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You've Got a Friend in Me: Rethinking Our Relationship with the Natural World

At the end of January, The Atlantic published an article titled, “The Outsize Influence of Your Middle-School Friends”.  Written by Lydia Denworth, a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, the article’s title suggests the main argument: having friends matters, especially when we’re young.  Friendlessness in middle school (sixth grade), Denworth postulates, leads to higher rates of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem in seventh and eighth grade.  However, this does not mean that simply having friends will change or avoid potential mental health issues.  The types of friends students make and keep will greatly influence their own behavior.  And, while this might seem rather straight forward and all about peer pressure, it’s not that simple.  One study found that peer pressure is not about verbal or physical insistence from friends; young people only need to be in the presence of their peers to have their behavior influenced; they don’t need to be goaded or prodded into taking risks.  But what if our friends always welcomed us with open arms?  What if the type of friends we made encouraged good health?  What if simply being in the presence of those friends had real, measurable, positive health benefits such as lowering our blood pressure, turning off our fight or flight response, and increased our levels of oxytocin?  This is the kind of friend you want to kee around.

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At the same time I was reading this article in The Atlantic, I was discussing Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass with my sustainability students.  While I’ve read that landmark text a number of times, on this go-round one chapter stood out to me more than usual.  In “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”, Kimmerer illuminates the way in which language structures reality.  She compares her indigenous Potawatomi (language) to English, revealing that while roughly 70% of English language vocabulary consists of nouns (people, places, things), that same 70% of Potawatomi consists of verbs (actions).  This means that 70% of the language must be conjugated.  In many indigenous languages, it is literally possible “to be a bay”, or a forest: The Lakota word Waníyetu, for instance, means “to be winter” (from Lakota America).   Here’s what that means for the way we think about the world:

In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as it.  That would be a profound act of disrespect.  It robs a person of self-hood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing.  So it is in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family.  Because they are our family. (Kimmerer 55) 

Imagine if we said to our mothers, our fathers, brothers and sisters, “It drives the car”, or “It works to pay bills”.   The way we talk about something can affect the way we think about something.  The way we think about something can affect our mood and overall well-being.  What if we, in the “civilized” west, started thinking more indigenously?  If you and I, dear reader, begin to think of Nature as someone—rather than some thing—that welcomed us with open arms, like a friend or loved one, what would happen?

Now, I am not arguing that Nature, on its own, functions as a silver bullet for loneliness, anxiety, depression, or other mental health related issues or trauma.  Or that Nature should replace all human contact and relationships. Those suffering from any form of mental health related issues should seek professional help in the form of therapy, medication (as directed by a medical professional) diet and exercise.  But Nature Therapy should be part of that solution.  Redefining our relationship with Nature as yet one more form of society or friendship will aid the healing process.

That being said, simply trying to think about the world differently is not enough.  People must engage with the world the same way they would friends or family—with respect.  It would be disrespectful to engage in a conversation with someone while wearing headphones, or to throw trash on the floor of their home or apartment.  Engaging with the natural world means listening, feeling, seeing, and experiencing Nature on its own terms, and it means accepting and believing that it has something of value to teach.  First, take off the headphones or earbuds, just like you would when entering someone’s house, or having lunch with a dear friend; be present; be still and listen; imagine the sounds in the forest or meadow are a conversation.  Nature may speak a different language, but that doesn’t mean we won’t learn something if we sit quietly enough.  Next, see the world around you—really see it; watch the behavior of birds in trees, the movement of leaves on the breeze, the ripples on the water, the grass as it sways, or a squirrel as it forages.  Then, feel: the sun on your skin, the wind on your face, and the dirt, sand or mud between your toes.  If a stream is clear and clean enough, drink its waters.  (John Muir would soak Sequoia cones in water and drink the broth, so as to become “more tree-wise and sequoical”.)  Breath in the perfume of a mixed hardwood or pine forest.  In a relatively short period of time, as in almost instantly, the heart rate will fall, cortisol levels will drop, blood pressure decreases, breathing will become more regular and a general sense of peace and well-being pervades the body.  This is not just some granola-crunching, tree-hugging view of the world—though it is that, and we tree-huggin’ granola-crunchers been tryna tell y’all that for some time.  These are measurable scientific facts.  Scientifically, positive interaction with Nature effects our physiology the same way receiving a hug does: oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) levels rise and norepinephrine and cortisol (hormones associated with stress) levels fall.  In a way, when we walk with and commune with Nature, she thanks us by giving us a big hug, like coming home.  In that sense, Nature truly and literally receives us with open arms. 

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I am not asking readers to abandon human society altogether, to trade one form for another.  Human society, socializing, in measured doses, is essential to our overall well-being; I’m suggesting that we need a supplement to the human.  The most common misreading of Thoreau’s Walden tells us that, in moving to Walden, he was trying to do away with human society completely.  Not so.  Thoreau moved to Walden to learn about living in the natural world what he could not learn about living in the village: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (from Walden).  This, in a sentence, is Thoreau’s great purpose.  While Thoreau remains critical of modern life in his time, it is of its excesses that he really complains.  He seeks not to do away with modern life and society, but to strip it down to its bare essentials. There is a vast difference in those two things.  In so doing, he recognizes that Nature, if we pay close attention, might just have something to teach us about what it means to live.

Thinking and talking about Nature as if she were a living thing—again, in a sense greater than a series of biological processes—helps to reframe the human/Nature relationship.  That is to say, the way that we speak about something shapes the way we think about it; and the way we think about it shapes our behavior toward it.  Language and worldview are intimately tied together.  I suspect it impossible to disentangle the two.  This works on levels other than Nature.  Choose an item from somewhere around you.  If you think of an item as a “piece of shit”, or something lacking value, you are much less likely to treat that thing with respect than an item you greatly care for.  How much more so for the planet we live on.  If we talk about plants and animals as “things”, then things they are, commodities, products to be consumed and goods to be used up.  If, on the other hand, we talk about the natural world as a living being, with agency, then she must be respected as such.  (In choosing the female pronoun, I’m working with the age-old tradition of the idea of the natural world as a mother to us all.)  Thinking and talking about Nature as a commodity leads to abuse: slash and burn farming for grazing of cattle: unlimited burning of fossil fuels: strip mining: mountain-top removal: oceanic pollution: unmitigated consumerism.  If, however, we think and talk about the natural world as something alive and deserving our respect, then that’s how we will treat her: sustainable energy production from wind, water and solar: responsible agriculture: fewer pesticides: less runoff: control of greenhouse gas emissions.  Changing the conversation and the language we use has the potential to literally change the world. 

To see Nature as something other than commodity, as a friend, requires a radical rethinking of the world and our place in it.  Edward Abbey, in his masterpiece Desert Solitaire, encompasses much of what I’m saying here, in a couple sentences:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages.  In the first place, you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus.  When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.  Probably not.  In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast.  This is not a travel guide but an elegy.  A memorial.  You’re holding a tombstone in your hands.  A bloody rock.  Don’t’ drop it on your foot—throw it at something big and glassy.  What do you have to lose?  (xii)

Abbey wrote that in 1967, and that is how he ends his introduction.  If we are going to change our minds, we must leave behind, perhaps even demolish, our previous way of seeing the world.  Abbey leaves us with a dare: “What have you got to lose?”.  The answer, of course, is nothing, but everything to gain. 

Get out there.

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