Nature's Not Here For Our Benefit

ecopsychology nature deficit


I don't go into the mountains to enjoy them or relax or work up a sweat. I go simply to be among them.

I have lately picked up the habit of going on morning hikes. I have about an hour before work, so I see how far I can get into the Front Range before I have to turn back. So far, it's been a meditative experience. I leave the house burdened with worries and concerns, stuck inside my head and trapped by my thoughts, and I return feeling lighter, clear-headed, and open.

However, I think it's important to point out that I don't go out specifically in order to feel better or relax. I go simply to be there, with no expectations of what will happen. I just want to show up and see what Nature has to say.

The Many Ways We Exploit

Most of us learn at a very young age how terrible is the modern exploitation of the wilderness. Whether it is strip mining, logging, or senseless habitat destruction, modern industrial society does a pretty good job of taking advantage of our natural surroundings.

To make up for it, many of us environmentally sensitive types make a point of camping, trail running, or just appreciating the wilds.

What we forget is that this is still a form of exploitation. John Davis, one of my soon-to-be-professors of ecopsychology, put it well when he said people treat wilderness like it is there to serve their needs.

It's great that we're recognizing "the benefits of nature", and using that as a motivation to protect and appreciate, but that is the same attitude that led to a more physically destructive exploitation; the "benefits" have simply changed from economic resources to emotional ones.

What few of us do is approach Nature with no expectations, as a space in its own right.

We need to go into the mountains not to be awed by their beauty, but simply to be in their presence.

Tell Me About Your Mother...

It is a well known principle in relationships that exploitation can be very sneaky. Even when a relationship seems to be built on appreciation, it can be a selfish appreciation that serves an individual's pleasure or ego. On a day-to-day basis, it might make no difference, but over time, this self-centered attitude begins to erode the trust and support essential to a lasting relationship.

The same goes for Nature. Even when we preserve Nature, we often do it for our own benefit. When we spend time in the outdoors, we do it because it makes us feel good.

But that is not the basis for a healthy, committed relationship. Obviously, in the long-run, it should be mutually beneficial for both parties, but anyone who's been in a long-term committed relationship knows that there are times when you really don't feel good, but you stay anyway. (I don't mean we're being abused. I mean perhaps our partner is going through a rough spot and doesn't have the time to give us the attention we deserve or need, or can't help around the house, or is still learning but means well. It's a fuzzy analogy, and like everything meaningful, we must make a personal judgement based on the circumstances).

We need to be willing to stick around Nature when it isn't beautiful and pleasant and full of singing birds and sunshine. We need to stick around when Nature has morning breath but wants to cuddle anyway, or is sick and snotty and definitely not sexy or charming, or is just having a bad day, or is having a good day but channeling that part of its character that Nature needs to be the glorious, mighty being it is, but which sometimes makes us uncomfortable.

We need to love Nature when it doesn't conform to our expectations, and appreciate it for living by its own rhythms.

Once we have done that, we can come to see that this detached-attachment is empowering to both of us. Nature is our mother, and when it is strong, it raises strong kids. But if we beg and nag and harass it, even if it's just to be beautiful all the time (1950s anyone?), Nature may or may not try to accomodate us, but it will lose its authenticity, and we will all suffer as a result.

Primal Meditation

They say the important part of a meditation practice isn't the focus on breathing, posture, or clarity of mind; it is simply to show up at the cushion every day, mentally as well as physically. Come to practice with your whole being.

Similarly, I think the important part of being in Nature is simply to be there. See what happens. Don't walk down a trail mulling over your stressful workday, stuck in your head. Don't go on a run with headphones (I recently saw a couple of ladies starting a trail run together by putting their headphones in, as if they had no intention of paying attention to the mountains or each other). Be present. Give Nature your attention and see what arises, or doesn't arise.

This isn't your park, your gym, your therapy, or your inspiration. Don't reduce Nature to something you can possess. It is far greater than that, and when you realize this, it can give you far more than you could possibly ask for.

Photo credit: Anna "Rocketpack" Pusack