In an old essay on Ebon Musings, “Finding Beauty in the Mundane“, I wrote in a contemplative mood:
Have you ever considered the trees? Though their kind of life is far grander, slower and more patient than ours, they are each individuals, as different as human beings are. They add beauty to the world, give peace in their dappled shade, freshen the air and enrich the earth, and turn even the most hard-edged urban environment into a blossoming garden. We humans grew up beneath the trees, and we love them still…
Several years later, I still find this to be true. Whether I’m depressed or whether I’m already feeling good, it’s almost always the case that visiting a botanical garden or a nature preserve, or even just going for a walk on a tree-lined street, noticeably improves my mood. The sight of sunlight slanting down through green leaves never fails to give me a sense of calm and peace. I tend to think the cause is that looking up at a tree reawakens one’s sense of perspective: it’s hard to see your own troubles as so serious in the presence of an organism that measures time only in years and decades.
But trees have more than just aesthetic benefits. Human beings feel an instinctive attraction to nature and wilderness, what E.O. Wilson called biophilia, and we flourish in its presence. For example, in one famous study, surgical patients who could see trees outside their window recovered faster and required fewer painkillers than patients whose window looked out on a brick wall. Other studies have found that greener urban areas have lower crime rates and that being in green environments lessens the symptoms of ADHD and improves schoolchildren’s academic performance. (And that’s not even to mention the many environmental and economic benefits of trees, either.)
The most likely explanation for this is that millions of years of evolution have instilled in us a built-in preference for certain kinds of environments, namely those most similar to our species’ ancestral habitat. Wilson argues that this is the savanna, an open grassland broken up by patches of forest. This is the habitat we evolved in, the one we’re best adapted to, and when we’re placed in such an environment, we tend to fare better both mentally and physically. Urban environments, by contrast, present very different stressors that the human species never evolved to deal with.
I wonder if this feeling of displacement from nature is something that plays a role in religious conversions. When people live only in cities, surrounded by concrete and fluorescent lights, separated from nature, they do feel a sense of isolation and loss, and most of them don’t know why. Religious proselytizers, of course, claim they can offer something to fill that void, and to people who don’t know the true cause of these feelings, it’s probably an effective sales pitch.
But when you know the true source of these feelings, the imitation can’t compare to the reality. As I found for myself, the feeling of awe induced by direct contact with nature at its most spectacular is an ecstasy that easily compares to anything offered by any church. That’s a piece of knowledge we ought to spread more widely. If more people understood the true, natural roots of human spirituality, the artificial attractions of religion might not prove so resilient.