sporting events and news. Hit music drones overhead thanks to a digital radio station. I’ve been supplied with water, a cocktail, and anything else I might request in terms of nourishment. The room is warm, unlike the air a few feet away, which is downright frigid. Nature, the way most people view it, doesn’t factor in here, in this place of total comfort. But transport me a mere few miles away, and I would find myself cold, and likely unsure of what the next few hours would bring in terms of survival challenges.

So what can we hope to learn from nature when most of us are so thoroughly insulated from it? In two words: balance and transcendence.

In ecology, there is the notion of natural equilibrium; the belief that nature, if left to its own machinations, will achieve an inherent balance. The organisms that inhabit nature are adapted to one another, and often survive thanks to a range of symbiotic relationships. While there is great debate as to whether the actions of humans should be considered a part of this symbiosis, there can be no denying that, if that’s the case, humans have managed to do far more to upset the natural balance than support it. Indeed, civilization, in the common way of defining it, has to be considered parasitic in that it provides nature little in return for what it takes from it to survive.

But while we may have failed nature in a macrocosmic sense, we can reestablish a relationship with nature on an individual level. Perhaps, say some, this is the only way in which to replace what we’ve taken from our natural environment; to engender an understanding and appreciation of nature on a deeply personal level.


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