Kyra Shaughnessy

” Your deepest roots are in nature.  No matter who you are, where you live, or what kind of life you lead, you remain irrevocably linked with the rest of creation. “

Charles Cook

Lest there be any doubt, let me first acknowledge that humans are part of nature. In talking about “nature connection” we’re talking about connecting to the rest of nature, as well as to our own natures. It’s important to make sure we’re all on the same page about this. The human-nature division has been embedded in our written histories, our language(s) and our minds for long enough that we may need to keep reminding ourselves every now and then that it is an illusion. As you go through this course, please be aware that when we talk about “nature,” we’re also talking about people!

Changing our perception of nature as something that’s “out there,” separate from us and our built environments, is another piece of thinking that could use some tweaking (speaking of “shifting paradigms”). Awareness of our belonging to the web of life is essential if we want to create healthy, regenerative cultures. I’ll explain some of the reasons why further on.

I know some of us are just trying to deal with day-to-day challenges and that thinking about large-scale cultural and social change may seem overwhelming or unimportant compared to the struggles we’re facing personally. That’s perfectly valid. But whether we’re thinking on a macro or micro scale, the way we lead our lives has an impact. We may not always be aware of the ripple effect our actions and choices have. Just by being conscious of interconnection we create subtle change in those around us. We walk in the world, and experience life, in a completely different way.

Why is Nature Connection Such an Important Part of Learning?

“Believe one who knows: you will find something greater in woods than in books.  Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters.”

Saint Bernard de Clairvaux

You may be wondering why I consider nature connection as a core principle of learning. You may, on the other hand, already have your own ideas as to why it is, or isn’t. Maybe these ideas will all be pretty familiar to you, but sometimes it can be helpful to have an outside reminder.

Where do I begin? Let’s start at the personal level. Connection to the rest of nature has been acknowledged as essential to our health and happiness…pretty much for as long as we’ve existed. Have you ever experienced a sense of total wellbeing and joy just from turning your face towards the sun and feeling its warmth on a cool day? Or found yourself calmed by the sound of a stream burbling over stones? Have you ever sat looking out over a distant horizon and felt your mind suddenly clear of all preoccupying thoughts? These are some of the simplest aspects of nature connection.

It’s also in those types of moments that we connect to our own natures. When we connect to nature outside ourselves, we are able to tap into that “center within” – to the peace and grounding that we sometimes forget in the rush of daily living. It’s as if what’s essential in us is reflected back by the natural world.

For more traditional cultures, whether humans are part of nature has never even posed a question. Humans developed alongside all the other living beings on the planet, so obviously we are all connected. Our daily lives used to include rituals and practices directly related to the rest of life on earth. For many nowadays this is no longer the case, and so it may seem less clear to us that we are ultimately connected to the whole web of life.

More emphasis has been placed on “nature connection” as a concept (as opposed to a commonplace part of everyday life) in recent centuries since we actually allowed ourselves to become disconnected. Various forms of documentation in just about every field of study, from spiritual to scientific, have been produced on the subject. Groups are popping up all over the globe teaching regenerative design, nature connection, permaculture, rites of passage…People seem to be starving for earth-based experiences and wisdom.

For the empirical proof-oriented of you, more and more scientific studies are coming out on the positive effects of “nature connection” on human wellbeing. Research is being done on the effect that being able to see trees through hospital windows can have on recovery time (see: Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being by Esther Sternberg), on the decrease in violent behaviour in people taken on wilderness excursions, on the healing of mental illness through nature retreats, etc., etc.

We could say that what is finally being recognized is the fact that we are sensual beings. Our connection to the living world is directly linked to our level of sensitivity – in other words, our ability to tap into our senses. As Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue puts it:

“A renewal, indeed, a complete transfiguration of your life, can come through attention to your senses. Your senses are the guides to take you deep into the inner world of your heart. The greatest philosophers admit that to a large degree all knowledge comes through the senses. The senses are our bridges to the world. “

If we can agree that “all knowledge comes through our senses”, then we can see the importance of being acutely aware of them. Full sensory awareness is unfortunately not a focus of most institutional education these days. And yet, it seems so fundamental to our development as healthy, happy humans! It is, in fact, part of our nature to be aware and connected to the world around us through our senses. This is why nature connection is one of the core principles of learning.

From Interconnection to Stewardship

“…the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.”

Wendell Berry

On top of the basic common “sense” of nature connection (pun intended), it’s also what allows us to step into a role of stewardship. What I mean by stewardship is the desire and ability to take care of nature as a whole, to live in respect of “natural principles,” and to pass those skills and wisdom on. This implies an intimate knowledge of the world around us. After all, it’s only by knowing something and loving it that we can truly care for its needs. Learning to know and love the earth and passing that connection on to our children and those around us is absolutely essential to any scale of change we may want to see happen in the world.

As author and journalist George Monbiot aptly puts it in a recent article, “Most of those I know who fight for nature are people who spent their childhoods immersed in it. Without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world, without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection.” (for full article see monbiot.com)

Indeed, how are we to learn to love and care for something if we don’t really know it much or at all? Why would we even want to be in contact with “nature” if we haven’t grown up learning it’s intrinsic worth and direct impact on our lives?

Where do We Go to Find “Nature”?

“You didn’t come into this world.  You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean.  You are not a stranger here. ”                                                               

Alan Watts

Nature is all around us and within us, as we have discussed above. We can connect to ourselves as part of nature in any little moment of noticing or pause—when we feel the wind on our faces, or appreciate the colour of new grown leaves or the smell of freshly cut grass. These are things that ground us by bringing us back to our senses. “Finding” or accessing nature is mostly about figuring out how to increase our awareness of those simple things and allow them to penetrate the buzz of otherwise chaotic lifestyles and environments.

At the same time, while being able to see and connect to nature around and within us, no matter what our environment, is definitely a skill worth developing, there’s also something hugely beneficial about being immersed in non-urban landscapes. For many city kids (or adults!) their first trip “out” is completely transformative – and no wonder! Within city limits we are bombarded with sensory input. Whether or not we notice it, our systems are severely overstimulated. Constant noise, constant smells and low air quality, unavoidable flashing screens and lights, electromagnetic waves from radio and cell phone transmitters…We can adapt to anything, even learn to love it, but our bodies still appreciate when they get a break.

Before living in the city as a teen I never understood why people would always collapse and sleep for three days when they arrived at our family home in middle-of-nowhere Quebec. Well, now I get it, because the same thing happens to me. My nervous system reacts immediately to being able to actually relax when I get out of Montreal (where I now often live). Then I actually start to feel the accumulated exhaustion that I’ve been holding at bay with coffee and adrenaline. The same pattern has been visible in every one of the hundreds of people I’ve seen come through my mother’s retreat center where I grew up.

What I’m saying is that there’s a lot of talk about accepting that we live in an increasingly urbanized and populated world, and yes, that’s important. If we do live in a city, and especially if we don’t have any easy access to wilderness, we need to learn how to connect as deeply as possible to the land we’re on. There is so much to learn about the places we live! The names of trees and birds, where our water comes from, where the predominant winds come from, who were the people that were here before us…there is a wealth of exploration to be done, wherever you are! Learning these things is like learning a person’s name. Suddenly they’re not just another face in the crowd. They gain personality – an inch more of closeness every time you cross paths. You start to care about them, perhaps. This is often how “connection” starts to develop.

That being said, if there’s any way at all that you can find windows to wander outside of city limits, do it! Especially if you’re starting a learning journey with kids involved! In an ideal world, we all have time to wander and wonder and play outdoors (speaking of which, after typing this paragraph I happened upon an article in a recent Washington Post called The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory issues”.  Hmmm….).