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Archive for May, 2016

Please do not read any further until you have clicked on this link  and discovered (or re-visited) a very different and remarkable website and blog.

Josh Gross, the creator of the site and author of the blog, has channelled his love of nature in a way

Josh hiking on Mount Ranier 2012

Josh hiking on Mount Ranier 2012

that is both unique and inspirational. More than that, he has made his blog a powerful advocacy tool on behalf of a number of species of endangered or threatened animals. Needless to say, I was both delighted and honoured when Josh agreed to write a guest post for ourgreengenes. He has entitled his post “My personal relationship with nature: loss and recovery”. You will read how he had the common adolescent experience of disengagement from nature. But you will also be intrigued and even surprised by the experiences that restored his connection and indeed took it to new heights.(Make certain you follow all the links.)    

Beginnings

My personal relationship with nature has not been entirely smooth. As a child I was enamored with the natural world, as many children are. But unlike some children I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to foster this connection.

Northeast Ohio, where I grew up, used to be full of wetlands. This restored pond at Carlisle Reservation is a snippet of what once was.

Northeast Ohio, where I grew up, used to be full    of wetlands. This restored pond at Carlisle Reservation is a snippet of what once was.

My father frequently took me to one of the excellent metro parks near my house, which are oases in the sprawling Greater Cleveland metropolitan area. There was one park in particular that contained an enclosed wildlife observation area replete with bird feeders; as well as several miles of trails. I spent many hours there watching the birds, walking in the woods, and interrogating the naturalists.

In addition to exploring my local parks, I was an avid reader as a child. The vast majority of the books I checked out from the library concerned animals. I probably read every children’s book (and a few adult books) they had about wolves. But reading about exotic creatures paled in comparison to the thrill of seeing them at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

When I was young, I enjoyed nothing more than going to the zoo. Wolves, cheetahs, lions, tigers; all the animals I was enchanted by were there. Then, sometime in middle school I visited the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s RainForest location for the first time. I suddenly found myself immersed in an environment richer than any I had experienced before. Obviously it was artificial, but the RainForest was real enough to capture my imagination. I can honestly say that my childhood visits to the zoo helped make me who I am today.

Distractions

My love for the natural world never completely left me. But during late adolescence it faded into the background. It is at this point in Western society that one must decide how to go about scrounging for the social construct of money. I had a dilemma: my greatest interest was wildlife but my disposition and talents strongly favored people-oriented work. At first I tried to take the natural sciences route. But I found social science courses to be much more enjoyable, as I was captivated by the mystery of why we humans do what we do. Therefore I ended up majoring in psychology, and eventually entered a Master’s program for Clinical Mental Health Counseling. But it would not last.

Rediscovery

I never forgot my first love. I always returned to natural spaces whenever I needed to think, and my free time became ever more filled with television programs that featured wild areas. The more my educational life was consumed by Gestalt and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the more I escaped into the electronic world of Survivorman and River Monsters . I also kept working for the same parks district I frequented as a child, even though I knew it was in the ‘wrong’ field. It was as if my unconscious mind was aware of something I was consciously ignoring.

Then the façade came crashing down. My forays into electronic procrastination led me to watch several documentaries featuring the non-profit group Panthera. So out of curiosity I ordered a copy of Alan Rabinowitz’s An Indomitable Beast . I do not know why, but this book affected me like few others. It left me enamored with this creature, the jaguar, and I had to know everything about it. In a fit of desperation I e-mailed Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity , asking if there was anything I could do to aid in jaguar recovery in the United States. Unbelievably, he replied.

Since I was enrolled in graduate school, Michael suggested I could use the educational resources at my disposal to locate a number of hard-to-find texts. The goal was to uncover references to jaguars outside of their commonly accepted historical range in the U. S.

This work enthralled me like nothing before; everything about it felt right. I had to find a way to contribute more to jaguar conservation in the future. Imagine my relief, then, when frantic googling revealed that there is such a thing as conservation psychology . It might actually be possible for me to apply psychological knowledge to biodiversity conservation. Not only that, but there are actually graduate programs at respected universities that can prepare me to enter this field. The stars had aligned.

For my friend Mopana, who informed me that Ladies Love Purple. I recommend you check out her excellent blog!

For my friend Mopana, who informed me that Ladies Love Purple. I recommend you check out her excellent blog!

Moving Forward

Thanks to a combination of hard work, fortuitous circumstances, and human kindness; I am set to become part of Humboldt State University’s Environment & Community program this August. Not only will I get to study the human dimensions of conservation, but I will be living in an area inhabited by both people and mountain lions (Puma concolor).

My blog at thejaguarandallies.com has also opened up new possibilities. As it turns out, I have some skill as a writer. Given the importance of communicating scientific information to the public in a way that is both accurate and engaging, I cannot help but wonder if this will become a more prominent part of my life.

Conclusion

My story contains a few key points. First of all, urban green spaces should not be taken for granted. It was my local metro parks district that first allowed me to nurture my love for nature. Second, despite their drawbacks, zoos can have important benefits. My childhood visits to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo enhanced my fascination with wildlife and taught me about the challenges they face. Lastly, every form of communication should be exploited in order to create a more sustainable future. Nature documentaries, River Monsters, and especially Survivorman served as lifelines for me when my relationship with nature became a peripheral concern. Live wildlife programs like Wild Safari Live are the future of this genre.

My relationship with nature has not been smooth, and at one point I nearly lost it. But unforeseen events helped me rediscover my greatest passion, and I finally feel like I am on the right path.

 

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bz A room with a viewAs this is my 100th ourgreengenes post, I thought it appropriate to write about the aspect of nature that has meant most to me. It is not nature’s beauty, wonder or tranquillity or its calming, restorative or therapeutic effects, or its nurturing impact on the developing minds and bodies of our children – precious and priceless as all of these “gifts” are.

Rather, it is the somewhat mysterious, even mystical, sense of connection with the cosmos that certain experiences in natural settings evoke. Even after 40 years, I can vividly recall one such experience.

At the end of a long, hard day of trekking in central Nepal, I was walking a little apart from my companions, weary and looking forward to reaching the campsite. I arrived at a small saddle and there in front of me was the full eastern face of Mt Dhaulagiri rising the best part of 7000 metres from the valley of the Kali Gandaki River. I was overwhelmed but I remember exclaiming to myself, “It can’t be true!”. Time stopped for me as I was totally caught up in the scene. I have no idea how long I remained there, utterly transfixed (I still get goose bumps recalling it). When I finally made my way to the camp, I had completely forgotten my fatigue and my mood had changed. Somehow the world seemed a better place.

Embedded in this experience, an example of what I call a “high moment”, was a deep sense of “oneness” with the panorama before me. Indeed, this sense of unity seemed to embrace something even more immense and grand – something of which I was completely a part. The boundaries of my “self” were utterly breached; self-awareness was replaced by a consciousness of the oneness or unity of all things.

This and other high moments in nature have left me with the unshakeable conviction that

human life is not an individual existence but a cosmic relationship.

It is true that we all have a deep awareness of our individuality and separateness. Our brains have evolved to provide us with a sense of being an individual, separate from all other individuals and entities. One of the functions of the insula region of our brain, for example, is to weave our sensations, memories, social perceptions, imaginings and expectations into a dynamic autobiographical narrative that we can hold on to as “I”, “me” and “mine”. Such a powerful sense of personal identity is essential because it gives meaning and purpose to all of our efforts to live, love and leave a legacy – to thrive and survive in other words.

But our separateness is an illusion. Being part of the unity that is the cosmos (which is what I mean by our “cosmic relationship”) connects us with everything and everyone else. We are actually part of a seamless whole in which “one is all, and all is one”.

The “felt” (as distinct from a purely intellectual) awareness of our cosmic relationship lies at the heart of wilderness or natural spirituality. Peter Ashley from the University of Tasmania has investigated people’s experience of wilderness spirituality in order to identify its defining characteristics. The salient features he found were:

  • a feeling of connection to and interrelationship with other people and nature;
  • a heightened sense of awareness and elevated consciousness beyond the everyday and corporeal world (transcendence);
  • the intellectual and emotional responses of peace, tranquillity, harmony, happiness, awe, wonder, and humbleness; and for some
  • the presence of religious meaning and connotations.

Of these features, the first was by far the most commonly reported. This is interesting but not surprising as relationships figure prominently in more general definitions of spirituality, an example being:

Spirituality is a deep feeling of compassion and unity and relatedness and connection with all of existence. (Satish Kumar)

According to Baylor Johnson , the spirituality we experience in nature confers a number of benefits. The list he has compiled includes:

the enduring’            coming face to face with ancient things and timeless cycles;

the sublime’               being humbled by the awesomeness of the wilderness landscape;

beauty’                       enjoying aesthetic pleasure;

peace of mind’          feeling calm and stress-free; and

self-forgetting’         escaping the clamour of “worldly” concerns and anxieties.

No doubt others would want to add encountering the sacred and divine to the list. And I am personally aware of instances where the spiritual impact of nature has been literally life-transforming. One that I was privileged to observe first-hand involved Irene who was on my Annapurna Sanctuary trek and later went on to devote her life to the education of orphan children in Uganda.

There are certain features of natural landscapes that are widely recognized as having spiritual connotations, including:

  • high mountainsWilderness spirituality b
  • towering cliffs
  • ancient forests
  • deserts
  • caves, canyons and overhangs, and
  • water in all its guises.

af Red sands and spinifex

There are particular natural features and places that should stir the soul of even the most nature-averse person. The Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal is surely one of them.

bl Machhapuchhari from Annapurna B C

But a spiritual response is not inevitable even in such an overwhelmingly awesome place. It will be evoked in some who go there but not others.

People who already have an affinity with nature are much more likely to experience wilderness spirituality. For that reason, any encounter which enriches our relationship with the natural world enhances our readiness for the experience. It is possible that there are some who stand in the Annapurna Sanctuary and see only a stunningly beautiful place. But others – those whose previous nature experiences have predisposed them to do so – will also feel its immense spiritual impact and understand why it is venerated by the Nepalese people.

 

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