Category Archives: Nature

Wellbeing enhanced more by places than objects

Cabin

What poets and mystics have taught for centuries has been confirmed in a study at Surrey University: We experience deep connections to beloved physical spaces that cannot be replaced by abstractions or symbols. From The Guardian:

The poet WH Auden is credited with first coining the word “topophilia” to describe a strong emotional pull to a special place.

Now scientific research, using cutting-edge brain imaging, suggests Auden was on to something. According to a study commissioned by the National Trust, people experience intense feelings of wellbeing, contentment and belonging from places that evoke positive memories far more than treasured objects such as photographs or wedding rings.

A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study commissioned by the NT set out to “understand this visceral but intangible feeling more deeply”.

The power of special places exerts a magnetic pull on us. What would motivate people to labor for generations to construct Stonehenge, or the Cahokia Indian Mound? What strange fire spurs warriors to defend their homeland against invaders against impossible odds? Even in this age of global mobility, there burns in all of us a need to connect with the sacred and the sentimental. It’s basic to our identity.

Ecology activist and writer Charlene Spretnak has this to say about the vital role natural places play in the human psyche:

Even children who have been schooled in modernity’s radical discontinuity between humans and nature often have a profound engagement with a natural place — a summer camp, a grandparent’s farm, or a hideaway spot near home. Throughout their lives they carry in their minds that sense of place, a place they came to know with a child’s deep capacity for personal response …

In the modern worldview, the sense of place was no longer to be important. After all, modern society lives on top of nature. Modern furniture and modern architecture (the International style) are liberated from any “constraining” references to community, tradition, or place. Yet the importance of place, both for its subtle influences on the human and for its relevance as an ecosocial frame of reference, is now making itself felt. The resurgence of place is also behind hundreds of thousands of community-based alternatives to the dominance of the global economy. p. 27, The Resurgence of the Real

Certain locales acquire meaning from our cherished memories of the people and events of which we were once a part. No wonder we’re able to rediscover contentment, a sense of belonging, and wellbeing from them — those memories are an essential part of who we are. MRI scans reveal that returning to these places affects the same part of the brain that processes deep emotions. This research confirms old truths we have too long denied or ignored.

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How Wolves Change Rivers

Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of wolves? With those nasty predators gone, nature would be perfect — the forests and grasslands would be serene homelands. Gentle herbivores wouldn’t have to worry about being eaten.

So in many areas, the wolf was hunted down almost to extinction. But over time, subtle, unhealthy changes took place in the wilderness no one could understand. The above video tells the story of what happened when wolves were reintroduced into the northern Rocky Mountains. Turns out the big, bad wolf is an essential part of the greater ecosystem. By killing off diseased elk, wolves forced the overall elk population to adapt, making the elk faster, stronger, and healthier. And without the elk fearlessly eating their way through valleys and gorges, plants that help maintain riverbank integrity flourished once again. This in turn enabled greater biodiversity as other animals returned.

What appears frightening and brutal can be the source of beauty and wonder. That’s the mystery nature continues to teach us. Growing up on a farm, I read Jack London and Robert E. Howard, whose severe yet captivating visions of nature made perfect sense to me. In college, I discovered Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and E. O. Wilson, who popularized the science that examined the role aggression plays in shaping animal behavior and ensuring the survival of the strong and beautiful. Without the yin and the yang, there is no viable whole. Each needs the other.

“Siberian Khatru,” a classic Yes song by Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman, and Steve Howe, could be the wolf’s theme song:

Sing, bird of prey;
Beauty begins at the foot of you. Do you believe the manner?

Total Eclipse a once in a lifetime experience

Total Eclipse

My wife and I went to Congaree National Park just south of Columbia, South Carolina, to view the Totality. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

The park’s eclipse program began with a hike down a nature trail to the Congaree River. But we saw some gorgeous things along the way, including stunning wildflowers and General Greene’s tree.

General Greene's Tree

General Nathaniel Greene commanded the colonies’ Southern forces during the Revolutionary War, and crossed the Congaree near this spot on his way to confront the British in Charleston. This tree is over a thousand years old.

Here are two Golden Orb spiders we stumbled upon during our hike. The large female is just visible against the trees in the background. The hopeful, tiny male is clinging to the web just above her, waiting for the right moment. He probably doesn’t know what happens after the blessed event. We didn’t stick around to witness it.

Golden Orb spider

We reached the viewing area on the eastern bank of the Congaree River. Even though we had ISO-approved solar viewing glasses, I relied mostly on my pinhole camera to watch the Moon’s progress. The camera worked great. The big advantage is that you can look at the image as long as you want. Even with the glasses, you should only gaze at the sun less than a minute at a time.

Pinhole camera

And you can always create your own hand-made crescents!

Make your own crescents

The light slowly dimmed, casting an eerie glow on the river and surrounding forests. Then, finally, the moon crossed directly in front of the sun, and we were enveloped in Totality. The air turned cool, and crickets began chirping.

Totality

That’s Venus emerging from the sudden darkness to the right of the Sun, now blocked off by the Moon.

Ten Minutes to Totality!

What a show! It was a thrilling, mysterious sight to behold, completely different from the partial eclipses I’ve seen. I’m glad we went.

Before you book that trip to Mars …

Mars

From Natural News:

The idea of heading out to space and traveling to the red planet is thrilling but consider this for a moment: Going to Mars significantly increases your chances of acquiring cancer. That’s what the latest study published in Scientific Reports concluded. Cancer risk for humans who go on a mission to Mars or on long-term space missions doubled because of exposure to radiation from cosmic rays. Being away from the protection of Earth’s magnetic field increased the risk of radiation because cosmic rays which contain iron and titanium atoms severely damage the cells due to very high rates of ionization.

That’s a fascinating and well-done article, so you’ll want to read the whole thing, but here’s the bottom line: There is no Planet B.

Occasionally, I’ll hear from science fiction aficionados who fancy that one day, humans will spread out across the galaxy. We must, they say, because when Earth dies, we’ll just blast off and leave this old burned-out hulk behind for new, more exciting worlds. Problem is, even if we proved Einstein wrong and developed faster-than-light travel, we can’t just pack up and leave Earth the way we can move to other states or countries.

The beautiful planet we’re on is where we originated, and where we live. We used to think people were autonomous entities, but in fact, our lives depend on Earth’s many processes. It hasn’t been that long that we’ve come to appreciate the existence and our relationship with gut flora, which help regulate our immune system, our digestion, and even the way our minds work. And look at the essential relationship we have with mitochondria, those living things with their own DNA, and without which we could not function.

There is no Planet B.

We’re not monads, those free-floating, ultimately simple entities cooked up by rationalistic philosophers. We’re humans, evolved beings with deep, deep roots in the natural world, and here is where we were meant to be.

Unbound II: Changed Worlds

Hunting Ground

Award-winning DAOwen Publications has just released its latest anthology, Unbound II: Changed Worlds.

Unbound II Changed Worlds

It features my story “Hunting Ground,” which is set in a brooding wetland in rural North Carolina. I grew up in the country, and the farm next to ours had a two-acre marsh where I stomped and rambled and dreamed away many an afternoon. It teemed with exotic plants, frogs, copperheads, and dark, mysterious pools. Now those were the days …

In my story, police discover the body of a fracking engineer buried near the marsh where he’d been working, and they arrest an anti-fracking activist who’d threatened him. Buddy Vuncannon, the defendant’s attorney, discovers the marsh hides a bizarre secret that could clear his client — if there were a way he could prove it in court.

My fascination with all things swampy and a Science Alert article about a mysterious stretch of land near Lake Michigan inspired the story. “Hunting Ground” is lively and entertaining, but its topic is serious. Fracking involves pumping a cocktail of chemicals and water deep underground where it cracks open layers of shale to unleash natural gas. The threat to the local water supply is profound.

Exposing the truth about fracking is all well and good, but the real goal is to renew respect and appreciation for nature. No one understands this better than poet/novelist/activist Wendell Berry. In his fiction and essays, Berry argues that the excesses of industrialism, from environmental piracy to the over-concentration of wealth, can be countered only by a rebirth of affection for the local, by which he means love and loyalty for the land we live on and for the people we live with.

Here’s how the National Endowment for the Humanities describes Berry’s literary/political mission:

In the debate that set Thomas Jefferson against Alexander Hamilton—and rural farms against cities, and agriculture against banking interests—Berry stands with Jefferson. He stands for local culture and the small family farmer, for yeoman virtues and an economic and political order that is modest enough for its actions and rationales to be discernible. Government, he believes, should take its sense of reality from the ground beneath our feet and from our connections with our fellow human beings.

And it is my passionate belief that one way we can strengthen or even restore those connections is through a good story. I hope you enjoy “Unbound II: Changed Worlds.”

The Linguist as piñata

Noam Chomsky

From Scientific American:

Noam Chomsky’s political views attract so much attention that it’s easy to forget he’s a scientist, one of the most influential who ever lived. Beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky contended that all humans possess an innate capacity for language, activated in infancy by minimal environmental stimuli. He has elaborated and revised his theory of language acquisition ever since.

It’s a great article, and includes an interview with another accomplished linguist, Steven Pinker. Pinker concludes that even after decades of brutal examination and criticism, Chomsky’s famous thesis best explains how children master language. The alternatives boil down to arguing that language is an artificial construct of the rational mind that children, starting from a blank slate, must learn.

This vindication of Chomsky’s universal grammar theory is interesting on two counts, and both impact my writing. First, I’m fascinated by language. More important, scientific support of language as an inborn capability bolsters the view that people are naturally social, as opposed to the atomistic, rationalistic view of humanity pushed by both Hobbesians and Marxists.

We’re not plopped on this planet to enrich ourselves and consume; we are born to experience the world and find ourselves in it. That’s the worldview that animates everything I write.