How Nature Awakens Our Creativity, Compassion, and Joy
A new book explores our emotional bonds with nature.
Posted April 30, 2019
"The increasing global environmental, social and economic challenges we face demand a new worldview that shifts from viewing nature as a resource to nature as a living system. Rather than 'taking' from the natural world, we have a moral imperative to 'give' back. Developing this new perspective, an ecocentric ethic, emphasizes a regenerative approach in which we not only restore damaged ecosystems, but enhance the biodiversity, economic vitality and social fabric of the places we inhabit."
Last year I was asked to write the foreword for a book by educator and award-winning author, Andrés Edwards, titled Renewal: How Nature Awakens Our Creativity, Compassion, and Joy. I read the manuscript and was thrilled to do so. The opening quote nicely summarizes what Edwards' book is all about, but it really is much more:
"Renewal explores the science behind why being in nature makes us feel alive and helps us thrive. Using personal experiences and cutting-edge research in cognitive science, this book weaves delightful stories that: Reveal nature's genius and impacts on our lives from physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual perspectives; Explore how emulating nature is yielding design breakthroughs with biomimicry and biophilic design; Highlight the importance of compassion and coexisting with wildlife in designing our conservation strategies; and Describe the significance of nurturing an ecological ethic that supports a reciprocal relationship with nature."
Renewal is a book that should be of interest to numerous people around the world, so I asked Andrés if he could answer a few questions. Our interview went as follows:
Why did you write Renewal?
I wrote Renewal to highlight the tremendous importance that nature can have for living a fulfilling life. The research by psychologists, neuroscientists, and educators into the positive effects of spending time in nature validates what I’ve experienced throughout my life: that being in nature feels good and is rejuvenating. In addition to the benefits of being in nature, Renewal describes the power of developing an emotional connection to nature. This connection, which often starts during our childhood, plays a critical role in how we care for the natural world later in life.
In Renewal, I also explore the genius of nature as seen in plants, insects, trees, and terrestrial and marine mammals. For example, plants such ground ivy sense where to extend roots in order to obtain nutrients from the soil, caribou use swarm intelligence to evade predators, and bees can distinguish patterns to build efficient honeycombs. Biologists and engineers, in turn, use nature’s genius to design more efficient fans, buildings, adhesives, and ships, relying on nature as a teacher and mentor in the expanding field of biomimicry.
In addition to discussing the benefits that we receive from nature, Renewal points out our responsibility to “give back” to nature by finding ways to regenerate ecosystems. This ecocentric ethic relies on developing a reciprocal approach for living in harmony with nature. By connecting the health benefits, our emotional connections, nature’s genius, and our reciprocal relationship with the natural world, Renewal helps us recognize the important role we can play as environmental stewards.
How does the book follow up on your past ideas and interests in the wide variety of fields in which you've worked?
Renewal builds on the ideas expressed in my previous books by integrating the science behind the impact of being in nature with our daily experiences. My last three books, The Sustainability Revolution, Thriving Beyond Sustainability, and The Heart of Sustainability, mapped out the trajectory of the sustainability movement from its bedrock principles to key initiatives from individuals and organizations to the role of the individual in our “personal sustainability” journey. The root of the evolution of the movement is the natural world. Nature is essential to our survival. In Renewal, my intention is to highlight the myriad ways that nature impacts our lives and how we can impact nature.
As an educator, I’ve worked to develop awareness about the natural world for a wide audience. I began working with children at environmental education centers, then taught wilderness skills to teenagers and adults, and later developed effective ways to tell stories about natural history to visitors in museums, zoos, and aquariums. The common theme in these projects is our interdependence with nature and how we can regenerate rather than degrade the environment we depend on for our survival.
What are some of the main take-home messages you hope readers will get from reading your book?
I hope readers come away with a renewed passion for nature. My intention in Renewal is to ignite a love for nature by describing the impact of nature on our health and well-being, the intelligence of nature, and the ways communities and scientists are devising for coexisting with the natural world. Once we develop an emotional bond with nature, our curiosity can blossom and with this keen perspective we can explore ways nature can enrich our lives.
I’m hoping that readers feel uplifted and are able to integrate nature more fully into their daily lives. I also describe the importance of developing an ecocentric ethic that supports a reciprocal relationship with nature – one in which we use resources wisely and also “give back” to nature by regenerating the living systems we depend on for our survival.
As you know, I've written a lot about "rewilding our hearts." How do your ideas fit in with the notion of personal rewilding?
I really appreciate the notion of “rewilding our hearts,” which involves developing a new lens for coexisting with the natural world by nurturing our compassion and love for all species and the natural ecosystems. The seed for “rewilding our hearts” is self-compassion, where we first heal our distorted view of the environment as a “resource” to be exploited and then embrace our interdependence with all life. When we identify the qualities of who we are, we discover the similarities we share with all human and nonhuman species. As Joseph Campbell said, “The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” Matching the rhythms of nature calls for us to delve deep into who we are as individuals and how we wish to be in the world.
In Renewal I describe a path for rewilding ourselves through the three C’s: being conscious, caring, and courageous. We need to be conscious about the role we play as humans in the web of life, develop a caring ethic that supports and regenerates all life, and be courageous in examining the beliefs that may limit our ability to develop creative solutions to the ecological, economic, and social challenges we are facing.
Are you optimistic that people will become more connected to nature in the future, and why or why not? I truly enjoy how easy you make it seem.
I’m optimistic about a couple of current trends regarding our connection to nature. The first is the explosion of research in cognitive science, which is shedding light on how being in nature is good for us. Numerous studies are pointing out how spending time in nature reduces our anxiety, blood pressure, and risk of cancer while also increasing our happiness and creativity and speeding our health recovery. The second trend is the interest in personal growth and contemplative practices including mindfulness, meditation, and other spiritual pursuits focusing on interconnectedness. This interest is helping us to better understand our true nature and develop a deeper bond with all beings. The cognitive science and personal growth trends are helping us reimagine how we can coexist with nature.
The challenges we confront in forging a deeper connection with nature include the destruction of natural habitats, the rapid pace and stresses of modern life, and the billions of people who are living in poverty and struggling to merely survive every day. Many of the billions living on the margins see nature as an exploitable resource. For those living in a technological culture, nature is sidelined and urban centers dominate the landscape. Bringing back the sacredness of nature provides a bridge for helping us thrive while supporting the health of ecosystems.
What are some of your current projects?
I’m working on developing experiential workshops that will help people discover ways of integrating nature into their lives. At the end of each chapter in Renewal I list a series of questions and activities that lend themselves to use in study groups and workshops. My intention with the workshops is to expand on these ideas by facilitating outdoor experiences such as journaling, art projects, observation skills, and mindfulness practices that support developing a closer bond with the natural world.
Participants will learn, for instance, how awe, beauty, intelligence, and the compassionate conservation of nature can support their health and well-being. My hope is that by experimenting with these simple experiential exercises participants will learn to easily integrate nature into their daily lives and live in balance with the natural world. I’m also in the incubation phase of my next book project.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?
Our personal relationships with nature are as varied as nature itself. Our pathways to nature may be intellectual, recreational, spiritual, or experiential. Whatever pathway we choose we can begin today by first identifying how nature brings joy and meaning to our lives and then making a plan for integrating activities into our daily schedule. This may involve, for example, a daily walk in a local park, photographing local wildlife or plants, taking a landscape painting class, or joining an environmental group and going on one of their group outings. Whatever the activity, the benefits of nurturing our bond with nature await us, and in the process we will heal ourselves and the natural world.
"I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel." —Rachel Carson, quoted in Renewal
Thank you, Andrés, for a wonderfully stimulating and inspiring interview. It resonates well with another interview I did with Clemens Array about his book, The Biophilia Effect: A Scientific and Spiritual Exploration of the Healing Bond Between Humans and Nature. As you write:
"The emotional link to nature comes through biolphilia...This is the door that for many of us is first opened in childhood when we naturally live more in the present moment and are filled with curiosity and affinity for life."
That's one of the reasons I had a chapter called "Rewilding the Future: Wild Play and Humane Education" in Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence.
Each time I go through Renewal I learn something new, and I hope your important book reaches a broad global audience. The questions and activities you list at the end of each chapter, the numerous resources, and the lessons you offer are excellent ways for everybody to reconnect with nonhuman nature and also will be good for us and our interactions with other humans, a win-win for all. They also offer important steps in the right direction so that we can leave future generations with a more connected and compassionate world. We need to listen to our hearts. As I wrote in my Foreword:
"When we move beyond our intellect and feel the power of being in nature in our hearts and in our very souls, we plant the seeds for caring about and loving the natural world. The stories in Renewal encourage us to remember the value of a strong connection with nature and invite us to explore how we can deepen this bond in an age when many people–far too many people–are becoming alienated from nature and, in the process, become alienated from other humans and also themselves."