Archive | July 2013

We Are Nature

Mid Ocean ridge

The mid-ocean ridges are where new crust is added to the earth… The extrusion of submarine basalt flows supplied by feeder dykes at mid-ocean ridges may be less spectacular than the foaming lava fountains of Hawai’i, but it is more important to the world. This is how the ocean floor grows. It grows by stealth in the dark. …World seismic maps show a thin line of weak earthquakes closely following the ridges. The ridge as a whole is buoyed up by the heat that comes from below. The rift at its apex is the seam at the suture of creation. This is where plates are born and where they part company forever… In the simplest system to read, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the new crust is destined to move in the direction of either the Americas or of Europe and Africa….

Water from the sea can seep into the spreading system. In some of the more active spreading ridges it becomes superheated and charged with minerals in solution. This water then discharges through hydrothermal vents… at depth iron sulphide—or pyrites—builds fantastical chimneys. They are encrusted dark towers, and crazily teetering tubes. … The chimneys can reach sixty metres in height. Fluted and branched, they look like the façade of Gaudi’s famous cathedral, La Sagrada Familia….Will the sea floor ever become the ultimate tourist destination? …For myself, I would prefer this last, inaccessible, wild place to remain in its dark security. The human touch has been so devastating elsewhere. This may be one place where we should satisfy our curiosity and then move on.”

Reading this passage from Richard Fortey’s book The Earth: An Intimate History made me wonder where humans fit in. The earth is ever-changing. Under the ocean, new crust is created while old crust is destroyed. In this process of change, fantastic creations appear. But when change on earth is the result of human action, it is, Fortey says, “devastating.” Fortey later in his book likens humans to ticks, calling us short-term parasites on the earth.

Michael Lind of the Breakthrough Institute calls this the “desecration paradigm.” He writes, “The desecration paradigm treats human appropriation or alteration of biomass, minerals or landscapes as an immoral profanation of something sacred…. The desecration paradigm makes no appeal to legitimate human interests. Rather the human race itself is seen as an evil force, alien to ‘nature’ which is identified with the entire universe other than human beings.”

Lind disdains this view that accords “nature” an intrinsic value unrelated to its value to us. The value in nature is exactly its use to humans, as Lind sees it. He approvingly quotes Lyndon Johnson’s Inaugural Address, “For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say ‘Farewell.’ Is a new world coming? We welcome it – and we will bend it to the hopes of man.”

Lind adds, “His vision of nature is of a nature waiting to be transformed for human uses by technology. Adherents of the desecration paradigm would prefer that ‘the uncrossed desert’ remain uncontaminated by human footprints or wheel-tracks, that ‘the unclimbed ridge’ is off-limits to tourists in a ‘road less wilderness,’ and that ‘the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground’ remains merely potential and the ground unplowed.”

In their views, Fortey and Lind have in common a dichotomy: Humans on one side, nature on the other.

Wait, if humans aren’t natural what are we?

Of course, a traditional answer is that we were created separately by God, and nature was put here also by God for our use. It does not appear that either Lind or Fortey are relying on this religious conception for their world views. Ultimately, they must both acknowledge: We are of this earth as much as any other life form. We are nature.

It is the dichotomy of humanity and nature as two separate spheres that is artificial. We cannot live without changing nature any more than the earth itself can cease to destroy and create itself. Our dilemma is not whether we preserve nature or use it. It is how we can best live as one part of the natural world. If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves. Lind acknowledges the need for environmental protection. When he quotes Lyndon Johnson he writes, “Johnson helped to usher in the modern era of environmental awareness and protection.”

Johnson looked on the environment as something to be “transformed for human uses by technology.” Fortey on the other hand, falls in with those who would, as Lind says, “prefer that ‘the uncrossed desert’ remain uncontaminated by human footprints or wheel-tracks.”

Are these the only choices? Must we either use the earth as raw material as if we were not of it, or leave as much of it as possible alone for the same reason?

But we are nature; we cannot subtract ourselves from it and stand aside. Another point of view I came across is that of the earth as our home (the original meaning of the now ubiquitous prefix “eco”). This perspective is put forward as the Humanist view in an article by William R. Patterson in the journal Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism.

Patterson sets out the humanist view of ethics. “Humanists believe that ethical values are created by human beings and that those values should be based upon the consequences that they have in the lives of human beings, whether they generate greater happiness, health and overall welfare for individual humans and for humanity as a whole. …The recognition that human beings are the sole source of moral decision-making leads to the acknowledgement that we should develop a profound sense of empathy and altruism for others, based upon our common humanity.”

Thus, Patterson writes, “Humanists are equally able to distance themselves from religious positions that place humanity at the apex of life by divine fiat and those on the opposite extreme which place a sacred value on the earth that militate against any use of the environment by human beings.”

Humanists see the measure of value as human beings. However, Patterson says that recognizing the interdependence of life that is revealed by science can “lead a humanist to embrace a moderately biocentric approach to nature. At the very least, a strict form of anthropocentrism must be rejected. Humanist David Schafer offers a useful middle ground with what he calls inclusive anthropocentrism.”

Patterson suggests that as Humanists we see the earth as our home. While our first concern is for ourselves, that is humanity, we know this earth with all its life forms is our home and we must keep it healthy in order for us to thrive. He says, “The world is, as Carl Sagan would say, our ‘pale blue dot.’ The earth is humanity’s only home and one we must cherish despite its flaws and blemishes.”

Perhaps this way of seeing ourselves within nature can allow us to thrive as humans on this earth while maintaining our home for not only ourselves but the other living beings with which we share the earth. The earth is ever-changing and so are we. We cannot help but change the earth ourselves, yet our interdependence with all life on earth means we cannot despoil this home of ours. We must take good care of it, for we are nature and we cannot separate ourselves from earth and life.

postscript: I do want to note that the pessimistic view of humanity that Richard Fortey expresses in a few places is by no means a theme of his book. Rather the book celebrates the earth and the scientists who have learned about it. It is well worth reading.

–Vicki Linton

photo from NOAA Photo Library on Flickr; Clam shell bed around a thermal mound in 2800 meters. Pacific Ocean, mid-ocean ridge.
Photographer: A. Malahoff. Credit: OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); Univ. of Hawaii.


Confronting Nature-Deficit Disorder

[Panorama] A Day at the Park

Admittedly, the term nature-deficit disorder sounds contrived. But there is evidence that the concept points to real problems—problems that arise when people lack a connection to the natural world.

The term was coined by Richard Louv who was recently interviewed by National Geographic (Connecting With Nature Boosts Creativity and Health). Louv has advocated providing experiences with nature to children (he founded the Children and Nature Network) but he says that adults suffer from a disconnection with nature too. Nature-deficit disorder, Louv says, affects people’s “ability to feel ultimately alive.”

He cites research that shows that time outdoors can help people struggling with ADD. The New York Times recently published an article on research showing how walking in a park can improve one’s brain functioning. (Easing Brain Fatigue With a Walk in the Park).

Of course you can’t immerse yourself in nature if it’s not there. Louv notes that the majority of people now live in cities. If we take nature-deficit disorder seriously, we will need to redesign cities to put us in closer touch with nature in our daily lives.

This doesn’t just mean walling off nature in a few extra parks. It requires “biophilic design” that will end the separation of humans from the rest of nature, even in cities. One can envision green corridors running through our downtowns, gardens filled with native plants surrounding our workplaces, the replacement of lawns with miniature woodlands, and assemblages of plants that provide habitat to birds and insects. Louv calls this vision “a nature-rich society.”

Imagine much less concrete and asphalt and much more green. More bird song. Air filled with the scents of growing things. Butterflies bobbing among flowering plants. Small ponds where perhaps frogs may live.

While wholesale change from our cities of today would be radical, we already see examples in our cities now of nature surviving and even thriving. Residents of dense urban neighborhoods plant flowers in every square inch of land. Community gardens take up whole city blocks. Homeowners place bird houses and bat houses in their small yards. Office buildings are surrounded by aquatic habitat in which water lilies grow. Green roofs provide habitat for insects. There is much to build on.

Louv says “most Americans carry images of the far future that looks a lot like Blade Runner and Mad Max.” Our vision of the future is often one that is depressing and sad. He wants us to replace images of a dystopian future with positive ones of a nature-rich society. How much healthier emotionally would we be if we saw a revival of our connection with nature as our inevitable future!

–Vicki Linton

photo credit: Parque do Ibirapuera – Sao Paulo, Brazil by Diego3336 at Flickr

Book Review: The Forest Unseen

Sand Mandala September 2012

By Vicki Linton

If you head into the woods hoping to see animals, holding pictures of bears and wolves or other large mammals in your head, you are likely to be disappointed. Except for perhaps some white tailed deer, you are likely as not to see “nothing.” Most mammals are nocturnal and very good at making themselves scarce.

Yet right under your feet are thousands of life forms, from mosses and fungi to invertebrates of all sorts. Two things may be necessary to see some of these smaller beings: a patient way of looking and an expert guide.

The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell provides both.

Haskell sets out to tell the reader about what he observes for one year on a small plot of land in the Tennessee mountains. He calls this small plot a “mandala” and introduces his way of looking by describing Buddhist monks creating a sand mandala. The monks use brass funnels of sand to slowly create a lotus flower design.

Haskell writes, “The mandala has significance at many levels: the concentration required for its creation, the balance between complexity and coherence, the symbols embedded in its design, and its impermanence…. The whole universe is seen through this small circle of sand.”

He sets out to see the forest “through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks, and water.” His mountain mandala is no more than a meter across. His book takes us through the months in this mountain space, describing what is seen through patient observing and quiet contemplation.

I cannot say that I have applied such an intentional practice to observing in the mountains. But I do know that simply being aware of your surroundings as you sit or slowly walk through the woods will lead to observation of nature’s otherwise hidden facets.

It is always a thrill to see a large mammal such as a black bear or to see a Pileated Woodpecker flying through the trees. But these are occasional gifts the mountains give, at a smaller scale of insects and plants there is a constant flow of life to experience.

Haskell describes the life of a woodland amphibian:

“Like mosses, salamanders thrive on moisture, but salamanders cannot use the mosses’ strategy of drying up and waiting out the days between rains. Instead, they follow cool, humid air like nomads, moving in and out of the soil as the humidity changes. In winter they creep down between rocks and boulders, escaping the freeze and living as troglodytes in the subterranean darkness, up to seven meters belowground. In the spring and autumn they climb back up and ply the leaf litter, pursuing ants, termites, and small flies.”

A key to seeing, I have found, is not to look but to be aware. Noting movement in your peripheral vision can often lead to observations you might have missed. One fall day, I was doing nothing much just outside my mountain house when I noticed movement. When I turned toward what I sensed and looked carefully, I saw a red salamander by the wood pile. The next time I met up with one was quite different: I encountered one inside my house!

Come July, Haskell’s gaze concentrates on fungi:

“Specks of orange, red, and yellow, the sexual buds of fungi, glow from the sodden forest floor. The heat and rain have emboldened the belowground parts of fungi, causing them to sprout their fruiting bodies. The prettiest of this morning’s colorful fungi is a cup fungus perched on a decaying twig. Tangerine orange, shaped like a goblet, and fringed with silver hairs, it is called a shaggy scarlet cup. Although it measures less than an inch across, its color catches my attention, drawing me onto my knees to examine it more closely. Once my eyes are closer to the ground, I see tiny fruiting bodies everywhere, a colorful regatta on a sea of decaying leaves and twigs.”

Some fungi such as shelf fungi can be seen from a distance through the woods; others are tiny and found only by close examination. There are many ways to see fungi. I remember years ago walking in the woods with my cousin and her very young son. She showed him a puffball, gently touching it with her foot to release the puff of spores. He was delighted and proceeded to find fungi all along our walk and then happily stomp on them. We all saw many more fungi than we would have otherwise that day!


The forest is a mosaic of leaves everywhere and if you look closely insects are everywhere among these leaves. Often you will see not the insects themselves but the signs of them on plants. Holes chewed through the leaf surface; galls growing from branches as if they were a part of the plant; leaves folded carefully by insect larvae slumbering inside. Haskell’s mandala displays these signs amidst its profusion of green:

“The mandala contains insects designed to steal every part of a plant. Flowers, pollen, leaves, roots, sap are all preyed upon by a diverse toolbox of insect mouthparts. Yet the mandala is green. Leaves are a little tattered, but they still dominate the forest. Above, leaves are stacked in layers, blocking my view of the sky; around me shrubs stretch out across the hillside, again hemming in my sight; below, my feet rest in a carpet of saplings and forest herbs. The forest seems to be an herbivore’s heavenly banquet. Why is the mandala not stripped bare? This is a simple question, but is much fought over, and it stirs up controversy among ecologists for good reason. The relationship between herbivores and plants sets the stage for the rest of the forest ecosystem.”

Haskell brings his scientific knowledge to bear on the observations he makes in the forest. He provides many interesting tales of how life forms interact in the mandala. He tells of the role of ants in dispersing the seeds of spring wildflowers. He explains how ferns disperse their own seeds with “botanical catapults” that magnified look like snakes. With a hand lens and one’s nose to the forest floor, such events can be seen unfolding in ways one otherwise would not imagine.

Haskell is a biologist and his is one way of seeing a forest. There are, of course, other ways of seeing. An artist, a poet, a philosopher might see very different things there. Certainly, the Buddhist monks, adept at the concentration needed to create the sand mandala, would view it differently again. Taking a cue from both Haskell and the Buddhist monks, any one of us can glimpse a bit of each of these visions, just by being quietly in the forest.

Haskell notes these differences while making suggestions about how to experience the forest. He suggests borrowing “from the practice of meditation and to repeatedly turn the mind’s attention to the present moment.” And he explains:

“The interior quality of our minds is itself a great teacher of natural history. It is here that we learn that “nature” is not a separate place. We too are animals, primates with a rich ecological and evolutionary context. By our paying attention, this inner animal can be watched at any time…Each of us inhabits a storied mandala with as much complexity as an old-growth forest. Even better, watching ourselves and watching the world are not in opposition; by observing the forest, I have come to see myself more clearly.”

The Forest Unseen is a lovely way to learn of Haskell’s insights and the ways of the forest.

Photo credit: Sand Mandala September 2012 by Pacific Asia Museum on Flickr
Photo credit: Tiny mushrooms by Jenny Powers