I was fortunate to grow up in a family where sensitivity to nature was nurtured. We lived on a farm with daily interactions with the natural world. I got to know nature as something that sustains us but also learned that nature needs to be treated with respect.
One of my chores on the farm was to water the chickens. This involved carrying a bucket of water from the spigot by our house to the chicken coop a distance away. I had to make several trips across the yard to fill the chickens’ water dispensers. This daily chore was more than a job for me. I knew that without water the chickens would die.
The chickens—like all the other farm animals —were not pets; yet, we cared for them in an affectionate sort of way and, at times, even gave them names. We were taught to treat the wildlife around us with respect, as well. If we caught fireflies in the evening, we had to release them before we went to bed. If we found a bird’s nest in the tree, we knew it was OK to look but not to touch.
Obviously, not everyone is sensitive and caring towards nature. I learned this early when a neighbor girl, Barbara, and I were playing in our barn. We discovered a nest of baby birds in the haymow. These birds must have been just a few days old, as they were very small and had no feathers. With their eyes still closed, they were certainly defenseless. “We shouldn’t touch them,” I said. Imagine how horrified I was when Barbara picked up one of the baby birds and threw it at me. She laughed at my shocked reaction and threw another baby bird at me as I ran to get away.
Many years later as an adult vacationing on the California coast, I witnessed another incident involving the callus treatment of baby birds. From my hotel balcony, I could see the Pacific Ocean. Looking directly down, however, I could see the hotel swimming pool. Apparently, some people would rather swim in a chlorinated pool than in the ocean!
I was up early one morning and watched as the maintenance men cleaned the area around the pool. After carefully removing debris from the pool, they sprayed the surrounding pavement and wiped all the tables and chairs. They then used a long pole to shake the branches of the trees. They kept shaking and hitting the branches until a birds’ nest fell to the pavement. There were several baby birds in the nest. One man used a shovel to scoop up the nest and the birds. He threw them in the dumpster. From there, the men might have gone to breakfast. Keeping the pool area clean was just a part of their job.
Our emotional attachment to the natural world determines, to a large extent, how comfortable or uncomfortable we are with actions that cause harm to other living things. Researchers – especially in the field of ecopsychology – suggest that humans have a natural affinity for other forms of life. Harvard Professor, E.O. Wilson, called this affinity “biophilia” and defined it as an innate love of living systems. So how is then that some people seem to have no qualms about killing baby birds and willfully hurting other forms of life? Some eco-philosophers, including Johanna Macy and Arne Naess, suggest the underlying problem is a psychological detachment from nature versus an emotional attachment to it. This detachment allows us to view the world of nature as simply a set of resources to be used for our enjoyment and material advantage.
Today, many people know nature primarily in the abstract or as a backdrop to their daily lives. They might watch nature documentaries on TV and hear about nature through the news media, but they don’t feel a personal relationship with the natural world. For some, this results in a psychological detachment from nature and a lack of sensitivity to other living things.
Thomas Berry in The Sacred Universe says that what’s needed today to save the environment and ourselves is “an ecologically sensitive personality.” The great work of our time, Berry says, is to reconnect to the natural world. Richard Louv in the Nature Principle also calls for a shift in the human/Earth relationship. Some suggestions he offers on how to do this include:
- incorporating nature and the care of nature in the places where we live and work;
- making bio-diverse parks, urban forests, and community gardens integral parts of our urban environments;
- promoting local, family-scale sustainable sources of food;
- developing nature-based schools and other nature-based experiential learning opportunities; and
- balancing screen time (time with electronic devices) with time in nature.
Strengthening our emotional bonds with the natural world will do more than save baby birds. By deepening our psychological attachment to nature, we’ll be giving ourselves and all other living creatures a better chance of a healthy, sustainable future.