CREATING AMBASSADORS FOR WILDNESS
By Howard Clifford
Einstein cogently declared that intuitive insights, emerging out of authentic experiences, predicts the path forward. Science is where inspirational insights once were, science will become what intuitive insights now are. Over a century ago, conservation icons shared their nature experience based insights. John Burroughs “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” John Muir “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the Mountains is going home, that wilderness is a necessity.” Thoreau “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” “Each town should have a park or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.”
Science is now affirming the validity of their insights – the healing forces of nature are incredibly powerful. These findings are attracting many potential ambassadors. Because MMLT was founded on the conviction that wildness is a necessity for humans and wildlife they are positioned to partner with Forest Bathing Schools, Outdoor schools, health and social agencies and others who have come to a similar understanding.
The Muir era was inclusive. His friendships included prominent people of science, arts, poetry, philosophy – to the benefit of all. This inclusive interactions suffered somewhat as science became more lab based. The views of John Watson and B. F. Skinner influenced the psychological and animal behaviour sciences – only observable, measurable, recorded behaviour had scientific validity while attempts to explore the inner life of wildlife did not.. The decrease in collaboration with field naturalists is regrettable.
Enos Mills is one example. Considered the John Muir of the East and the father of the Rocky Mountain National Park, he spent years immersed in the Colorado wilderness. Armed with a camera, a vivid curiosity and astute observational skills he observed bears sliding down snowbanks for amusement, bears watching beavers at play and even seemingly enraptured by a sunset. He detailed accounts of grisly intelligence – one backtracking in his steps until he jumped from a cliff into thickets below, temporarily outfoxing Mills. To scientists such claims were rubbish – animals lack the biological capacity to feel or think in ways attributed by Mills.
However science is taking a second look. With advanced technology scientists discovered the brain circuits lighting up in both humans and animals are similar in the presence of varied emotional and thinking states. The intuitive, experiential observations of Darwin, Muir, Mills and others regarding the emotional and intellectual capacity of wildlife are no longer ridiculed as simply anthropological heresies.
This converging symmetry between the intuitive insights based on nature experiences by past and present conservation icons and the recent findings of the scientific community may result in a tidal shift in the way we relate to nature. If the conviction that all life – all creation are subjects to be communed with rather than objects to be manipulated takes hold, a much more powerful ambassadorship for the Wild Kingdom will be created.
This is not New Age, Bambi like fluff. I am thinking of iconic conservationists. Jane Goodall recently stated that in the 1960’s “I was absolutely castigated by the scientific community” because she gave
names, not numbers, to her chimpanzees. Now she and others are noting ritualistic like behaviour in animals. She stated “the most cogent explanation for the dancers reflects “awe”. This is not far from what Enos Mills suggestion that the bear he observed seemed enraptured by a sunset.
Goodall suggested at the World Economic Forum in 2020 “To save the planet’s trees, we should treat them like people.” If we name them we will want to protect them. This reminded me of Julia Hill experience. In her early 20’s, she volunteered to sit a 600 year old, 180 foot tall Redwood destined to be cut. She never dreamed she would live on a 6 by 6 platform high up in the canopy for over two years before her feet would again touch ground. Imagine – experiencing freezing, torrential rain, all alone, often frightened, harassed by loggers who hated her guts, occasionally sick. She too gave the tree a name – Luna. No longer just a wonderful tree – it was named – an individual – a subject. Julia felt crushing sorrow witnessing Luna’s family falling to the ground – toppled by chainsaws. Never named – just objects.
After two years never leaving Luna’s side, she described Luna as “my best friend and teacher.” She had been a waitress then a restaurant manager – her background didn’t matter to the greatest teacher of all – wilderness. This nature based experience propelled her into becoming a powerful ambassador for nature.
I have an intellectual hunger to learn more of the workings of nature. But as Carson said: “It is not half so important to know as to feel.” We need to understand nature intellectually but experiencing nature as a subject is our highest good. If I learned that someone cut down a few trees at cliffLAND I would be upset. If they cut down “Grandfather” the name given by an aboriginal to an old cedar tree I would grieve. I experience this tree as an individual. Grandfather is on my property – I visit him often. He has a name.
In Part 3 of this Trilogy I will share how my perspective has evolved through 40 years of experiencing nature at cliffLAND. I feel more confident in affirming Muir’s conclusion “Nature is the best teacher” – “Wilderness is a necessity”. I believe the highest form of ambassadorship comes from those who have have forged a bond with nature.