Essay

The best thing you can do for nature is look at it

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by Heather

I have an anarcho-primitivist magazine on my bookshelf (anarcho-primitivists think civilization has poisoned our minds and we should all go back to being hunter-gatherers. Basically, anyway.). I picked up it from a friend and kept it because I was weirdly fascinated. There are some disturbing things in there; some of these people seem to want civilization to fall a little too much (sometimes I hide the magazine which actually presents a problem right now because I can’t find it). But once in a while there’s an article that makes the purest sense. One of them stuck in my mind so well I’m going to summarize it from memory.

This article’s point was that in our civilization we’ve lost the ability to see nature.

The writer says she was talking to a gardener friend of hers and trying to convince him not to exterminate the wasps that lived near his house. He asked what good they were to anybody, and she showed him that they were pollinating his plants. He hadn’t noticed.

Noticing nature used to be the most important thing on the human agenda. When you were out in the woods stalking deer and the birds all stopped singing, you paid attention, because it could mean there was a mountain lion stalking you. When you were a kid being taught which plants you could eat, you paid attention, because if Dad didn’t come home with a deer, the plants would be all you got. And as you got older you kept observing; whatever you saw, you would remember. The more you knew, the better you could survive.

We don’t notice nature anymore because we don’t need it. Not in the short term, not in the immediacy of our lives; though we may choose to live sustainably, if we get hungry and our sustainability skills fail us, we can buy us some pot-pies at the store and warm them up in the microwave and go to sleep with full bellies. Unless we deliberately go strand ourselves in the Yukon (which I do NOT recommend) we really can’t go back to how it used to be.

So now it takes conscious effort. It takes the understanding that in the long run we actually need nature just as much as we ever did.

But why does it matter? Isn’t the main point to save nature, to stop using it up? To buy organic, reduce, reuse, recycle? To grow your own?

Well for one thing as soon as you start growing your own food, noticing becomes really useful. For a gardener to know which insects are pollinating his plants and which are eating them, the value is clear.

But there’s more to it than that. In our culture we’re taught to admire nature, to see its beauty; we have thousands of the most incredible photographs of that beauty. But we aren’t encouraged to get to know it like a friend, warts and all. We’re told that the best thing we can do for the beautiful places is to leave them alone, and we’re told that to keep the ordinary old woods back from our lawns, just whack ’em with a brush-hog.

But what if we decided that ordinary woods were worth as much regard as those photos of Yosemite? I’ve gone along the edge of the woods with a machete chopping back bushes and young trees to keep them from overgrowing the woodpile, and I’ve wondered: how would it be if we never cut a plant unless we knew what it was? How would it be if while swinging my machete, I could say “Oh, that’s a hickory, I better leave that one” or “That’s a box elder, they’re a dime a dozen, it can go.”

It’s a lot harder to save nature if you don’t know what to save.

Once I brought a visiting friend to my favorite spot where a big rock overhangs our creek, and the first thing he did was to idly pull up a weed growing from a crack in the rock and toss it in the water. What he thought was a “weed” was really a columbine that I’d been watching to see whether it would flower in its inhospitable home. I got over the loss. There are still a few other columbines growing near there, and in the fall I make sure to scatter their seeds for them. We can’t take care of nature if we don’t learn to see.

I’m not an expert but I have begun to learn ways of seeing. It means keeping your eyes open, watching for patterns, getting down near the ground and looking closely. Will those roly-poly bugs with all the legs harm my plants? Look and see: in the places where they are gathered, the plants look healthy. Why is the grass growing faster under our lawn chair? Look and see: it’s trying to reach the light; almost all plants grow taller in shade.

You could spend a lifetime seeing year after year how the patterns change and how they stay the same. There’s so much more to learn about the ways of soil and its thousand variations of texture, the ways of trees, their names, and why they die, and the ways of animals.

You can watch too. No matter where you live, there’s always a little bit of soil. There’s always something growing. There are always birds and bugs to look at, imagine their lives and notice their patterns. There are wilder things than we know. In the city I’ve seen wild jack-in-the-pulpits popping up in the middle of someone’s lawn groundcover; at night in Chicago, coyotes howl. Nature is everywhere. She’d like us to see her, to be more than just dutiful protectors.

She’d like us to be her friends.

Heather Munn has a BA in literature from Wheaton College and now lives in a Christian intentional community in rural Illinois, where she and her husband, Paul, host free spiritual retreats especially for those transitioning out of homelessness or addiction. She has published a young adult novel, How Huge the Night, with Kregel Publications.

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