Nature and Wilderness
When I was a child, my family moved a new suburb on the edge of Toronto, a typical North American city, beginning its post-war growth spurt. My back yard was a forest that led down into a river valley - still natural and full of wonder. For a few years, I enjoyed this natural environment and made friends with trees, flowers, birds, raccoons and fish in the river. I discovered peace and joy in the natural environment. The city grew, as I grew, and I watched the cherished natural environments of my childhood disappear -swallowed up and replaced by houses, roads, and shopping malls. I adapted to an increasingly urban existence and enjoyed parts of it, but for many years I dreamed of returning to a place of nature.
Eventually, I found my way back to a more natural environment on the West Coast of Canada and restored there a sense of well being and kinship with the ocean, forest and mountains. I regretted the destruction of the natural world of my childhood and to this day have a deep, relentless sense of foreboding- little good can come out what we have done to our precious Mother Earth. I see the health of individuals and populations all inextricably meshed with world ecology and I see our species in trouble. We are creatures with a tragically split personality. Part of us is destructive, selfish and confused. The other part of us is tender, affectionate and feels reverence and awe whenever we make ourselves available to perceive the natural world as the divine temple.
Nature stands apart from whatever humans have made and Mother Nature is a term of reverence for the principles and energies that infuse the living world with structure and meaning. Most humans retain a sense of kinship with natural environments. Even urban dwellers will seek out little moments of nature and will feel deep satisfaction when they can sit for a moment in park, watch birds or find their way to a beach to hear and feel the reassuring action of waves. A sense of natural beauty is rooted in old primate preferences for food-rich, flowering plants and trees, for savannahs with abundant game and vistas that are simple and easy to understand.
One essence of being human is that you are an adaptable and nomadic creature. Your innate preferences are layered like layers in sedimentary rock that allows geologists to read the history of a place over millions of years. Your deepest feelings come from the oldest parts of your brain that still recognize features of an environment that appealed to early mammals and perhaps to more ancient creatures such as reptiles and dinosaurs. Hominids evolved in Africa and followed a lineage from tree-living primates who ate plants and insects to ground-dwelling creatures that wandered further and further as time went on, perfecting the attributes and skills of nomadic hunters and gatherers
Humans in the past 200,000 years have wandered all over the planet and settled in every place that could sustain their life. Our deepest recognitions come from contact with rocks, wood, fire, metal, bone and water. The history of the unique features of our mind is rooted in a very slow, gradual transformation from creatures who lived in nature to creatures who transformed the nature of rocks, bone and wood into tools, weapons, clothing and shelters. The finest of homes to this day display rock, wood and fire. Civilized humans still cook meat over fires in back yards and fires improvised on beaches, feeling more peaceful and authentic on a camping trip when they are closer to their inner and wilder nature.
The term “Umwelt” was introduced in 1930 by biologist, von Uexküll to describe the different "real worlds" that animals perceive with different sensory systems. He built mechanical devices to simulate their perceptual Weltanschauungen or worldview. The compound eye of insects saw the world in multiple images, for example.
Snyder suggested that: “Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and no-living beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order. When an ecosystem is fully functional, all members are present at the assembly. To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came from that wholeness. Deep Ecology thinkers insist that the natural world has a value in its own right, that the health of natural systems should be our first concern, and that this best serves the interests of all humans as well...Environmental concerns and politics have spread worldwide. In some countries, the focus is almost entirely on human health and welfare issues. It is proper that the range of the movement should run from wildlife to urban health. But there can be no health for humans and cities that bypasses the rest of nature... A sophisticated postindustrial citizen will be asking: is there any way we can go with rather against nature?"
Umwelt can refer to the both the perception of the natural world and the deep sense of belonging that most humans feel in some natural places. You could argue that we like wide-open spaces because we can see what is going on and feel safer. You can see predators and enemies at a distance and take action before they are close enough to attack you. It is better to be high rather than low. Climb any tree, hill or mountain and you feel a sense of calm, power and liberation. Trees have a special significance since our distant primate ancestors all lived in, or at least, slept in trees. Children spontaneously climb trees and want to build tree houses. Adult humans seldom climb trees because they become too heavy and lack the upper body strength to climb easily. Our bodies have adapted to the ground. Our legs are heavier and stronger than our arms.