Apr. 14, 2019

Nature expands our perceptual capacities

I was reading a study about environmental activists. One of the findings was that a significant number of participants expressed they had a relationship with a special place as a child. The land and life upon it provides a context that allows one to make meaning and feel belonging. It also inspires action to protect such special places. 

This immersion improves our perceptual capacities deepening the meaning we construct from experience. There is something about immersing ourselves in a natural place that allows us to use our feeling sense to find the heart of a place, to feel connected.                                     Stephen Harrod Buhner

Literary or scientific, liberal or specialist, all our education is predominantly verbal and therefore fails to accomplish what it is supposed to do. Instead of transforming children into fully formed adults, it turns out students of the natural sciences who are completely unaware of Nature as the primary fact of experience, it inflicts on the world students of the humanities who know nothing of humanity, their own or anyone else’s.                                             Aldous Huxley

No student of ecology is ever introduced to this new mode of mental discipline—in our schools and colleges. There is no culture of experiencing oneness with the natural world. All one does on an ecology trip is to collect and measure. Deep contemplation of nature is considered to be at worst a waste of time, at best something to do in one’s spare time…  Truly great scientists had this connection, this sense of the greater whole of which they were a part. Without educating this sensitivity, we churn out scientists without philosophy, who are merely interested in their subject, but not thoroughly awed by it. We churn out clever careerists… It is this kind of training which leads to the mentality responsible for the massive social and environmental mistakes of Western-style development. Trained to shut down perception of the world so that we see it as a mere machine, we are perfectly free to improve the clockwork for our own ends.              Stephan Harding

I am a college professor and I have been reflecting on the attitude of my students to learning or rather, schooling. I promote active, experiential learning and provide such experiences for my students. Beyond learning content, shouldn’t students develop skills that can be applied in any real life situation? Shouldn’t they learn to live quality lives in the spaces where they reside? But my students have been trained by the game of schooling to memorize and regurgitate. For many of them, it’s all about the grade.  They mistakenly think that is learning because that is their school experience. It’s a very shallow and meaningless experience. When I take them outdoors, it is amazing to me how little they know about the tamed version of the natural world that surrounds them. They can’t name a tree or a bird that they walk past everyday on the way to class. I see so many of them walking with their faces directed to their phones and the real world surrounding them is just the space they have to travel to get to their next destination. They have been trained to focus on the destination (the one right answer), but totally miss out on the gifts of the journey.

This narrowing of our perception has led to the problem of nature deficits and the natural world no longer provides the contextual background that has framed human lives for millennia. We evolved in a nature and are designed to learn and grow in the natural world. Our preoccupation with the comforts and conveniences of modern life have removed many of us from the natural world that nurtures our evolution. Nature provides a context for meaning and removing ourselves from that meaningful presence has stunted our growth and severed us from our feeling sense. The benefits for people from nature experience in terms of health and well-being are plentiful in research literature. It can be exhilarating to experience the wonder of it all. The benefits to nature from human connection could impact our perspective of nature, our feelings toward nature and our behaviors toward the environment that sustains our lives.