Caught in the throes of the information age, with smartphones galore and the distractions of the digital revolution, it can be easy for someone to forget the intimate connection all of humanity recently shared with nature. Even in the West, where industry and technology found their deepest roots, there was a great deal of interaction and familiarity man had toward animals and plants, enough humility to kneel before landscapes and weather. And it was not limited to pets or what a man could see in his backyard. Children still had to go outside and play, since Halo and Skyrim were not around to entertain us.
For one example among many, look at how we view the consumption of meat. Decades ago, killing animals for their meat was a matter of survival. When your meat is prepackaged and available by the truckload at Safeway, on the other hand, there’s no reminder of what it is to take an animal’s life: grim, but useful and often necessary. So, the death of any animal, even to provide food or medicine or clothing, seems cruel and unfair to someone who has never had to kill something. And that is how some people begin to see slaughterhouses as concentration camps, and react with moral outrage when they are reminded of where their meat comes from. However, except for rare cases of cruelty to animals before their death, such a reaction is unwarranted. Hunters and farmers have a greater exposure to nature and know better than that. They kill animals quickly and humanely, and know that a butcher is not always a cruel figure. I doubt most vegans would last a week in an Inuit camp, where almost every scrap of food is some sort of meat or fat.
Another way we have been deprived of nature is the staggering number of children who have been raised away from it. Most kids have grown up with video games and sports for pastimes. Particularly in urban areas, only camping trips and the meager offerings of the local park are there to sate their appetite for any world aside from the artificial one, the one carefully sculpted to please human sensibilities and comfort zones. If you want anything more exotic, you’ll need to rent Planet Earth DVDs or watch National Geographic specials. Good luck convincing an overprotective parent that their children are impoverished by being kept indoors all day.
But the forgotten world of animals, foliage, caves, and mountains should always be available to them. Nature will always be with us, and has taken root in the very core of human nature. We cannot afford to neglect it. Its benefits and beauty and complexity are forgotten and unheeded when we reduce it to a few weeks in summer camp, or neatly manicured lawns and houses where any species not under our direct control is labeled a “pest” and rapidly exterminated.
My parents gave me a unique gift by moving out into a rural area of Colorado, and letting me go outside. Zoos and natural history museums (and when we were still in California, the Monterrey Bay Aquarium) were our family outings. Fossils and rocks were pretty much the only things I thought were worth collecting. (Well, them and old dinosaur movies, but that’s for another post) I got to harvest tadpoles from the neighbors’ pond, and regularly caught toads and garter snakes and horned lizards and tiger salamanders around our house. God only knows how many ant farms and fish I’ve kept over the years. Our household has been home not only to the requisite dogs and cats, but to brine shrimp and goats alongside iguanas and corn snakes, rats and gerbils, geckos and grasshoppers. If Noah needed to stock another ark, we could have done it for him.
That appreciation for nature is not as strong in my current life as I want it to be, but it’s still there. The springtime song of a western meadowlark still relaxes me like no other sound can. I smile every time I see a red-tailed hawk perched on a telephone pole and looking for prey. When a monarch butterfly or tiger swallowtail flaps by me, the world goes quiet, and I am at peace watching its color-splashed wings carry it onward. I relish the chance to see a thunderstorm raging above me, and don’t mind the rain at all.
Of course, when daily contact with nature is lost, one other thing you leave behind is a healthy respect of nature’s power, the raw fact that it follows its own rules. Nature will be taken seriously whether you like it or not. No, tsunamis and volcanoes and animal stampedes are no one’s idea of happy coexistence with the world. But we should face it: the world is not a tame place. Yellowstone tourists can get killed if they approach a bear or bison with anything less than an urgent reverence for the animal’s strength and unpredictability. Surfers can be crushed under the slam of a powerful wave. Hikers and hunters are more familiar with the dangers, and even they can sometimes find nature a lethal element to be in.
But there is still beauty there, indispensable and not meant to be forgotten. The kind of beauty that lends fire to poetry and emotion to paintings is always there, even in the most perilous corners of the natural world. And it will reward you if you’re willing to be brave and search it out.
I haven’t yet gone hunting, and my idea of hiking is pretty much restricted to a stroll around the local park. But what I have seen is truly beautiful, works of art more nuanced and captivating than anything a human imagination could conjure. Turtles floating serenely on the glassy surface of a lake while fish glide underneath; blasts of lightning throwing their glory over the plains in the depths of starless night; deer picking their way through fields with silent hooves; comet Hale-Bopp streaking its way across the heavens, bright as an angel’s wing, never to come back in our lifetimes. Those are the things I cherish, the things worth holding on to when nature and I embrace each other, like comrades, like lovers, like old friends.