Our key definer of adulthood may have been our dedication to staying responsible (enough) to others and to ourselves to foresee and protect ourselves and others from dangers in the immediate and more distant future. But our greatest challenge is not even learning from our mistakes, which we often do if we identify their patterns. It is to retain somehow the sensitivity, vitality, imagination, versatility, and ready wakefulness of a child.
Anyone grows up someplace, but first in a unique mother’s womb, beginning to sense whatever, without names for it, without knowing anyparticular way what one is doing. This may be the basic “natural” state for any of us human beings, in a perpetual immediate present, before we live in relation to a self and distinctions. If we could hit reset on our brain-computer, we might discover this again. As we grow week by week into our external environment, meeting it on whatever terms we are given there, we find ourselves defined by other humans and their language. They treat us in certain increasingly familiar ways, and they give us names for ourselves and our actions and attitudes. We encounter and gradually stabilize relationships to time and space and feelings and needs. We set up terms for these relationships that we have to cope with to survive in this world. All this is certainly socialization. Isn’t there something else we are also constituted by as selves, as conscious respondents to our world, perhaps unnamable in our Western discourses?
In a panel on climate change at IARPP in June, Susan Bodnar told about an intervention she has tried in workshops and psychotherapy. She asked people to recall their earliest memories of spaces and places in their natural world. What smells and sounds do they recall from the world around them? What colors? What sounds and motion? How did it feel against the skin – that breeze, that humidity, that grass, that clay? What sense experiences were known there, and what did they remember of it? She found that people tended to have deep, lasting impressions they often had forgotten about and were relieved, often deeply moved, to recall. They found words for what they felt they had experienced there – ease, freedom, belonging, joy, wildness, comfort, danger, security, trust.
Our sense of what’s natural may change across our lifetimes. So may that which we find around us to call nature. In rural Downeast Maine, where I’ve lived the past 21 years, I’m learning that the local forests were different, even a couple decades ago when I got here. Conifers are gradually disappearing, resulting in far fewer sorts of butterflies and more sugar maples, owing to changes in the climate. The woods, as we know them, now, are not as natural as when the Wabanaki tribes governed these territories, even though that human culture must somehow have impacted nature too.
We were brought up – I was brought up – many of us were brought up to be tctful and reserved about our feelings and appetites, to observe discretion in the pursuit of our passions, to opt for security, conformity with the known world, and autonomous achievement, to avoid indulging in risk, weirdness, and idleness. One result was to accept a distancing, a quiet alienation, as the favored ground of surviving manageably and proving ourselves acceptable to others.
As a boy, around ten or twelve, living in a suburban New Jersey township, before the years I would bicycle far enough long afternoons to get lost in the farmlands outside of town, I used to walk into a small woods of just a few acres across the street from our home to find my way into what I took for the heart of unspoiled wilderness. Or I allowed myself to think of it that way. There, beside an old tree along the bank of a shallow stream, as though to embrace a possibility of freedom from civilized norms, sometimes I would remove my clothes, lie in the warm sun freckled by the leaves, dip my toes into the slow-running water, defecate into a glass jar I’d brought there, and twist the lid closed to save my feces in a hidden place rather than despoil the environment or carry them home.
I believe this was a sort of erotic experience, sensual, even amatory, but not specifically sexual. It was an idyll, a respite, not an obsession. I didn’t know anything about masturbating. I hadn’t known a lust for anyone. This hideaway was a place of peace, and of an undemonstrative power, but also threatened – threatened by my own idea that just being there, naked, was transgressive, making me vulnerable to observation, judgment, and attack. My behavior was abnormal, un-called-for, and obviously pointless.
Still I can wonder, as I may have then, what all was I seeking there, and how much of that did I find?
I’m sure I’d seen photographs at home in National Geographic magazine of primitive people, scarcely dressed, in tropical places, almost as naked as I made myself. I may have wanted to be them or commune with them. What did they know that I didn’t? Or that I didn’t want to forget? Or to have already forgotten?
I think my aim was to access and preserve something unnamable, unspecifiable, a possibly universal quality of living that might be and feel simple and essential. My intuition suggests that, within the erotic pulse of prepubescent self-observation, bathing in the terpenes exuded by all the vegetal growth around me, I was seeking to enact or know my own true self and confirm an identity within the context of a non-verbal ecology, independent of human distinctions and judgments, of societal implications and expectations, of language and structure as I had learned it.
We haven’t found terms to analyze how our early emergence into a uniquely grounded and responsive selfhood are affected by vital relationships with the non-human world around us, including pets, prey, pests, and errant critters, including life forms without a heartbeat, and other unliving stuff they all live in relation to as well – rocks, walls, watercourses, boxes, pollens, UV rays, 4G broadband, stars. The non-human doesn’t relate to us through words, and it seems rarely to express expectations of us. For all we know, these animals, things, elements, all composed of energy, all love us unconditionally in some underlying sense. But we tend to take them for granted as we mature. We forget how vital and intimate, how dynamically alive, our relationships with them still always are.
Without our noticing it much, the non-human environment still responds to us, even as it is now impacted by the human in most every respect. In any given moment, I sense and know myself in part through junctions of connectivity with the non-human environment. This wooden table, this flat-screened laptop, this swiveling wooden owl stool I rest my bottom on – these function as prostheses, extensions. They coordinate my body and mind, facilitating certain functions, whether I notice them consciously or not. They affect and qualify how I am feeling and thinking. How can I describe what changes when I hear the sound of a propane heater’s fan coming on and off? How am I made, or unmade, differently by the ticking of the wall clock? Or the sunshine on the periphery of my vision? A cloudy day would find me different.
I know that my sense of self is adjusted by internal physiological changes and states, too, many of them enigmatic to me, undiscovered territories and unexplained events. My nonverbal human body makes every other aspect of attention and action and sensitivity possible, while my understanding of all that is still pretty sketchy. Like my car, if it works, I needn’t pay much mind to how it works. Our frequent obliviousness to the states and constitution of the body contributes to a disregard for our relationships with everything around us.
We can work on bringing our intimate, caring relationships with animals, plants, and other forms and forces into focused attention through here-and-now mindfulness exercises, through journaling and conversation, through slowing momentarily to take stock of the sensation or perception of a moment. This may support and strengthen our wilingness to ally with the earthly, interdependent environment on which we and other living forms of sensate energy depend. If I stop to observe and notice and feel, I can better ask: What matters to me here? What supports me? How do I support it?
We humans have an intimate, interactive, reciprocal relationship with the nonhuman world, including its underlying natural laws and energies. The nonhuman world affects our functioning, and we affect its functioning, constantly, asleep or awake. Any one moment’s attention may affect our nonhuman world, if only by delaying some other action that might affect it differently. These active, changing relationships occur within an irreducible dynamic network of innumerable other relationships between all nonhuman entities on this planet, as well as all the other humans, nearly all of whom we will never know in name or circumstance.
As humans, perhaps uniquely, we can shape and frame conceptions of relationship. Our sympathetic intelligence can appreciate the liberating power of responding with care to an other. Symbolic language supports our remarkable powers to do so, as well as compromising their intimate realization.
Exploring our capacity for a warmer, more tender, affirmative quality of occasional or continuous attention to these relationships may reframe our despair and anxiety over climate change into loving care and curiosity as to what is present, changing or threatened, and what we may do, individually or collectively, to support our world’s wellness and survival, and our own. I am not speaking of pity or charity but of realizing more viscerally and immediately our actual, mutually contextualized relationships with environmental particulars as integral to our survival and wellness along with that of other life forms and their contexts on this earth. Can I look into the eyes of the fern, the cloud, the gulley, and say sincerely, “I see you”? We are all in this together.
These reciprocal relationships function whether remarked on or not, without words or naming, and largely unconsciously, for us, and perhaps also for the life forms and materials around us. These unconscious relations may to a great degree be explored as unfamiliar territories and welcomed into our personal acknowledgement. Do they flourish already in a collective unconscious?
We are and have been nurtured always by the unimaginably complex interconnected dynamic functioning of all aspects of material existence that we can identify.
Human circumstances are not routinely prioritized in the workings of nature, nor of natural catastrophes. A wildfire might support a forest’s long-term growth and the planet’s life forms without benefiting people living or holding property or planning to harvest in the area affected. In effect, the nurturing of which we can speak here happens indifferently to humans as a particular species or life form. But the planet’s ecology and development, prior to any human influence, made our development as a species possible and our tribal and individual lives capable of their peculiarly refinements of development.
We have been given, in effect, the grounds of our existence as homo sapiens through our relationships with the nonhuman. Without our reciprocal relationships with the nonhuman we certainly cannot continue to survive, individually or as a species. Contemplating contemporary climate change along with its natural and humanly inflected consequences, including its genocidal function with respect to many species of living organisms, we humans have occasion collectively to feel remorse and guilt, along with our grieving.
Meanwhile, we continue to coexist with everything else that currently exists, and we continue to experience its interactions with us, however little we notice. We are due to wonder how other forms of life and other entities of the natural world may experience our actions, in their own diverse means of sensitive responsivity.
We may notice smog, for instance, changing the air in major cities. Although we have technical devices to measure air pollution in detailed ways, we primarily notice it when we sense that it changes our own condition for the worse. We are not often likely to reflect on how air pollution renders the sunsets more colorful, deep and vibrant; we are more likely to notice how visibility is reduced, the sunlit skies get hazier, and our breathing becomes compromised. The degree to which diverse humanly engineered changes in air quality contribute to autism, Alzheimers, and cancers are rarely discussed and disgracefully under-researched. We are even more unlikely to assess the effects of variable air quality on the health and habits of other animals. As humans, we learn how to empower ourselves to choose what to know — to our peril, and that of our co-residents on earth.
Significant, worrisome increases in anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide are appearing in regions marked by severe increases in heat levels. This stqte of Maine sees relatively modest effects of global warming. I may resent erratic weather, damn the invasive plants, fear a flooded basement, curse bothersome insects, frost heaves breaking through my country road and deer jumping to a stop just short of my car. I can observe that every way I feel any selfish antipathy is uncomfortable, in me. Yet I can get used to it. Such attitudes condition us to accept as normal many aggressive interventions and deliberate neglect toward the health of our nonhuman environment that are, cumulatively, deeply destructive and deregulating. Acculturation has led us to prioritize our opportunities to do what we think we want.
Negative emotional reactivity between people often urges on consequences as dangerous to oneself or one’s own tribe as to the other. A fight-or-flight moment disables us from cooperative problem-solving and mindful care for a relationship, provoking instead a patterning of reciprocally destructive harm. If the nonhuman does not fight back, we can feel our aggression is harmless, even justified. Ignoring such relational dynamics reinforces our careless, oblivious complicity in an accumulating and reactive annihilation of the networking of shared needs within which we can live. Our legacy of self-aggrandizing, colonialist, genocidal relations toward the indigenous peoples of this American continent conditions us unconsciously toward the subjugation, exploitation, and destruction of the life forms around us and of the conditions that foster their survival.
We could do worse than deliberately admit them into our attention. We have done worse. We can do better. With pleasure.