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. 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.
Watching 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, “biophilia”, 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.