In just a few weeks, the trees in the residential neighborhoods of our town will be blazing with autumn reds and golds, and many of our friends and neighbors will be saying, “Gotta get out to Starved Rock State Park or at least the Arboretum.”
We love nature, or at least we say we do. Every one of my friends has at least one story about a time when they were awestruck by something in nature — sitting speechless at the lip of the Grand Canyon at sunset; seeing Denali for the first time; standing at the foot of a Sequoia and feeling like they were on sacred ground.
We might even pull our copy of Walden off the shelf and read again Henry David Thoreau’s rapturous lines: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
The problem is that Thoreau had this romantic, idealized image of nature in his head and heart, but he didn’t really live in it. His cabin was a short walk from his mother who regularly helped him out by doing his laundry and packing a lunch for him to carry back to his “wilderness cabin.”
“In reality,” writes Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker, “Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its southwest side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters.”
We, too, often wax eloquent about our love of nature, but when we do get away from civilization and “back to nature” we do it in a civilized way. We view it through the windshield of our air-conditioned car or in the comfort of a tour bus or on the deck of a cruise ship sailing through a Norwegian fjord.
We love nature in the abstract and in comfortable doses, but hardly anyone wants to live in it.
I think it’s fair to say we love civilization more than nature, and now you might say that nature, with its forest fires and floods, is suing civilization for divorce. The benefits of civilization, it seems obvious to me, have all been made possible by fossil fuels. And now — ask folks in Pakistan and Puerto Rico — nature like a jilted lover is demanding that we start paying alimony.
Most of us know how to survive in the urban jungle more than we do in a campground in Wisconsin. And that’s a problem because, to me, many of the lessons needed to reduce global warming will not be learned in the big city.
I have some good news and some bad news, the doctor told her patient. The bad news is you’re over-medicated. The good news is we have a pill for that.
Technology and our consumer economy have brought us the highest level of material comfort the world has ever known, but it has also pushed us to the edge of an apocalyptic environmental disaster. Fantasizing that technology and the private sector will be the “pill for that” is an illusion.
As I’ve watched myself and the people around me behave for 75 years now, thinking that wind and solar are going to satisfy our addiction to “flip of the switch” to unlimited energy is shortsighted at best. We have to become “uncivilized,” if you will, and learn to live with and in nature more than we do now. That will require personal change.
For starters it might mean grabbing a rake instead of a leaf blower, a shovel instead of a snow blower.
Those of us who say they love nature often mean they love to be an occasional “tourist” in nature. We don’t want to put up with mosquitoes and single-digit temperatures at football games.
We want it both ways, and but it doesn’t work that way.
We look for the words “all natural” on the labels at the grocery store, and I think we have to do the same with our lifestyles.
Living naturally does not always mean living comfortably. Nature can be challenging, if not downright cruel, as well as beautiful. Talk to addicts in recovery. Withdrawal is not fun, but they/we do it because we keep our eye on the prize.
Nature has a lot to teach us “civilized” people, but the lessons can’t be learned while standing on the deck of a cruise ship.
Somehow we have to become more un-civilized.