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Joy: Why is the natural world worth saving?

Mon 16th September 2019 - Blog Posts

The air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat all rely on the natural world, but right now it is in crisis. In a landmark recent UN Report (May 2019) nature is found to be declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history and the rates of species extinctions accelerating with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.

Here Learning for Sustainability Scotland member John Salter, shares his own very personal experience of the importance of the natural world and the role of educators.

Joy – Why is the natural world worth saving?  I think this is probably the most difficult thing to explain or describe.  From time to time I am overwhelmed by intense feelings of utter joy – best described as rapture.  These emotions creep up on me, unsuspecting, unbidden. I believe Wordsworth, Burns or Keats experienced these feelings as they attempted to translate nature’s grandeur into words.  Can mere words do this justice?  I don’t think I can express this – perhaps it is the power of poetry that can.  Do we all feel these emotions?  Are they a basic human commonality?  These aren’t rhetorical questions, I don’t know the answers.  All I can do is describe my own experiences. 

First, what does it feel like?

  • A blue spot!  It’s positive! At last, we’re to have our own biological family. The waiting over. We look forward to a world pregnant with possibilities. Our lives are on a cusp.
  • A hospital ward. A long anxious wait. The ward sister wheels out a trolley. Twin boys. Waxy flecks adhere to perfect heads. A culmination, a mission accomplished. I go home – lost in joy – utterly fulfilled.

Now obviously these examples, conception and birth, are joyous circumstances and it would be natural for anyone to experience them the way I did. This is how I feel when joy comes unbidden.

Some experiences:

  • I’m three perhaps four years old – sixty years ago – in a meadow with a sluggish stream – its hot, humid – insects hum – a skylark sings incessantly – soaring.  I peer into the depths – exotic fish lurk under banks clad in comfry.  I remember this as though it were yesterday – I hear a skylark now and I’m taken back to this unknown place.  A single moment in time.
  • A holiday – camping with the twins – a mountain to climb.  Should we go up?  Swathed in cloud we ascend Ben Alligan.  The summit – cloud breaks – breathtaking landscape.  We descend grassy banks – an eagle – a group of red deer.  The boys start to count frogs – their very own frog census – I walk ahead – eaves dropping their laughter – pure rapture.
  • A golf course in Eyemouth the boys are growing into men.  I trust them.  I leave them.  A full day.  I go to fish in the Tweed – an April day – hot, heavy with spring flowers – insects hatch from watery depths.  The river crystal clear – I look down – I can see into infinity – a water plant perfectly defined – the running water sings of the continuity of all things.  I wish I could submerge myself in this moment forever,
  • An ordinary kitchen – somewhere in St Andrews – my son is beating my best friend at chess – I feel surrounded – replete.  I’m cooking, cooking in that absorbed way that you do for a very special family – very special friends.  I watch the weeping willow in the garden dance in breezy sunshine.  I sing along to the music – Van Morrison / Lonnie Donnegan I think – I’m utterly transported.

So there we are.  Did that make any sense?  These experiences moved me from a mere physical world to some unexplained place, some other-world that exists within each of us.  Intense pleasure comes from within.   Can we replicate circumstances to conjure up ecstasy at will?  Well of course the answer must be no.  If we could, then these things would become a commercial commodity, a thing to be bought and sold.   Rapturous experience would become a drug, a quick fix against the cruel contingencies of the modern world.

Have you felt these things?  Experienced such joy?  Is this a shared human experience?  Perhaps, I’m just incredibly lucky.  Though I might lose everything in terms of material wealth, friends and family, nothing, until, perhaps, I lose the power of thought itself, can expunge these memories.  And perhaps that’s the key.  They say money can’t buy you happiness or, for that matter, love.  It may be that wealth can provide the time, space and opportunity to experience the wonders of nature but it can never replace them.  A peasant in the high Andes with few material possessions, may daily experience nature in a way we never can – such a person may be materially poor but spiritually rich indeed.  Does the Queen appreciate the scenic splendour of Lochnagar more than the rest of us simply because she owns it?  It’s possible, but I don’t think so.  It is to be appreciated in equal measure by all who have the power of their senses.

It seems to me that a whole series of factors conspire to produce overwhelming emotions of joy: a feeing of contentment and security; well-being; a sense of momentarily forgetting oneself; losing oneself – being caught unawares.  The senses themselves; sounds; sights; smells; are essential ingredients.  In my case: music particularly birdsong, laughter or the sound of water; the landscape, mountains or water, crystal clear water; the wind in the high coires; the hum of insects; the smell of wildflowers, the heaviness of the atmosphere; warmth; in short, experiencing nature. I realise that the presence of other people in my experiences are integral to their enjoyment.  Is Lonnie Donnegan a part of nature?  Well yes actually, human beings form an essential part of the natural world – they are not apart from it.

So what’s all this got to do with being an environmentalist?  Well everything, I think.  What value do we place on the ability of the natural world to inspire, to heal, to restore, to stimulate?  What are the therapeutic effects of birdsong?  How many people are saved from an early grave by regular walks in beautiful surroundings?  How much money does the NHS save each year?  How many people have their lives enriched through interaction with the living world?  We can’t answer these questions.  We can’t place a financial value on life itself.  The natural world is beyond financial value, and this, in itself, forms the strongest possible argument, if we need it, for conserving it.

At the start of this blog I set out to analyse my feelings, to try and break these down in order to better understand myself.  I realise now that this is impossible.  A psychologist might say that these emotions arise through the stimulation of pleasure centres in my brain; A sports physiologist that the endorphins were kicking in.  A deist that I was in communion with god; A Marxist, that I only imagined it all.  At the end of the day it’s, beyond analysis.  Even a scientist should simply accept that these things just are. 

How can we pass on this our legacy to our children?  Encourage emergent generations to value our world?  Provide every child in Scotland with their entitlement to a positive experience in nature, as set out in the Vision 2030+ Report.  Let them get their hands dirty, their feet wet, their knees grazed.  Give them a net and a jam-jar – take them to a stream.  Camp out overnight – giggle and talk till two in the morning – feel wet grass under bare feet – hold a frog in small hands.  So, make it easy for teachers to engage with outdoor learning near and afar. Support teachers with professional learning and resources to make it happen. 

Experiencing the natural world is a prerequisite  to loving and caring for it. As children become adults, they grow, mature, hopefully into the people they were always intended to be. Stewards – not exploiters – looking after the natural world for their children and their children’s children.

John Salter, September 2019