Gut Reactions Aren’t Always Right

the Land, the Sky and the Sea – all part of Nature

crossposted with No Unsacred Place

Last week fellow No Unsacred Place contributor Lupa wrote an excellent piece titled “We Do Not Return to Nature. We Are Already There.” If you haven’t already read it I encourage you to do so. The title is self-explanatory, and in the first paragraph she says:

I would bet that the majority of people who think of “nature” are thinking of open areas that have a minimum of human impact, where the signs of humanity are reduced or even almost entirely eradicated. And I feel that’s a grave shortcoming in our perceptions.

My initial, gut-level reaction was not favorable – when I read the title, I instinctively thought “no, you’re wrong.” But when I carefully read Lupa’s essay I couldn’t find anything to disagree with. Why? Why did I have this emotional disconnect on such an important concept? From reading the comments, I see I wasn’t the only one.

After thinking on this and letting it incubate for almost a week, I’ve come to the conclusion that my disconnect is the result of a no-longer-helpful evolutionary impulse.

The human brain has evolved to classify things into a few discrete categories – usually two. Forget computers and the internet – the real information overload is in the natural world. Look at a tree: how tall is it? How many branches does it have? What color and shape are the leaves? Does it have fruit? Is anything living in it? What does it smell like? What is the bark like? There are hundreds if not thousands of qualities of the tree for you to notice – and they’re all changing slowly but continuously.

While you were contemplating all the miraculous, continuous details of the tree, a lion ate you and removed you from the gene pool. Our early ancestors learned to focus their powerful but finite brains on the “critical few” instead of the “trivial many.” Nature may work continuously, but we instinctively divide Nature into good/bad, helpful/harmful, friend/foe, animals-I-can-eat/animals-that-will-eat-me and so on. On a deep time scale we aren’t very far removed from living in trees and many of us are instinctively dividing environments into “Nature” and “not-Nature.”

And if “Nature” is good, then “not-Nature” must be bad, or at least inferior.

One of the purposes of religion – any religion – is helping us overcome the limits of evolution. The traits that served our ancestors well for millions of years of living in the wild don’t always serve us well in the modern world. A biological urge to eat more than you need is a good thing when food is scarce. When food is always plentiful it’s not so helpful, as I and millions of other Americans can attest. The urge to divide everything into two diametrically opposed categories is similarly unhelpful in a world that grows more complex by the minute.

Modern Pagan and Earth-centered religions have developed in part as a response to the excesses of the Industrial Revolution: pollution, deforestation, and the mass migration from rural environments to urban ones. We are creatures of the Land, the Sky, and the Sea – remove us from that environment and our bodies and souls tell us something is wrong.

But the solution is not to go back to pre-industrial subsistence farming. For all their ills, modern industry and technology have made our lives longer, easier, and less risky. As I’ve said many times, I wouldn’t want to live in Texas without air conditioning… or at any time in history before the development of general anesthesia. Cities and suburbs have advantages over rural areas, mostly due to economies of scale: a city can support libraries, museums, hospitals, markets and businesses that support and employ their populations. Cities are inherently more energy-efficient than rural areas, primarily due to their density. We recognize this or so many of us wouldn’t live there.

The challenge of our lives as we live them here and now and are likely to live them in the future is how to live in cities and suburbs in a way that is responsible and sustainable and that maintains our spiritual connections to the Land, Sky and Sea. We can’t do that if we see these environments as “not-Nature.”

It’s easy to connect to Nature in the wilderness. It’s harder to maintain those connections in urban environments. But if we’re going to live there – and most of us are – it’s necessary. It requires intention. It requires mindfulness. It requires a commitment to regular spiritual practice.

And it requires an understanding that there truly is no unsacred place.

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