During the past two days I spent some time with a young man less than two years old.
His name is Ren-rui, and on Saturday he, his mother and I had lunch at a restaurant about a kilometer from the office. After lunch we decided to enjoy the sun and walk back instead of packing the carriage into a taxi. As we walked down the sidewalks along Lin Sen North Road I tried to interest him in some of the leaves that had fallen from the trees. I think that he was just happy to be out and about, so he wasn’t really concerned with the different shapes and colors of the treasure trove I tried to show him.
But as we went past a large parking lot full of buses nearly as large, he was very attracted, and kept looking towards the buses as though he was eager to climb aboard in anticipation of some exciting venture out on to the highways.
Walking south to Shih-min Ta Tao, we crossed Lin Sen toward the train station and came to the little strips of grass and trees along the sidewalk on the north side of the street. My normal reaction upon seeing grass or uncovered ground is to remove my shoes and walk barefoot. This time was no exception.
I was holding Ren-rui’s hand and gently guided him to the edge of the sidewalk where the grass begins. He looked at me curiously as I removed my shoes and started to walk on the green carpet to soak up the energy. His mother was pushing the cart on the sidewalk, and I was just starting to discover tiny yellow flowers, miniature butterflies, edible clover, and even some mushrooms. But Ren-rui just stood at the edge, looking at me, and then looking toward his mother with anxious eyes on the verge of tears.
Certainly we were physically close enough that he would have no fears of being left behind.
Then it occurred to me. A couple days earlier his mother had commented that although she has been active in environmental movements for many years, she had never really come “close to nature”. She noted how she had grown up in the city and had had very little contact with rural farm-life, much less “the wild”.
The cities, buildings, cars, and all the rest really do have an alienating effect on us all. Staring at “dead” walls of concrete, lifeless glass, and all that concrete, bundles of dead metal heaps – albeit brightly colored and carrying all kinds of other sensory stimuli – deadens our ability to react and interact. Thank heavens there is some life about us - people. But people alone are not enough to facilitate the development that we all go through until we die and go back to the earth. We need the plants and the bugs and the dirt to keep us alive and stimulated in ways that movies, cars, clothes and airplanes will never do. We can’t blame these objects that take up so much of our affection and attention – for they are dead. But we can ensure that our children will have more enrichment, and that doesn’t require building any more playgrounds, taking them to any more McDonalds, or giving them anymore candy bars, English tutoring or piano lessons. It is right in front of us – still. There is never enough, but let’s start making do with what we have and hopefully we will start lowering the rate with which we are ruining it – and perhaps we can even start restoring it.
But we are constantly getting the message that we need comfort and stability. I would generally agree, but the message is more than this. The message we receive from our “system” is that those comforts and stability can only be achieved through carrying on as we have for thousands of years: continuously “simplifying” our lives, separating our work and leisure, growing at the greatest potential without any recognition of limits or carrying capacity of our environment, making laws and rules instead of just observing those natural laws and rules that are so obvious.
Life is complex. Natural surfaces are infinite in their contours. Here Ren-rui was being “invited” to walk on ground that wasn’t as smooth and flat as a sidewalk. He was on the verge of entering the “unknown”. The grass covered up the subtle bumps and rolls of the ground from which it grows, the little insects were certainly strangers to the apartment or other buildings which only house an occasional cockroach or other insect that hasn’t been annihilated by poisons, rolled up newspapers or been “starved by sterility”. The smells that come from the little patch of green were certainly much different from those of exhaust, garbage, chemical cleaners and solvents that comprise the normal sensory dose we all get from the streets or our cities.
And we must not downplay the importance of familiarity. Even though it may be bad for us, so are nearly all addictions.
So that was my lesson from Ren-rui.
Daniel Quinn, the author whose books such as Beyond Civilization had a profound impact on me, talks of nature dispassionately and even says that he is no lover of nature, preferring the comforts of his urban neighborhood to walks in the “great outdoors”. Yet he has written extensively and most persuasively about our needs for nature – if it’s not here, we humans will not be here either. So despite his professing not to be a lover of nature, he is most passionate about “saving the world” and brings a dispassionate view of the way things are – without the acacia tree there is no hope for humans.
How we come round to the conclusion that we must “do whatever it takes” to realign ourselves with the world, is not really an issue. We must get to this frame of mind. If we arrive at a young age, so much the better.
I will settle for this mindset of living lightly as possible on the earth whether it is from what appears to be an almost an innate reverence for nature as with all indigenous peoples who have not been infected by civilization, from the exposure we receive at young and impressionable ages, or through the discovery in later life by, e.g., reading the works of Daniel Quinn, Paul Hawken and the like. So long as we begin to honor nature and as the Iroquois are said to have done, project in all our actions a seven-generation plan, there is hope.
If one has been unfortunate not to grow up in “isolation from civilization”, probably the best way to approach this mindset is with our children to create an environment where they can learn more species of plants and animals than brands and trademarks.
So what might we individuals and organizations (businesses, schools, government agencies) do? One easy step to take is for all of to do what we can to facilitate the exposure of children (all of us are children, but we probably have a little more leverage with the younger ones) to nature. For through this exposure they will gain an appreciation of how nature is part of us and how we can learn from nature, and how we can derive joy from nature and ultimately find our equilibrium as an individual on earth.
Draft - 20 October 2003 Revised 28 August 2010