Finding Our Place in the Natural World

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

John Muir (1838-1914)

A naturalist, a preservationist, and one of the earliest advocates of the national park idea, John Muir’s words ring true today more than ever.  When I read this quote, I wondered if John Muir could have possibly envisioned the effects of modern industrialization, development, and human population growth on the world and environment today.  A co-founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir felt a spiritual connection to the Earth, believing that man is just one part of the interconnectedness of all things, living and nonliving, in the natural world.  Through his spirituality, Muir believed that God is revealed through nature.

When I reflect on Muir’s quote, I am touched by two ideas: our connection to, and, place in the natural world, and our human impact on the natural world.  When I look around me and take notice of my movements and actions throughout my day, I realize how little contact I have with nature.  I am indoors for most of my day, and on some days entirely.  I use my appliances without thought about my impact, and throw away my garbage without thinking too much about where it will go.  In our home we are diligent about recycling and we compost our food waste, but I wonder how much of a dent that makes.  I drive my automobile to and from work, burning gasoline that gives off exhaust that becomes a part of the atmosphere, but I don’t think about that when I’m hitting the preset on the car’s radio.  When I consider that I live most of my days in this way and that most people in today’s world live in the same way, I have to wonder, what impact are we making together, and why are we so out of touch?

Modern industry, technology, and development put so many demands on the natural world, and yet, who would want to give up all the benefits that have resulted from the progresses in each of these areas?  It would be hard to go backwards, and yet with benefit has come much harm and change to the environment; some of it irreversible.  Some industries have caused species of animals to mutate or to become extinct, or worse – to suffer when mistakes are made.  Every time we see an oil spill we are given another opportunity to wonder, “how many animals must suffer or die for the sake of our dependence upon oil?”  We seem to raise our level of awareness when a crisis occurs, but not in a sustained way.  When the crisis is averted or over we return to life as usual.  Most of us are guilty of that mentality, myself included.

So what can we do?  There is much we can do in supporting change in industry and technology, and making change in our own daily living choices, no doubt.  My suggestion for this moment is that we start by increasing our awareness of, and exposure to the natural world.  We can take direction from John Muir and go out and experience the natural world for ourselves.  After being temporarily blinded in an accident, Muir was inspired to get out and see the world.  Incredibly, John Muir’s first of many wilderness walks took him on a 1000-mile journey from Indianapolis to Florida’s Gulf Coast!  While a 1000-mile trek is not for most of us, we can experience nature in simpler, yet satisfying ways.  Seek out parks and arboretums, take a walk in the woods, visit a farm.  If you can, get to the ocean or take a walk by a stream.  Take a hike or spend time in the backyard, if you have one.  You don’t have to go far to find a connection to nature, you just have to go outside.

Finally, when I read Muir’s quote again to myself, it comes to me that it is not enough for us to be aware of how things in nature are attached to the rest of the world.  Instead, we must realize that the rest of the natural world is attached to us as well; no part operates in isolation.  As humans, in our pursuit of survival and comfort, we have been (in large part) egocentric.  Perhaps now would be a good time for us to consider becoming ecocentric, or at least to pause and give thought to how we fit in this incredible gift of our natural world.



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