Words by Paul Thornycroft
Lucky me when, as a child, access to nature was straight forward. With no stranger danger inhibiting my parents, I could I roam the wooded slopes that led down to meadows where a small stream meandered the woodland boundary. This was the Wild Wood of “Wind in the Willows” fame, and the brook was Ratty’s brook, where he and Mole messed about in boats. I haven’t visited this place for decades since the time that nostalgia drew me there to feel again my childhood haunts. What I saw broke my heart. The meadowland is now a motorway link-road, and the stream a foetid culvert choked with rubbish.
When I see nature brutalised I feel a deep, visceral anguish. I feel loss, confusion and guilt, adding up to a feeling of abandonment–– but have I abandoned nature or has nature abandoned me?
In an everyday sort of way, we don’t notice losses to the natural world. We admire technology and enjoy its fruits, finding reassurance in doing so. But deep inside we know, when we care to look, that our wild desires are harvested and seduced into numbed fulfilment by the consumption of irresistible products, both material and ideological. By these means our wild desires are muted and the anguish is somatised and normalised.
It seems that nature is defined by western culture as just another resource to exploit, use, abuse and control. Sound familiar? If it’s ok to do that to NATURE then surely, it’s ok to exploit, use, abuse and control everything, anything, anybody? Not so. That’s not what we want, but it is happening.
But how is it that western civilisation engenders this sense of human supremacy and entitlement at the expense of all other living beings, and cultures? If we could examine this as a pathology, as if the collective were an individual, what do you think we would find?
As individuals we are conditioned by cultural metaphors from a very early age, perhaps even from the moment of conception, and yet children remain remarkably elastic in their imaginations until the realities of life constrain them. They have an intuitive sense of the wonder of wild nature, and a hunger for this common source of nourishment, which, sadly, is no longer common nor abundant nor inexhaustible. Many children have severely limited access to un-degraded nature, some none at all. Sadly, for most, this becomes normalised.
Why should this normalising go largely unchallenged? Do we really view nature merely as a resource to be exploited for our own economic advantage? Perhaps we do, but not consciously; such deep rooted values come from the cultural metaphors embedded in our social mores, and in language itself, and these patterns of belief are cultural, not genetic. We can change them if we choose to.
Nevertheless, the future looks bleak indeed. Many young people are struggling, unhappy without knowing quite why, scanning the world for meaning and finding an absence. Isolation, depression and anxiety have become normal, too, for a large number of older people. And yet we seem to have no choice but to participate in a social and economic system that is degrading the natural world to a condition soon to be inhabitable only by machines, while humans live lives enclosed within urban norms.
Richard Louv, in 2005, wrote a book called “Last Child in the Woods” in which he coins the term ‘nature-deficit disorder’. He states “Nature-deficit disorder is not meant to be a diagnosis but rather serve as a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world.”.
Clearly, children benefit from spending time in wild nature, on camping trips, on adventure holidays and equine-therapy days. We would all benefit from such activities. But as Louv indicates, this goes much deeper and it is not just children that suffer nature-deficit disorder, it is humans of all kinds, it is society itself, and most significantly, it is Nature itself.
I recently came across a sentence that made me take notice. “There’s something unsettling about being reassured in troubling times” (source not known). This exactly resonates with my ‘deep, visceral anguish’. Well, actually I feel no reassurance. I’m clearly not consuming enough. But if I could see back through time, I might see the beginnings of the patterns of culture that alienate us from the Earth, patterns that could be re-imagined.
I’ll need some help, need to look stuff up. Learn how to shrink time. I’ll report back.
Paul Thornycroft is the author of The Adventures of Horatio Mowzl, an illustrated children’s story that reflects on the impacts that human activity is having on the environment, whilst taking readers on a whirlwind adventure.
The Adventures of Horatio Mowzl is available to buy here.