My brief return to the biology classroom in 2005 after a 17-year absence brought a shocking revelation: the outdoors was an alien and unknown place to my students.
Out of 120 on field trips near campus along Virginia’s New River that semester, only one student could call one of some 50 observed living things by name: poison ivy. Everything else—birds and bushes, wildflowers and vines, insects and fungi—were anonymous strangers.
That revelation disturbed me. What would become of this place if future generations were so out of touch with the natural world? A short while later I learned that this oblivion had been given a name: nature deficit disorder. Reading that phrase for the first time confirmed to my dismay that my students’ nature blindness was not an isolated condition; but I also took encouragement knowing that others were becoming aware of the need to reverse the consequences of this retreat indoors.
I’ve since come to think of our latter-day denaturing as just one among several interrelated but broken bonds within the tattered web of human identity. Many of us also suffer placelessness and eco-apathy—distortions of perception that prevent us from clearly seeing ourselves rightfully integrated in our here and now.
Writer Eudora Welty perhaps holds the key to the needed remedies in this one statement: “One place understood helps us know all places better.”
To restore wholeness to the brokenness we’ve inflicted on the planet’s living systems, we need go no further than that one place just beyond our doors—to sense and know that accessible fragment of the whole of nature that we can see, taste, hear, smell and wrap our heads and hearts around in our own nearby terrain.
As we succeed with that reintegration of human lives with nature, we also will grow to appreciate the places where our stories unfold, to reclaim sense of place—an identity with the where of our lives in all its uniqueness of topography and history and culture. We become placed persons even as we become a renatured people.
From this reintegration with nature and place may evolve eco-empathy: an organic personal-ecological ethic that puts each of us back into the web of right relationships, back not only into local nature but into the intended natural order as stewards with a seven-generation commitment to the well-being of people and planet.
Broken relationships with nature and place have been wrong roads on the map from which we have blundered our way to a desolate mental and spiritual landscape. We need a new map, a new story of who we are that reveals that web of inter-connectedness we have learned to ignore. Better maps require that we become wiser, not smarter. Wisdom is wielded in fostering and guiding vital relationships to nature, place and community.
One place understood helps us know all places better. One mountain stream, one wildflower meadow or mountain bald or beaver pond better known helps us both to know and to hold an empathetic bond with all meadows and balds, forests and wetlands, and with their non-human inhabitants. Our species becomes placed properly as one living actor in the larger web called Life on Earth, but one with awesome obligations.
My students’ indifference to nature facts, I now understand, was a symptom of a broader blindness to essential relationships in their lives. This blindness also made them indifferent to where their water or food or electricity came from back in their home towns. As denatured and placeless humans, they were barely aware of who or where they were in the context of nature or the landscape or time.
If we are successful in renaturing, relocalizing and instilling a personal ecology, we may yet reconcile relationships for tomorrow’s children and students, and for all of us—bringing us closer to healthy and just and whole ways of thinking about ourselves within our personal habitats, neighborhoods and the grand web of being.
This reconciliation will be local, relational, and personal. It is possible, within our grasp, and already underway.
In this hope, we may come back to the best of our selves, with wisdom and humility, whole and thankful within our one known place in nature, and connected by that understanding to better care for all places.
Photo: child in water © Ashley Turner
Photo: road © R.Louv