by Jessie Huart Sullivan
In the Institute for Humane Education graduate school residency program, I participated in Seton watching, a form of nature observation in which I sat quietly and observed a small window of my surroundings for a period of time. In that time, I gave a small pocket of nature my complete attention. What did I see? How many species? How did they interact? There was so much going on in such a small space, I only had to pay attention to see it.
Emma Marris, author of “Rambunctious Garden,” argues that we have lost nature in the sense that we have hidden it from ourselves. Nature has become a distant place — somewhere free from people and roads, untouched by the modern world.
In his book “A Walk in the Woods” Bill Bryson states, “…beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition – either you ruthlessly subjugate it … or you defy it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart, as along the Appalachian Trail.” (p.200)
Thanks to tourism and nature documentaries, the often remote yet dramatic canyons crossing wide expanses of the western United States and the ancient and powerful Redwood trees of California tend to be a somewhat familiar sight no matter where you live. But how often do we get the chance to truly experience these powerful forms of nature? And what are the implications for our attitudes and behavior if there is a perceived separation between nature and humans?
Are we really separate from nature, or as humans, are we a part of the natural environment? How we answer this question influences the types of attitudes we are likely to develop and the types of environmental behaviors we adopt, and it shapes our beliefs about how to solve environmental problems.
In other words, if we humans view ourselves as separate from nature, does that affect whether we can see ourselves as a part of the solution?
Nature is a part of our daily lives. It is the maple tree out my front window whose roots push the sidewalk into uneven steps; it’s the small garden with a dilapidated fence where I grow herbs and vegetables; and even the dandelion “weeds” that pop up every spring and summer in my yard. It’s the urban park, the community garden, and the other neighborhood green spaces.
As we start to see nature all around us and realize that, as humans, we’re a part of it, we can start to develop a more inclusive definition of nature and recognize our role in taking care of it. With a more nuanced concept of nature, we can recognize that plants, non-human animals, and humans do not exist as independent entities, but are instead fundamental parts of complex and interconnected ecosystems.
If we all participate in some version of Seton watching and observe our surroundings, we can develop a closer relationship to the nature that surrounds us and strive harder to be stewards of the environment on which we all depend.