by John Wymore
When I was a nature lover I desperately wanted to talk to animals. I wore my heart on my sleeve. I read poetry by Wordsworth and Rumi. I hugged trees. I thought birds sang love songs. I drew moral lessons from the life cycle of a butterfly. I believed in magic — in the enchanted forests. I took admonishments about having a relationship to nature seriously. I went out in nature. I communed with nature. I sought romance and adventure in nature. And I felt betrayed when my love wasn't returned — if my heart didn't bleed my finger did. ("It bit me!")
Eventually most of us grow out of being ga-ga and head-over-heels. I did. First, I discovered the theory of evolution. Then, I began to recognize that I was being held captive by my own ignorance, enthralled by other people's idealism and duped by my own imagination.
Nature lovers bash science. I recently read a book that promised to "help the reader explore and enhance the psychological and spiritual dimensions of your life." This was to be accomplished by "communing with nature." In such a pursuit, scientific inquiry is inadequate said the author. Furthermore, scientific inquiry may actually lead to "separation from nature." Imagine that.
A few years back I was with a small gathering in Northern New Mexico of so-called ecopsychologists. The group included, as I remember, a neo-luddite, a deep-ecologist, a direct descendant of Thomas Huxley, a permiculturist, and a friend of mine that I had invited who is an evolutionary biologist and an academic. I'll call him The Scientist. At one point in the discussion the deep ecologist turned to The Scientist and said, "The trouble with you scientists is that you destroy the enchantment." The Scientist pondered that for a moment and then said, "I study the reproductive behavior of a particular species of spider, a small population in Northern Montana. Every summer for 20 years I've gone up there with some students. And every summer for 20 years I've returned with my mind completely blown by new stuff that I've learned about what this nervous system the size of a pin head accomplishes. I'm enchanted." Later the Huxley guy said something outrageous, and The Scientist said, "Well, it's obvious you know nothing about evolution." I had to snicker; he said that to the great grand-nephew of Darwin's bulldog.
Like lovers everywhere, lovers of nature hang on to ignorance, fantasy, and mystery. Eventually, if they still care about the relationship, they have to deal with the hard work of intimacy. This requires, among other things, knowledge, patience and commitment. But lovers, as long as they can, seem to prefer mystery to enlightenment. The irony is that very passionate lovers of nature are often the well educated and the literary.
Here's a nature lover. A client of mine, when she heard someone wondering about why piñon pines and juniper were always found together, said: "Well, obviously they love each other! Duh!" And I know this guy who likes to call himself Sparrow—now he's a nature lover. He apparently experienced a kind of moral elation because he "freed" three tiny flies who were "trapped" in an ATM shelter. That reminds me of a lasting memory I have from the Carlos Castañeda books. Carlos picks up a snail from the road and returns it to the deep grass on the side explaining to Don Juan that he's saving it from being run over. Don Juan scolds Carlos for interfering in the destiny of the snail. Duly chastised, Carlos moves to return the snail to the road. Don Juan stops him saying, "Never mind—perhaps his destiny was to meet a fool."
Nature lovers tend to think that nature has a benign protective attitude toward humans. When I was a nature lover I desperately wanted to talk to animals. I loved Native American stories where the animals talked and even rewarded humans for right behavior. Some animals were often characterized as not having my best interests at heart. So there was always, it seemed, a moral struggle in nature — good against evil. Often morality in nature is expressed in Kiplinesque terms like "kill or be killed", and "eat or be eaten." But in fact there is no either/or. It has always been kill and be killed; eat and be eaten.
One of the turning points in my life — when I started to not be a nature lover, occurred when I was at about 10,000 feet on a wilderness leadership course, making our way around granite rocks, through scrub oak and ponderosa pines. A raven appeared overhead and continued to follow us for most of the afternoon making raucous calls the whole way. When evening was near we stopped and started to make camp. Everyone disbursed, doing their chores to set up a sleeping space and a cooking area. I went out to gather wood; and to my surprise and curiosity, the raven followed me flying just above my head then rising up and calling in that annoying voice. Finally it flew off toward a granite outcrop that was about 20 feet away. As my gaze followed the black bird's flight, I saw the mountain lion crouched up there on the ledge, its yellow eyes pinned on me. As I stood there dumbfounded with an armful of dry pine branches, it switched its tail.
"Holy Shit," I whispered; then shouted, "Hey! Help! Everybody! Come quick!" My brigade mates came crashing through the woods just in time to see the lion leap off the back side of the ledge and vanish. The woods became quiet. The raven was gone, too.
That night around the camp fire, the conversation was about the lion and the raven. The consensus was that the bird was trying to warn us of the presence of the lion. "Yeah," said one of the instructors. "The medicine man from the rez told me that's what ravens will do—warn you that there's danger." Well that was authority enough for us. The bird was trying to save my life. We all agreed to do some kind of ritual honoring and thanking the raven.
I told this story to my friend The Scientist. He was silent for a while as he tugged on his lip; then he said, "Why do you think the raven would try to warn you?"
"I don't know," I said. "He's programmed that way, I guess."
"Let me ask it this way. The raven spends a lot of energy flying around your head half the day and squawking his lungs out. Let's say you get warned. Okay, what's the raven get for all this effort?
"I don't know. Maybe we should have fed it?"
"Well, I think it expected to get fed, but not by you . . . but on you.”
"On me? On me?”
"What was going on was that the raven was alerting the mountain lion to the presence of prey. The lion was probably stalking you and your group for most of the day or at least from the time the raven found you. Look at it this way. What's the raven's reward if it's working for the lion? The raven's a carnivore, but it doesn't have a hooked beak and talons like an eagle. It can't kill large animals, and it can't tear through the hide. What it's done is evolve a cooperative relationship with predators. It can call attention to potential prey, and, in turn, the predator tolerates its presence at the opened carcass. In the far north, ravens particularly like to team up with wolf packs. What's the raven's reward if it's working for you?"
"Okay. But what about what the Indian guy said?"
The Scientist sighed. "If you're lucky enough to learn, without getting attacked or eaten, that when a raven behaves that way there is usually a dangerous predator around, it should be obvious that you ought to be wary and maybe get out of that vicinity or into open ground. And if you're not attacked or eaten, it's an easy conclusion to come to that the raven saved your life; and you should give thanks. You don't really need to know what the raven was really up to for it to work that way. But your smudge stick and dance isn't what the raven is really looking for."
"How 'bout the Raven Spirit?" I asked.
"All right. Whatever," he said. Then he added, "Without a doubt there have been Indian hunters who were astute observers, who were skeptics of commonly held explanations, who had a driving curiosity and who discovered the truth. I imagine that those people were just as rare then as they are today. Besides, since the "wrong" interpretation still functions to keep people safe, why bother?"
Another thing that nature lovers do, just like lovers everywhere, is succumb to the short view both forward and back. In September 2001, The Sun published an interview with Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame. Brand presents an interesting case. Is he a nature lover, or not? In many ways he is far removed from the mindlessness of a lover and well along the path of achieving intimacy. Yet he reveals his preference for short- term thinking despite his project called "The Clock of the Long Now." "Deep bonding with the natural world," he says, "seems to make one comfortable with long-term thinking." Then, his example of "long-term" is going back to the place where you grew up. I'm not even sure "deep bonding" means anything. Any kind of profound relationship with the natural world (whatever that might mean) would require a deep understanding of human nature and how it got that way. That means either some creation myth, from which there are many to chose, or scientific evolution.
Brand's statement that "religion is probably the best institution for thinking about the long term" is absolutely astonishing. It means that almost certainly Stewart Brand has not discovered Charles Darwin (despite studying biology at Stanford). If it's a long view you want, a view with grandeur (to use Darwin's wonderful phrase), one should take the time to become familiar with modern evolutionary theory. There is no view that is longer. But nature lovers have no time for evolutionary theory, although they are very glad that Darwin discovered the Galapagos. Nature lovers have now almost destroyed them.
Lovers like to believe that the beloved has all kinds of unlikely attributes. Nature lovers love Gaia, the idea that the Earth is a living organism. They like to imagine that it has an immune system, something like a cardiovascular system, even a kind of consciousness. But no one has suggested that Gaia has a reproductive system. However, there is one way earth is like an organism: it does have built-in senescence. One way or another, it will die. Whole galaxies are blowing up out there.
Believe it or not, lovers underestimate the significance of gender. During courtship men will claim that they want a woman to think and behave like them, and women will imply that they want the men to think and behave like women. So it becomes great short-term strategy, on both sides, to deceive the other — men becoming "sensitive New Age guys" and women becoming hiking boot mammas. Then comes: "I thought you were different" and "I was doing what you said you wanted me to." You can see this courtship deception throughout nature if you've got your eyes and ears wide open, which is seldom the case when you're head-over-heels in love. When nature lovers observe nature they often see yang and yin and seldom see male and female. Yin and yang are fondly thought of as harmonic, balancing principles, and being in love seems like perfectly interlocking lumps of play dough. Male and female is anything but that. Male and female is a reproductive strategy, created by natural selection, which ensures genetic diversity. Since natural selection (nature) doesn't care how difficult it is for humans trying to get along in modern times, this is what it came up with: Females want the best they can get; males want the most they can get. That's about as succinct a statement of what we resent in one another that I can think of. Humans have been trying to overcome that for millennia without stopping to wonder: why is this so difficult? It would help to understand the origins and function of this dilemma if, in fact, we really wanted to change it. Think about that. The answer goes back a couple of billion years when asexual gametes produced by algae differentiated slightly into a small mobile variety without much nourishment and a large, juicy variety with limited movement capability — in other words, prodigal sperm and scarce eggs.
Nature lovers think we just have to raise our children differently. Well maybe that is the answer, but I think it would pay to understand what it is we have to overcome to know what and how to teach them. Here's a couple of texts I would recommend: Why is Sex Fun? by Jared Diamond and Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice for All Creation by Olivia Judson.
The Random House Webster's provides us some insight into why "nature" presents a dilemma. The first definition says, "the natural world as it exists without human beings or civilization." That's revealing. It clearly puts humans outside of nature — not part of it. Definition #2 refers to elements of wilderness: rivers, mountains, trees, etc. Definition #3 again refers to scenery and #4, the universe and all of its phenomena. Ah, phenomena. That means that somebody, or some thing, is observing it. The dilemma is that the observer is part of the observed. We humans, although undeniably part of the universe, don't easily see ourselves as both phenomenon and matter. Every observation we make begins with sensory input, which enters the mind/brain, where it is forced into various culturally contrived, preexisting models which results in our mind/brain necessarily playing tricks on us. It's great irony and paradox that natural selection would create a human nature that often had to fool itself as a fitness strategy. The mind/brain has evolved to ascribe meaning to events but not necessarily an accurate representation. It has evolved to interpret the world in such a way as to keep the organism safe, to have relationships and achieve status, to acquire mates, and to raise offspring. With the arrival of language modules in the human brain, came culture; and that, combined with the desire for meaning, gives us the conundrum of ontology versus phenomenology. We have a tool, however, that buffers our observations from "tricks of the mind." It's called science, which discovers over and over again that there are principles in the universe (i.e., nature) that are concrete and relentless, that have been shaped by contingency, that are morally neutral, and which are powerfully explanatory. These principles are involved in the forming of the very mind that is observing them; and they have made the human mind the one manifestation of nature that has the unique ability not only to experience nature but to experience itself experiencing nature. Now that really might add a "psychological and spiritual dimension" to one's life. g
John Wymore has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and a graduate degree in counseling. He has been resident in Iowa, Florida, California, Minnesota, Massachusetts and New Mexico where he is a licensed therapist. In Massachusetts he took training in Gestalt Therapy and continues to practice as a therapist and an organizational consultant. About 10 years ago he discovered Evolutionary Psychology and since then has annoyed his friends with it. Nevertheless, he is convinced that almost everything we have been taught about what humans are up to and how we got that way is basically wrong.
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