“Getting back in touch with nature.” What does that even mean? How have we “lost touch”? Perhaps, because we have literally ceased touching nature.
Truly coming into contact with nature is not only physical, but it’s about clearing and opening your mind to listen to the unknown. And I mean really listen. Listen to nature in such a way that you are coming into the conversation without any preconceived ideas of what it will look and feel like. As John O’Donohue wrote in his book Beauty, “What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach. Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach. An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation.” Thoreau’s Walden is an experiment in moving backwards in order to think forward. By backward I mean reducing, simplifying, pairing his basic needs down to the elemental. By moving forward, I mean as a result of the experiment, decluttering and clearing his mind towards more conscious thinking. But is Thoreau’s approach relevant in our world today?
Encounters with nature can come in all different shapes and sizes. Smelling a rose, taking a walk, or breathing in the crisp fall air. These are the kinds of encounters that we think of when regarding interactions with nature. Yes, I suppose those are all legitimate encounters with nature, but an “encounter” is not just physical. Everything about us is nature: the luminosity of our skin, our steady breath, the way our ears funnel sound, even the way in which we think. But over time we have let our smarts get in the way of carrying out a natural life. And I hesitate to even use the term “natural life” because, it should not be viewed as something that is a question or option.
As human beings, we are extremely susceptible to customs, outer forms. We love to have traditions and routine, and few break free of this monotony. Luckily we have strong humans such as Henry David Thoreau to help us rethink our ways. According to Thoreau, “Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in.” Whether it be land, valuables, or simply money it is often passed down through generations in families. Thoreau calls to question how this societal custom has shaped our thinking and, as a result, our lives. The surroundings that we are born into often serve as a vehicle for our thoughts: not always shaping them, but having a definite influence. What if we went back to the earth, the meandering waters, the cool wind, the soft dance of leaves? Our minds would become clear and we would become strong human beings.
O’Donohue poetically explains that, “The ancient rhythms of the earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of the human heart. The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grows.” As humans, we are animals on the earth. We often forget this and think of ourselves, instead, as our own entity. We need to stop seeing our bodies as devoid of nature, but as an actual element of nature. Thoreau understood that if we were to reacquaint ourselves with nature we first would need to reacquaint ourselves…well…with ourselves.
Thoreau reprimands humanity in the midst of his first chapter in Walden by noting that, “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us!” Thoreau notices that one of the biggest causes of humanities’ problems is the emphasis of what we do and what we create. Thinking, Constructing, and getting praised for a job well done: we eat it up. It feeds our egos and cushions our lives. Truth is, we do not matter to the world as much as we tell ourselves. If we were not on this earth the natural world would still continue without us, if not flourish. Coming to this realization is one of the first steps in gaining back our innate place in the natural world. When we step back and divorce ourselves from our egos, we start to see a clearer and more opaque perspective. And that view is that we are mere puzzle pieces of a larger creation. Yes, we serve a purpose, but we are not what defines this world.
Now how do we go about getting back to our natural state? Now, not all of us have the luxury to quit our jobs and go hole up in a cabin in the woods and have pensive and revolutionary thoughts. But, we can take small steps. So I challenge humanity: Spend a few moments a day outside. Sit still and listen. Don’t think about how Jennifer needs to pick up her room or how you can not believe your boss trusted you enough to let you take the reigns with the companies newest client. No, just sit there and feel what you feel. Your first few times you might feel fidgety or restless, but the more you practice the more you will understand. One day you will feel your inborn connection with nature tugging at your middle. I’m far from an authority on the topic, but I have an inkling that if more people practiced listening to the world around them we would have lower crime rates, lower rates of disease, and less pollution which would be just a few results. It sounds farfetched, but it really is not at all. Do not think about it, mull over it, or try to pick it apart. Just do it and see what happens. Think of a child drawing. Instead of shoveling through a box of crayons they simply pick the first one that catches their attention. The child wraps the entirety of their dimpled palm around the waxy piece of color and moves they’re arm around the page with a jabbing motion. They feel. They don’t plan then execute, they do. Become that child.
Nature is beguiling.
Nature is erotic.
Nature is transformative.