Archive for May, 2015

What happens when a circus lion reconnects with earth, grass and rock after 13 years of captivity?

See for yourself by taking a moment to look at this video clip  taken at the Rancho dos Gnomos Sanctuary in Brazil.

There is no mistaking the lion’s pleasure – in the way it paws the earth and rolls on the grass, for example.Freed lion a Its actions are saying as eloquently as any words, this is my scene; this is where I belong; this is where I need to be. Thirteen years of incarceration in cages had not dimmed the lion’s instinctive bond with the natural world.

Freed lionWatching the video reminded me of what Peter Greste said when he was asked what he most wanted to do after being released from 12 months in an Egyptian jail. His reply: Watching a few sunsets…, watching the stars, feeling the sand under my toes — the little things.

Although very different creatures, the lion and Peter were conveying a strikingly similar message – they each have needs that only contact with the natural environment can satisfy.

This is true for all of us and there is no mystery about the reason. We, along with lions and all other animals have our origins in the same place – the natural world. We have all been fashioned by that world so that we can be part of it. That makes us members of a “wild” species just as much as every other creature. Biologically, we belong in the “wild” no less than the liberated lion at Rancho dos Gnomos – and because our psychology is grounded in our biology, the same wild heritage shapes much that goes on in our minds and is expressed in our actions.

Up until 10 – 12 thousand years ago, this would have been obvious in our forebears’ hunting and gathering way of life. Of necessity, they lived lives that were seamlessly interwoven with the natural environment. They drew directly on that environment for sustenance and shelter. They were also mentally and emotionally attracted to the environment even though it contained many hazards and threats to survival. They had both an innate love and an innate fear of nature – the one inviting them to reach out to the natural world, the other to be prudently wary in their reaching out. As the combination of a love and fear of nature was essential for their survival, it was programmed into their genes, to be passed on from one generation to another.

So here we are today with brains primed to connect us mentally and emotionally with the natural world and to richly reward us when we do.

The scientist most responsible for making us aware of this very important aspect of ourselves is Edward O Wilson. He borrowed the label, Wilsonbiophilia”, to refer to it. That was over 30 years ago but Wilson remains as convinced as ever that biophilia is real and a big part of what makes us human. To ignore or neglect the inclinations and impulses that are fueled by biophilia, is to lose a great deal of what it means to be a human. Just as feed-lot cows can never be fully cows or battery chickens fully chickens, humans confined to a constructed and increasingly technological world can never be fully human.

Feed-lot cows and battery chickens appear to be happy; generally they are well-fed, sheltered and protected from harm. What then is so wrong about their lives? The answer, I think, boils down to this – they are not able to do all the things that is natural for cows and chickens to do, to roam, graze and “socialize” freely, for example.

As far as we humans are concerned, very much the same rationale applies. Technology can offer us just so much, but to enjoy our “humanness” to the full, we need a rich connection with nature.

Discovering the range of personal benefits associated with this connection inspired me to write Claim Your Wildness. But the connection has a significance and importance that extends well beyond the personal and the immediate.

The future of the planet depends on it.

Re-establishing the human connection with nature has to be an important theme in conservation and in the movement to curb climate change. For Wilson, the first rule of climate management is to save the living environment – save the species and ecosystems that are our cradle and where we developed and on which we’ve depended for literally millions of years—then automatically you’ll save the physical environment.

It is all well and good to do such things as slowing down climate change, expanding sustainable sources of fresh water, developing alternative fuels, reducing pollution – all the things that people think correctly are of central importance in management of the planet. But, says Wilson, if you set out to save only the physical environment, then you will lose them both, the physical and living environments.

The implication of what Wilson is saying is clear. If we are to save the planet, and hence ourselves, we must first strengthen our own connection with the living environment. This will foster the love, understanding and respect for the natural world ( the biophilia) that effective conservation action requires. If that connection decays through neglect then away goes the necessary commitment and passion.

Wilson is concerned that this is already happening – that our increased dependence on technology has led to a weakening of the human drive to connect with nature.

In fact, the loss of desire to interact with the natural world, resulting in a decreased appreciation for the diversity of life-forms that support human survival, has been cited as a potential factor contributing to environmental destruction and the rapid rate of species extinction.


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I was intrigued by this photo of an intensely interested Zoe taken when she was seven months…Watching a tree The scene Zoe was watching

…because this is what she was looking at – not just once and briefly, but repeatedly for minutes at a time.

It may have been the leaves that captured and held her attention but I think that it was more likely the blue sky.

A couple of months before, I was watching her as she was being pushed along in her pram. The hood was down as the sun was low in the sky. She was lying on her back but it was obvious that something was attracting her attention. She kept tilting her head backwards clearly intent on taking in the view overhead. All there was to see, as far as I could tell, was the sky, which on that day was an expanse of blue. Those with me, including her mother, agreed. We realised that this might well have been Zoe’s first experience of the wide blue sky.

Zoe’s response is not surprising. The colour blue, especially sky blue, has a distinctive and spontaneous effect on all of us. It works on our brains to stimulate feelings of calmness, relaxation and well-being. Little wonder that sky blue is a universally popular colour, which enhances enormously the appeal of real, painted and photographed landscapes. It also plays and important part in heightening the attractiveness of water views.

Landscape painting b Zhang's study 3 more beautiful

Strictly speaking it is not the “blueness” of blue that produces its emotional effect. Blueness is the product of brain activity stimulated by short-length light waves falling on special colour cells (cone cells) in the retina at the back of our eyes. Because our brains can differ in the way they process the information from cone cells, it is possible that the “blue” you see is not the same “blue” I see. This is true for all visible colours. But even if my blue is your red, both of us will still say that the sky is blue and a strawberry is red.

Where blue is concerned, however, the picture is a little more complicated. Scientists have discovered that there is a second colour-sensitive pathway linking our eyes and brain. This pathway begins with cells in the retina that contain melanopsin. This is a pigment that is sensitive to blue light. Its presence enables our eyes to gauge both the amount of blue and yellow in incoming light and the intensity of that light. The pathway carries this information directly to parts of the brain involved in emotion. So the emotional effect of blueness is the same for all of us regardless of any differences in the blue that we are actually seeing.

The information is also transmitted to those parts of the brain responsible for the regulation of the circadian rhythm – the daily cycle of waking and sleeping. Bright blue light signals daytime and prompts wakefulness while its absence triggers the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. (Yellow-red firelight on the other hand makes us drowsy.)

Another interesting thing about blue light is that it improves memory and the expansive kind of thinking involved in creativity. For example, researchers gave over 600 participants six different cognitive tests presented on computer monitors that had blue, white or red backgrounds. If the task was creative, like brainstorming or drawing a picture out of a bloodstain, participants did twice as well with blue backgrounds as they did when the background on the monitor was red.

Why blue encourages us to be broader and more flexible in our thinking is not understood. Perhaps it is because we associate blue with the vastness of the sky and the ocean, and this somehow enables us to broaden our mental horizons.

I would like to think that Zoe was beginning to discover the vastness as well as the blueness of the sky.

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The irony has not been lost on me. In my last post, I wrote about nature as a friend in personally difficult times. Less than a fortnight later comes the news of the devastating earthquake in Nepal. The same natural forces that are building the scenically magnificent Himalaya have unleashed tragedy, destruction and hardship on a scale that defies belief. Even though I have visited Kathmandu many times and know the city and its people reasonably well, I have difficulty grasping the horror of the situation.

Such events confront us with the reality that our relationship with nature is inevitably one of contrasts – damaging as well as nurturing, hostile as well as friendly, oppressive as well as uplifting, and repelling as well as attracting. The human experience of nature is both good and bad.

This is so simply because the natural world is what it is – complex, powerful and far from fully predictable – and we are who we are – fragile and vulnerable creatures. We co-exist with the natural world only to the extent that we adapt to it. And although we have adapted remarkably well in many respects, we can never do so completely. Storms, tempest, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes will continue to plague us. We might find better ways of limiting their impact but we will never prevent or control them.

This is a fact of life that we have to accept – something that may be easier to do when we recognise that without the “bad” in nature there would be no “good”. Quite simply, without its destructive side, the natural world – the ultimate source of our well-being – would not exist. Earthquakes, for example, are an integral and essential part of the same process that has provided the lands on which we live.

I am not for one minute offering this as a word of comfort to the suffering Nepalese people. And I am certainly not implying that they have brought the devastation on themselves for living in an earthquake prone region or for neglecting to earthquake-proof their buildings and infrastructure.

If there is a message at all, it is for anyone who sees the earthquake as the act, punitive or otherwise, of a hard-to-understand deity.

If there are to be feelings of guilt, they should be for the fact that the division of rich and poor nations across the world leaves countries like Nepal without the resources to mitigate the effects of natural disasters.

This thought adds to my anguish. We can well ask, as my cousin Marie has, Why do such awful things happen in countries which are so vulnerable? For me, a more basic question is, Why do we tolerate the inequalities that produce the vulnerability in the first place?


My daughter, Wendy, took this photo in Birtamod, a city in eastern Nepal, four days After the quake enhancedafter the quake. Although terrifying, the quake was far less destructive in Birtamod than in Kathmandu. (Please read her latest blogs)

The photo is taken from the roof of the house where Wendy has been living – and this is very significant. For her to have ventured on the roof meant that the great fear caused by the quake was passing – largely because there had been no aftershocks for 24 hours or more.

The image she captured is also very symbolic in my view. The aching pain of the Nepalese people is represented in the sombre greyness of the pre-monsoon clouds on the right. But in the light streaming from the clouds I see messages of a different kind – of the inspiringly generous gifts of money, water and food that are beginning to stream from Birtamod to the stricken people of Kathmandu and nearby regions; of the monsoon rains that will ensure that the water and food aid can continue; and of the immense goodness that remains part of nature even when nature itself makes this difficult to appreciate.

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