I am concerned that where and how most of us live are producing a serious “blind spot” in the important business of self-understanding.
One way of tapping into our own self-understanding is by pondering the question, Who am I? We draw answers to this question from two main sources – our life experiences and the people around us. From both sources we learn where we belong, how we fit in and what we can do and be.
As most of us live, work, socialise and play in urban environments, there is great pressure on us to see ourselves as exclusively urban creatures.
That is a pressure we must resist because it leads to a seriously incomplete picture of who we are.
We are in many significant respects, wild creatures.
Charles Darwin recognised this over 100 years ago when he categorised humans as a “wild species”. By this he meant that all of us are essentially creatures of the natural world. As a species, we evolved in and for that world, acquiring in the process the genes responsible for our “wildness”.
Some may think that these genes and our wildness have been swamped by the sophisticated cultures that shape modern life. Edward O Wilson (of biophilia fame) put paid to this idea. “Genes have culture on a leash”, he said. By this he means that, although there are many options in culture (a long leash), the availability of these options is dependent on our genes. A beautiful work of art, for example, is the product of a host of influences but essential among them is the brain’s inherited (genetic) capacity to experience beauty. In the absence of this capacity, beauty would not exist, much less find expression in image, word, dance, music and otherwise.
The ability to apprehend beauty is just one of the cultural foundations that are grounded in our wildness. Others include curiosity, wonder, awe, creativity and reasoning. Yes, reasoning! The basic sensory and thinking capabilities our forebears used in their hunting and gathering are the same as those that made possible the moon landing. Paradoxical as it may seem, we are able to build and exist in our “non-natural” environments because of genes that evolved in nature.
And we should feel immensely indebted to these genes for another reason. They shape our brains to respond to nature in ways that directly nurture our physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being. Think of de-stressing, mental restoration, tranquillity and transcendence, for example along with the relationship these responses have with reflective thinking, self-control, empathy and altruism.
I know that I have blogged about much of this before. But this time around I want to emphasise how very important it is for us to acknowledge our nature-biased and nature-friendly brain – our wildness in other words.
It is important for several reasons. If we fail to acknowledge this part of ourselves, we are much less likely to take advantage of it – and what a loss that is! As well-known ABC journalist and broadcaster, Geraldine Douge, said in a recent interview, Divorced from nature you lose part of yourself.
You certainly lose out on some of the richest mental, emotional and spiritual experiences life has to offer. It is like playing a piano but ignoring the black keys or having a sailing boat but never using the spinnaker.
And it is more than the loss of experiences that is at stake. To be divorced from nature is to compromise our overall quality of life. American essayist and naturalist, John Burroughs, makes the point very emphatically. “If I were to name the three most precious resources of life,” he wrote,” I should say books, friends, and nature; and the greatest of these, at least the most constant and always at hand, is nature”.
What a difference it would make if we all saw our relationship with nature in this way. Individual and national well-being would surely be greater, and the political, bureaucratic and commercial vandalism of the environment would be a thing of the past.
Hasten the day. “Claim your wildness”.