nature: the lost connection

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“And there is no creature on [or within] the earth or bird that flies with its wings except [that they are]communities like you. We have not neglected in the Register a thing. Then unto their Lord they will be gathered.” (Qur’an, 6:38)

“Of all the things we can and must do to create a healthier society, perhaps the easiest and most available step (even in the city) is to reintroduce children and teens – and adults, too – to the natural world.” Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin

It’s odd how environmentalism has been delegated a special category; as if it’s ok to not  care about the very ingredients and mechanisms that sustain us in this earthly life.  Somehow it’s ok to look at a forest with dollar signs instead of eyeballs. In our present world, it’s also okay to stay confined to concrete havens where we pretend to be fulfilled with our anxiety riddled, unending thirst for more material satisfaction in a perpetual competition with our fellow human beings.  And perhaps one of the most tragic outcomes of such a toxic global culture is that there is no room for children to experience a healthy and full childhood where they can bond with nature and learn from mature and caring adults who are fully invested in the well being of the next generations and actively working on a sustainable community, society and world.  Why is this considered only an option for those “wishy washy granola crunching tree hugging hippy” type people?

I mostly grew up in suburban settings with limited green spaces and even more limited dense trees or wooded areas.  Most of my life, I have been uncomfortable with the idea of being near a forest or woods. I have become so accustomed to living in a paved and concrete “civilized” world that the words forest or woods bring about images of vicious beasts waiting to attack or murderers and other social deviants using the cover of trees as their safe haven or meeting point.

Last year, I walked over to the small section of natural green area close to my neighbourhood. It is mainly a walking trail bridging two residential zones, lined with bushes, some trees and a medium size pond. I told myself that I would use this opportunity to relax and enjoy the natural surroundings, but things didn’t go so well.  I started off relaxed and after a few moments I sat up suddenly upon hearing “strange” noises from nearby.  My heart pounded in my chest as I struggled to recognize the noises which would halt momentarily, then continue .  Being incapacitated with fear, I finally got up and investigated until I noticed a few small ducks paddling in the pond.  I assumed it was them quacking but wondered why they didn’t quack like “normal.”  I was so out of touch with the natural world and the creatures that called it home that I actually got angry at the ducks for not quaking how I expected them to based on my memory bank.  I sat back down and tried to relax but remained hyper vigilant and highly suspicious of the noises, which I was still not willing to attribute to the ducks.

I gave up on trying to connect with nature, thinking that it was too scary to try and make friends with nature at this point in my life.  What use did I have for it anyways?  I could always just try and meditate at home if I wanted to relax. 

Then destiny brought a book my way that changed everything.  Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin is a very heavy book, not by physical weight but by its messages and concepts.  I am still only almost halfway through it and have to stop periodically to try and assimilate the new found information into my fragile psyche.  Everything this author (who is a wilderness expert) says makes sense and hits the core of my heart. Pretty much all his ideas are in line with Islamic (and other faith traditions) values and teachings, and in a way, I find more and more of the Quran and sunnah (Prophetic traditions) coming to light in a beautiful and coherent manner. 

“And it is He who sends down rain from the sky, and We produce thereby the growth of all things. We produce from it greenery from which We produce grains arranged in layers. And from the palm trees – of its emerging fruit are clusters hanging low. And [We produce] gardens of grapevines and olives and pomegranates, similar yet varied. Look at [each of] its fruit when it yields and [at] its ripening. Indeed in that are signs for a people who believe.” (Qur’an, 6:99)

The main premise of the book is that humanity has developed and grown from the natural world with complete interdependence with it.  We have thrived as a species by learning to live and work with nature as our friend and ally, and it has been in the last thirty to forty years that we now have people who never grew up playing in the woods or the creek by their home.  The author states that nature and human beings are so deeply intertwined that having little or no regular contact with nature can and has caused great distress to our souls, minds and societies. 

“But one of the most potent allies we humans have always had in our emotional healing…is the natural world itself.  Time spent alone in nature, in which we offer our attention outward to the complex, mysterious, always fascinating wild, puts our troubles in perspective and allows us to re-root our awareness in self-sustaining and inspiring rhythms and cycles.

The contemporary American novelist and poet Jim Harrison tells a story from his teen years. Blinded in one eye at age seven, he underwent an operation in his senior year of high school to restore his sight. The operation failed and left him with terrible pain.  About the same time, his first love abandoned him. On a warm day in April ‘heavy with the scent of dogwood buds,’ he sat alone in a woodlot.

‘After a long time sitting on a log, perhaps an hour, my mind emptied out into the landscape and my preoccupations with the girl and other problems leaked away.  In the stillness garter snakes emerged to feed on flies that buzzed close to the ground among dead leaves and burgeoning greenery. Birds came very close because I had been so still in my sumpish reveries I had ceased to exist to the birds, and gradually to myself. I had become nature, and the brain that fueled my various torments had decided to take a rest by leaving my body and existing playfully in the landscape. The air became warmer and moister, so much so that it seemed densely palpable, swollen enough to touch. It did not so much begin to rain as the air quite suddenly became full of water. Given the circumstances the rain could not help but be a baptism.  The natural world would always be there to save me from suffocating in my human problems.’ “

Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin

It’s strange and amazing how flexible we are as human beings.  We think we really want something and that we will never want anything different and then things happen and we go through unique experiences and somehow end up completely changing our minds and perspectives.  I remember how up until a few years ago, I dreamed of living in downtown Toronto. I fantasized about how wonderful it would be to live in a high rise condo overlooking the downtown core bustling with people and how I could run down the building and go grocery shopping or stop for coffee or lunch in one of the shops right below.  But since reading Bill Plotkin’s book, my fantasies of living in the paved and concrete jungle of downtown Toronto feels more like a terrible nightmare.  I suddenly have new awareness of the natural world around me. The area that I currently live in has many pockets of woods and natural trees and greenery that is being conserved by the local city (so far).   In the few years I have been here I never before paid attention to such areas.  I started taking my children to the conservation park nearby.  It’s interesting how children are more open to the natural world and how fast they befriend it compared to those adults who did not experience it deeply as children themselves. We walk down the trail to the pockets of evergreen pine trees and I sit down or stroll through the trees while the children run about exploring the natural surroundings.  I notice the soft and uneven ground littered with old crumbly leaves, pine cones of various sizes, twigs and fallen branches.  As I walk around and touch the rough exteriors of the tree trunks, a part of my mind is anticipating any potential dangers, and sadly, what gives me a measure of calm is the roar of traffic that can be heard from the distance. 

I wrote this post because I have a new found respect for the environment and see the preservation of natural green and forest areas as vital to a bright and positive future of our species.  The Muslims in the world must open their eyes and give the natural world the kind of respect and care that our Prophet peace be upon him and his companions (may God be pleased with them) gave in their times.  We have a rich tradition of caring for humanity and the environment. Even our laws for legitimate warfare are very stringent about caring for civilians and the trees and creatures of the area. People of all religions must turn to their faiths and embrace the call to love and care for the Earth we all contain in our scriptures and traditions. Why are most of us choosing to ignore that duty to honor the earth? Does it not sustain us through livelihood and as the playground to explore life and relationships?

“It is Allah who made for you the earth a place of settlement and the sky a ceiling and formed you and perfected your forms and provided you with good things. That is Allah, your Lord; then blessed is Allah , Lord of the worlds.” (Qur’an, 40:64)

I urge fellow Muslims, Christians, Jews, and all other people of faith to come together in your faith communities as well as joining hands with each other to proactively nurture and promote natural and forest areas.  If there is one thing we can learn from the natural world, it is that everyone and everything is connected. Whatever good or ill we bring about touches everyone.  Perhaps the variety in nature and the interconnectedness of the different habitats and creatures can help us build stronger bridges with each other, and assist us to accept our religious and cultural diversity as divinely ordained beauty instead of an ugly curse or mistake to be rid of.

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