Ardent Eden

Ardent Eden is a place to explore my thoughts about the interdependence of life - humanity and nature - and to engage with others for collective problem-solving.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Coming to Our Senses

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. - Rachel Carson

The frenzy of December always makes me feel more stressed than festive. I have a few secret weapons that usually help combat the craziness: copious amounts of red wine, cooking up soups and other warm dishes (the vegetable curry from the new Moosewood cookbook has done the trick recently), and taking long walks. Long walks in spring, summer, and autumn are easy in New England. Harsh winds and early sunsets make long winter walks more challenging. But somehow those cold strolls outside always leave me exhilarated. Maybe it's because I can notice the little things that the glory of springtime blooms, the lush green abundance of summer, and autumn's flashy colors obscure with their granduer. When I am aware of my presence as a part of nature by experiencing the natural world outside my windows in every season, a wellspring starts to trickle within me. I want to explore more, to learn be more worthy of the gifts of the earth.

For many, the sensory experiences that come from spending time in nature are the necessary precursors to effective environmental advocacy. I recently read a collection of correspondence between Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman. The two women were intimate friends who shared a deep love of nature -- not just the nature of grandiose mountain vistas or spectacular sunsets, but the nature found in a partially frozen tide pool on the coast of Maine in the dead of winter. In trying to explain the depth of feeling in her writing about the environment, Carson wrote to her friend, “I doubt that I could explain how any particular feeling or effect is achieved…but if there is any simple explanation I think it is that my sensory impressions of, and emotional response to, the world of nature date from earliest childhood, and that the factual knowledge was acquired much later.” Our experiences in nature create sensory responses and feelings that are powerful and formative. They make us hungry for more....and, if we're lucky, they make us the most effective advocates for our environment. What if Rachel Carson had not experienced nature as a child?

The problem is that many of us live lives that lack any regular contact with the natural world. Now, I realize that we all are nature; that is, we are a part of nature. Nature isn't something that we walk out of door into. That said, many of us spend our days in the car, in front of the computer, at the gym on a treadmill, back in the car, then in front of the television for a few hours before bed. It makes it pretty hard to see, smell, taste, touch, or hear the earth. The connection starts to wither, the well begins to dry. If we're lucky, we can call upon fond memories of time spent outdoors as children. We can renew those early moments when our senses ruled our time by walking while looking carefully at our surroundings, breathing deeply in the cold winter air, and slowing down to notice what is alive in nature in any season.

I worry that today's children will not grow up with those deep connections that can sustain us as adults and make us want to preserve and conserve the ecology around us. Richard Louv, an author and columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, wrote an excellent book called Last Child in the Woods about the disconnect between children and nature. Louv describes "nature deficit disorder," his non-scientific term for many children's lack of direct experiences in the natural world. Louv makes a convincing case that this way of living - apart from nature rather than as a part of it - affects kids physically and spiritually. And it's only becoming more common as wilderness areas, parks, and open space decrease at the same rapid pace that the calendars of our kids become booked. Time to explore or lay in the grass and daydream gives way to yet another sports practice or studying for the next state-imposed standardized test. At the same time, the amount of unhindered space dwindles, kids munch on processed food shipped from 3,000 miles away, and the television sucks away imagination. It's all connected and it makes my head spin! (Is it too early for a glass of wine?) The reasons for our collective nature deficit disorder - in children and adults - are a complex tangle of social and environmental factors.

The good news is that the solutions hinge on the flip side of this interconnection. Once we move society onto a more life-affirming path with less television and video games and more time in the woods, for example, there can be a ripple effect. So I'm going to bundle up and head out for a brisk walk and a dose of wonder. Then I'm going to get a hot cup of coffee and get to work on adding my drop to the bucket.


  • At 11:41 AM, Blogger Roger, Gone Green said…

    I couldn't agree more, and applaud the effort! We are a family of five, now, and never wonder if each of our individual efforts matter, nor of the importance of being connected to and aware of the planet we live on. We have seen the effect that greater connectedness to the earth has had on our own kids, and on their friends, and know that (1) we have made a difference today and (2) planted the seeds for even further connectedness with our own kids.

    I understand that winter in the NE is something else (some of my people are from Isle Au Haut, in Maine), but here in SoCal we have an "outdoor living room" in the back yard. Most spring summer and fall meals are taken outdoors, except on the worst of hot or cold days. We note and often celebrate the celestial seasons -- the solstices and equinoxes etc. -- and watch the passage of the moon and sun. (In part because we have solar cells we watch the change of the sun's path from winter to summer.) We bike for transportation a reasonable amount, and this gets us outside in a way that riding in a car cannot.

    We do spend some time in wilderness -- or at least wildland parks -- but like you find that it is perfectly possible to reconnect with nature right where we are.

    It is simply a matter of awareness, and choosing to connect.

  • At 2:49 PM, Blogger Roger, Gone Green said…

    As an aside, for a slightly dated (1970's) but fun read have a peak at the fictional "Ecotopia" by Ernest Callenbach, or the blue-print for action "Ecotopia Emerging." Really excellent, fun books that can give one a glimmer of hope when the paved-over car-centered world is just a little too much. (Now where did I put my copy . . . ah!)

  • At 1:21 AM, Blogger granola RODny said…

    Yes, I like long walks too. Keep up the good work.

  • At 7:44 PM, Blogger farmgirl said…

    A wonderful essay. Thank you for sharing it. : )

  • At 9:41 AM, Blogger lauren said…

    Thanks guys! The first snowstorm of the New England winter hit yesterday - complete with thunder and lightening during the blizzard. Now I've got to practice what I preach and get out there for a snowy walk today.

    Hey Roger - thanks for the book suggestion. I'm going to look for that in my used bookstore wanderings. A fun green read sounds delightful!


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