I recently went on a hike in the Ned Brown Forest Preserve, in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. Just a half-hour bus ride outside of Chicago, it’s the closest I can get to nature right now. I don’t have a car, and the full commute to this preserve is roughly two hours – two trains and a bus, to be specific. As someone who grew up with a deep appreciation for nature, wildlife, conservation, and the environment, it’s important to me not only to maintain that sense of oneness with the Earth, but also to make it a permanent facet of my life. Where living in a city lays heaps of stress upon me, getting away into the woods – even for a day – lets it all drain away like water through a sieve.
With my fondness for nature also came learning and knowledge. I can identify which trees are white oaks and which are swamp oaks by looking at the leaves. I can usually tell which way is North by studying the lichens growing on the sides of trees. After living just three years in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, I can track and identify footprints in the snow, including those made by deer, bears, and bobcats. I can tell a pignut from a shagbark hickory nut. And, unlike when I’m walking around in a city, I can always find my way out of the woods and back home.
It’s saddening to me that most people I know, even many of my friends, neither care nor want to be a part of nature. Most of my friends live in the New Jersey suburbs, and seem perfectly content to keep on staying there. And most Chicagoans I know – well, they’re wedded to their city and even suburban people have a not-so-good reputation amongst them – let alone rural folks. I should add that this problem seems to be a very American one. I have friends online who live in Slovakia, Croatia, and Finland, and all of them love to go hiking in the woods. Most of them lament the preoccupation people have today with modern technology and urban living.
As I’m writing this, I’m recalling the very valid criticisms that some have leveled at me, whenever I would bring up the issue of bucolic living and a connection with Mother Earth. “People just can’t live like that anymore,” is the main counterargument that I hear; “We’re no longer a society that can sustain itself by hunting, fishing, and farming.” Or, the more pragmatic person will say, “People live in the cities because they need to have jobs and support themselves.”
I agree! Big Business has crushed independent places where people can work. Everyone I know is working at Walmart, or K-Mart, or Applebee’s, or McDonald’s. Many, many jobs have left even the suburbs, and of those that remain, few pay higher than minimum wage. If you want to get a higher-paying job, these days, the city is your best bet. Not to mention the rampant drug problems (meth, heroin, etc.) that now plague small towns and communities.
Well, we’ve trapped ourselves; that I’ll admit to. I’m not saying that it’s possible or even advisable for everyone to make a transition toward greener, more rustic living. But as an individual, I don’t think it’s impossible for someone to do just that. In the near future, I hope to teach myself how to hunt, how to clean and de-bone fish, how to grow basic plants and vegetables, and find a way to live successfully in an area closer to the wilderness. Ideally, I’d live in a cabin somewhere. But everything takes time, work, and a realistic outlook. I personally think that romanticizing nature is all well and good, but that if you truly want to make it a large part of your life, you have to be pragmatic and self-sufficient. You need to try and remove your dependency on other people, and especially on the city in which you may live.
The bigger point of this article is, I suppose, more of a philosophical quandary. I think that, by attaching ourselves to these giant steel traps – these metropolises of concrete and chrome that are an affront to the land upon which they were built – we have severely damaged our relationship with nature. I believe that there is a shared consciousness within all trees and plants, and at the center of that consciousness is the Earth. I have nothing to prove this theory and the burden of proof lies completely with me – I accept that. I view this as something that I believe – you will never hear me state it as some sort of fact.
Regardless, I do feel this way, and when we drill into the Earth for natural gas extraction, or spew oil into the sea, or tear apart an entire forest for the purpose of industrialization . . . to me, that is tantamount to violence. We have inflicted wound after wound after wound upon the Earth, and while climate change is by and large caused by Man, perhaps it’s a just punishment for what we’ve done.
We are here as caretakers and stewards of the planet. And there is a piece of wisdom I once heard that drives home a good point: “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” This is to say that we must work hard to make it a good place for the people who will live here in the future. We have not done that; and that’s on us.
We’re so confident that we’re an advanced society, aren’t we? We believe that we’re moving forward. We build, build, build, and call that progress. We are awash in a veritable sea of smartphones, Wi-Fi hotspots, and other gadgets, with consumerism as the conduit.
As we supposedly become “better,” we seem also to become increasingly unintelligent and ignorant. Our literacy rate goes down, our education system goes into the toilet, our health care and basic human rights along with it. Our popular culture becomes “low culture,” defined by the crass and the crude where it once was defined by respectability and intellectualism. Do you think it’s at all possible that there is a correlation here? I think it’s a no-brainer. Pun intended.
Richard Nelson, a cultural anthropologist and writer for environmental radio series Encounters, wrote an essay called Eskimo Science. In it, he remarked, “Probably no society has been so deeply alienated as ours from the community of nature; has viewed the natural world from a greater distance of mind; has lapsed into a murkier comprehension of its connections with the sustaining environment. Because of this, we have great difficulty understanding our rootedness to Earth, our affinities with nonhuman life.”
That final point he made is one I’d like to emphasize, because I feel that the farther away you get from something, the more desensitized to it you become, and the less likely you are to be able to empathize with it. I’m talking in particular about animals and wildlife. It’s no wonder that we see so many stories in the news of younger teens abusing turtles they’ve found, or kicking stray cats, or setting dogs ablaze. While this is sickening to us, the emotional weight and the absolute horror of what many of these kids are doing is lost on them.
When all you’ve been exposed to are drab cities, nary a healthy tree in sight, your respect for the life that lies beyond our urban hideouts – deep in the forests and the oceans – dwindles. And as we continue on this trajectory, you can kiss animal rights and animal welfare goodbye.
Peter Kahn, a psychologist at the University of Washington, states that because so much of daily life is now based on electronic and metropolitan representations of reality, humans are very much at risk of losing touch with nature. “What do we compare technology to?” he asked. “If we compare it to nature, it doesn’t seem to provide as many psychological benefits.” But when technology is considered the new normal, that comparison is rarely made by the average citygoer. One begins to forget that ‘other, better thing.’ “Poor air quality is a good example,” he said. “We can choke on the air, and some people suffer asthma, but we now tend to think that’s a pretty normal part of the human condition.” He concluded, “People might think that technology is partly good because it’s good enough. But it’s not. Because across generations what will happen is that the good enough will become the good. If we don’t change course it will impoverish us as a species.”
Look around. I think it’s pretty clear that it’s already happening.
This article only reflects the opinion of the author. It is reposted here from the author’s blog at BlakeDeppe.com.