And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
— William Shakespeare
It was not so long ago that throughout our entire lives, we had a direct and constant relationship with nature.
We were awoken by the first rays of light, and we would go to sleep shortly after nightfall. Every day, we’d spend long hours outdoors, our feet in contact with the earth. In the summer we’d work and stock up for winter, and in the winter we’d rest and repair our tools. The rhythm of our lives was dictated by nature—we were a product of our ecosystem, and entirely indistinguishable from it.
We would feed off the plants that grew around us, from the animals that lived around us, and when we’d tuck this food into our mouths, our hands always bore particles from the land on which we lived. We’d drink water filtered through this same soil, water rife with the living organisms and minerals our bodies required. We were just one of the links in nature’s great chain, important but not essential, like bears, mushrooms, and blackflies.
We were one with nature, and nature was one with us. There was no distinction between the atoms that made up our bodies and those that, several billions of years ago, had created the moon we’d watch hoist itself into the sky every night.
What happened? What caused us to break the bonds that had tied us to nature since the dawn of humanity? Toward the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, the Industrial Revolution let out its first rumbles and roars, pumped its first pistons and blasts of steam. It produced its first mir-acles, also, multiplying the strength and abilities of women and men by a factor of 10, 100, 1000. We started to transcend nature, to rise above it. And we believed ourselves to be better and smarter for it.
In Western Europe, in North America, and eventually all over the planet, the relationship between human populations and the natural environment
began to erode. The idea of progress took hold of our minds, and we came to believe that our collective objective had to be urbanization, industrialization, and “economic growth.”
There’s a reason why tourism was effectively born around this time, promising to give us access, for a few hours or a few days, to a “wild” environment (as if the Manchester slums themselves weren’t wild then, and capitalism either!).
A divide was created: there was nature, and there was everything else—civilization, society, modern- ity. For example, universities started separating things into two distinct worlds: social sciences on the one hand, applied sciences and medicine on the other. A dichotomy took root between body and mind, reason and passion, spirituality and science, wild and civilized.
And those who sought to live their lives closer to nature were suddenly condemned to merely, awkwardly straddle these two worlds, forever apart.
From this historic moment onward—very grad- ually, without most of us truly noticing, like the proverbial frog placed in slowly heating water— our disconnection with nature and its rhythms began to manifest itself. Sure, progress and “civil- ization” certainly have their share of undeniable benefits and charms—running water, electricity, Google Maps—yet, beyond these comforts, practical advantages, and technical wonders, cracks have begun to form in the evolutionary fabric that binds us together with our fellow man and native habitat. Symptoms such as stress, depression, and mental and physical illness are now inextricably linked to contemporary life. Indeed, studies show that city-dwellers are 21 per cent more at risk of suffering from anxiety disorders, and 39 per cent more at risk of being afflicted by mood disorders. Studies have shown similar links between urban living and physical illnesses.
We were just one of the links in nature’s great chain, important but not essential, like bears, mushrooms and blackflies.
A recent survey shows that only 10 per cent of American teenagers spend time outside at least once per day. Instead, we live in what the French anthropologist Marc Augé calls “non-places,” those artificial and interchangeable spaces that deny the realities of nature: supermarkets, shopping malls, large chain hotel rooms, airports, roadside rest areas. In these places, which are in fact no place at all, we ourselves are also anonymous, stripped of identity, and we feel no need to recognize the presence of the other beings around us.
Modernity is a constant barrage of avenues into stress. As the Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki recently wrote, “It’s like we have an alarm clock going off in our brains every 30 seconds, sapping our ability to concentrate for longer periods of time. The demands of urban life include a constant need to filter information, dodge distractions and make decisions. We give our brains little time to recover.”
Along with the comforts of urban living come a thousand worries that, in the end, do nothing to make us any happier. The stress we experience in our modern-day lives can, in fact, become harmful to us. Our cares about our social status, our fretting over fashion and gossip, our tallies of our unnecessary material belongings, and work, which takes precedence over everything—over family, friends, leisure—are all factors that are negatively impacting us. And, at the heart of all of this, our obsession with ourselves, with our personal happiness, with our success, burdens us, and, paradoxically, doesn’t appear to bring us any real joy.
Our planet, of course, has suffered through the ease with which, for the last 200 years, we have turned our back on it. Global warming, ocean acidification, the exhaustion of natural resources, the extinction of plants and animals . . . These days the Earth is just as beleaguered as we are.
The idea here is neither to glorify an idyllic past nor to advocate for a utopian return to the pre- industrial age. The point, rather, is to see how one could, here and now, find ways to lead a life that not only better respects the natural environment but helps us better respect ourselves. A life more attuned to natural cycles, those of our bodies and of the universe, and a life which might allow us to shatter this obsession with the ego, a fundamental tenet of modernity.
In order to do so, we are going to need to find ways to more effectively disconnect from technology, more often and for longer periods of time. And by disconnect, I don’t mean putting our phone on airplane mode for a few hours. I mean living without it, for real, for days and nights at a time. I mean breaking our need to share, instantly and virtually, every little experience, with everyone, and instead be truly available to our experiences, to ourselves, truly present for the people that are physically with us. To live with fewer screens separating us from the world. To be just a little more alive.
I feel serene and peaceful here in a way that I never do in the city. I am at last myself, with my strengths and weaknesses, and no different from the spruce tree in front of me.
Let’s also reassess the value of solitude. Genuine, constructive solitude. The kind of solitude that enables us to get back in touch with our soul and hear what it has to tell us, without it being buried under the din of social networks and deafened by static blasts of advertising and media. The only sounds permitted would be the sound of the rain falling across the stretched fabric of our tent, the rippling of a nearby stream, the breeze blowing through the treetops. These are sounds that have a lot to teach us.
And in order for us to manage to spend more time in contact with nature, it will be necessary to both preserve what’s left of the nature on our planet and to ensure that it is reintroduced into the places where it has disappeared. It won’t be easy. But it is possible—and, an infallible argument in our day and age—it also pays. A broad study of the medical files of 31,000 Toronto residents, published in 2015, showed that those who live in areas with more trees are healthier and have greater cognitive abilities; for each block, 10 more trees would have an impact on the health of citizens equivalent to a salary increase of $10,000 per year, or being seven years younger.
There is an abundance of inspiring examples from around the world. In Scandinavian and Germanic countries, there are outdoor daycares, where children spend most of their days in the forest, no matter the temperature. In South Korea, post- traumatic stress disorders experienced by some firefighters are treated by sending them out for “forest baths.” In England, organizations use gardening to treat people suffering from mental illnesses. In Finland, in order to maintain good mental health, the Institute of Natural Resources recommends a minimum dose of five hours spent in nature every month. And everywhere, little by little, the benefits of these initiatives are becoming clear.
“It’s not our world that has fallen; we’re the ones who have slipped out of the world,” Québec author Yvon Rivard recently noted. More nature in our lives, individually and collectively, can only help us achieve a healthier, truer existence.
As I write this, I reflect on where I am, which is at the edge of a forest in the Upper Laurentian mountains in Québec. I reflect on the degrees of satisfaction that my various material possessions bring me, and at the top of that list are many things which I in fact, do not possess at all: the trees, rocks, and streams that belong to the land I own here. They do not belong to me, but I am their caretaker, for the length of less than one human generation. I hear poplar leaves shaken by the wind, birds chirping, the caw of the occasional crow, and the cry of the hawk that, high above me, marks a territory shared by a million other living beings.
I feel serene and peaceful here in a way that I never do in the city. I am at last myself, with my strengths and weaknesses, and no different from the spruce tree in front of me. Connected to nature, I can recover a kind of stability, of solidity, that noth- ing else can provide. It’s what the French writer Romain Rolland, in a letter to Freud, called “the oceanic feeling”: the impression of being part of something bigger than we are. There isn’t a lot of room for my ego here, in the middle of the fauna, flora, and geological formations that pay no attention to me whatsoever, nor to my problems, or my status updates. But there’s a lot of space to think, to feel, to be. Enough space, quite simply, to live.
Nicolas Langelier is the founder and editor-in-chief of Nouveau Projet, winner of the 2015 Canadian magazine of the year award. Langelier is also the founder of the B. Corp. certified social enterprise Atelier 10, where he works on developing projects that help us better understand the issues of our time, to engage with our society and lead a more satisfying existence.