Check out the gorgeous nature images now online courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library. This is part of an effort to raise awareness of the sad plight of wildlife. Wild animals now face a threat unparalleled in Earth’s history:
Are we truly in the midst of a human-caused sixth mass extinction, an era of “biological annihilation”? Many scientists and popular science writers say yes, using terms like “Holocene” or “Anthropocene” to describe what follows the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous periods. Peter Brannen, author of extinction history The Ends of the Earth has found at least one scientist who thinks the concept is “junk.” But Brannen quotes some alarming statistics. Chilling, even. “Until very recently,” he writes, “all vertebrate life on the planet was wildlife. But astoundingly, today wildlife accounts for only 3 percent of earth’s land animals; human beings, our livestock, and our pets take up the remaining 97 percent of the biomass… almost half of the earth’s land has been converted into farmland.”
We need the wild. Maybe this project will make people appreciate it more.
Journalist Gracy Olmstead examines modernism’s legacy of sterile efficiency and the anti-human spaces it spawned:
But in modernity … we chose to dispense with precedent and tradition. We decided to distrust the “spooky wisdom” of the past—whether it had to do with old-fashioned agrarianism or dense walkability—and instead start from scratch, inventing our own way of doing things. Thus, freeways cut through the core of our cities, severing neighborhoods and communities. Suburbs sprung up around cosmopolitan centers, fashioning their own car-centric rhythms and culture. Farmers, meanwhile, were told to “get big or get out,” to trade diversity and sustainability for homogeneity and profit. Small to midscale farms steadily lost land and resources to their larger, industrialized counterparts.
The “spooky wisdom” she writes about is a term borrowed from quantum theory. It refers to intuitive insights that work even though we can’t fully explain WHY they work. Olmstead offers examples from ancient cities and rural communities whose designs not only fulfilled profound human needs but have survived and thrived over long centuries. Her great-grandfather, she notes, resisted the efficient yet inhumane practice of “confined animal feeding” on his small farm because providing open pastures “made the animals happy and kept the land pretty.”
I’ve long believed that our longing for beauty rises from our deepest needs and provides crucial guidance in meeting those needs. Our yearning to interact and enjoy nature and other people has been pushed aside in favor of gratifying material wants. In the mad rush to get there faster and consume more and more, we’ve managed to sequester our bodies in polluting cars or in the shadows of towering buildings. And we wonder why we feel so isolated and small.
However, some hopeful currents are stirring, from the return to small, sustainable agriculture to walkable greenways in our cities. Nature tends to be self-correcting, and I believe the pain inflicted by modernism is a signal we as a species are finally responding to.
The great struggle of our age is to re-assert our humanity against those institutions that define and treat us as simple automatons. Freudian “Drive-Reduction Theory” attempted to minimize all life into simplistic, mechanical terms. B. F. Skinner went so far as to claim that ALL behavior results from external reinforcement: Reward “good” behavior and punish “bad” behavior, and humans can be conditioned for the better. Utopia, therefore, is just a few conditioning sessions away …
Problem is, living things are inherently complex. Life refuses to be contained within formulas. So when behavioral scientists observed subjects ignoring rewards and spontaneously exploring and experimenting, they had to admit this impulse was internal, rather than external, as Skinner had assumed. A new term arose to describe this activity, as this refreshing article from Medium reports:
Intrinsic motivation refers to the spontaneous tendency “to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacity, to explore, and to learn” (Ryan and Deci, 2000, p.70).
Exercise, games, travel, reading, and even watching TV all satisfy the seeking system to varying levels of effortful operation. On one side of the spectrum someone could climb Mount Everest, and on the other they could browse Netflix. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp defines this exploratory behaviour as being driven by the organisms innate seeking system. To reiterate, the anomaly behind seeking is that it provides seemingly very little utilitarian value — it does not fulfil some physiological needs deficit, but we do it anyway. We create our own value from within. Also fascinating, we now know that organisms behave in intrinsically motivated ways even when they are lacking ‘basic’ needs such as food, water, or shelter. How many times have you seen a homeless person reading a book? Do you think they’re practising for a job interview? No, they’re seeking.
The drive to seek, to explore, and experience new things is what attracts us to fantasy. We revolt against the dreary uniformity of globalism by seeking out realms of imagination. That’s why science fiction and fantasy fuel so much popular culture these days. The fantastic is that place where we can once again experience wonder.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the modern world is an ill-fitting cage for its human captives. Basic needs for social interaction, exercise, and a sense of connection to the wider universe are left behind in a mad rush for consumption, mindless pleasure, and false security.
Our lemming-like pursuit of immediate gratification and “convenience” has cut us off from the most basic of human needs. Philosopher and author Romano Guardini identified this self-made disconnect as the source of the gnawing fears and doubts that plague modern existence:
Modern anxiety… arises from man’s deep-seated consciousness that he lacks either a ‘real’ or a symbolic place in reality. In spite of his actual position on earth he is a being without security. The very needs of man’s senses are left unsatisfied, since he has ceased to experience a world which guarantees him a place in the total scheme of existence.
James C. Scott, a political scientist and anthropologist at Yale, argues we’re in an Anthropocene Age, characterized by homo sapiens’ disproportionate influence on nature. That influence, says Scott, is not only harming other species, but our own as well. Scott’s main point is that we got ourselves and our fellow Earthlings in the fix we’re in when we started clustering around cities. Sadly, the comfort and security of cities and the nation-states they spawned was a cruel illusion. The hierarchies that profited from the creation and management of the nation-state increasingly demanded control over lives and property to perpetuate themselves. However, those ruling hierarchies were inherently unstable, often breeding foreign and domestic wars to impose or consolidate their power.
Richard Adrian Reese notes what was lost when hunter-gatherers surrendered to the forces of centralization:
Scott focused on southern Mesopotamia, because it was the birthplace of the earliest genuine states. What are states? They are hierarchical societies, with rulers and tax collectors, rooted in a mix of farming and herding. The primary food of almost every early state was wheat, barley, or rice. Taxes were paid with grain, which was easier to harvest, transport, and store than yams or breadfruit. States often had armies, defensive walls, palaces or ritual centers, slaves, and maybe a king or queen.
What to do? We can re-humanize ourselves by better understanding what our bodies and souls really need, and by modifying our lifestyles to meet those needs. The first step, however, is to open our eyes to the addictions that have enslaved us and realize there is a better way.
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.
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?