Bridging the Human-Nature Divide

As a boy growing up on a farm in southern Ontario, I spent countless hours exploring fields, fence lines, forests and streams. The myriad species of flora and fauna I encountered were a source of utter fascination.  I was enthralled equally by a painted turtle sliding off a log into a still pond, and a forest glade of ostrich ferns dappled in sunlight. Even though I’d never heard the term “ecosystem” (the word wasn’t in common usage then), I think I might have intuited the intimate interconnectedness within the vast and complex world of flora and fauna.

But I don’t recall ever seriously wondering about my place, as a human, in that natural order. Nature was the objective “other.” It existed over against humans, and humans over against it. Ironically this dualism may have been reinforced by life on the farm. It was there where Nature – the soil in the fields, woodlots, domesticated animals – was considered to be in service to us humans. We were, we presumed, the masters of the natural domain. Implicit in that assertion is an unfortunate hubris, an excessive pride that has served neither humanity nor the natural environment well.

The Judeo-Christian tradition in which I was raised might bear some of the responsibility.  In Genesis 1:26 we read: Then God said, “Let us make mankind [sic] in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”(NIV) This “truth,” which was reinforced elsewhere in the Bible, gave humanity permission to subdue, and assume ultimate power over, the Earth and all its creatures. It has prevailed for centuries. (Thankfully, theologians including Douglas John Hall have helped us see that (mis)translation from the ancient Hebrew and the full context of the biblical scriptures suggest a very different meaning behind the Genesis passage and others like it, one that speaks of a relationship between humans and Nature as essentially integrated and holistic.)

The capitalist, hyper-materialist consumer economy and society in which, to varying degrees, we all participate is another culprit. With its obsession with the bottom line, it also creates distance between people and the natural world alienating one from the other. Persons are reduced to consumers, and Nature is unrelentingly constrained to becoming a mere object to be tamed, processed, packaged and consumed.

Forty-five years removed from boyhood on the farm, my relationship with Nature has been profoundly transformed. While the temptation to think about Nature in dualistic terms lingers, increasingly I feel a sense of oneness with the natural order.  Learning to think and act in an integrated and holistic manner – a continuing process, by the way, probably not something one ever completely achieves – is helping me bridge the gap. Contemplation and action are keys in bringing about this change.  On the contemplative side reading – authors including Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, Mark Hathaway, and many others – has been instrumental. The passionate and integrative way they write about Nature moves me deeply.

Learning about soil has been another source of enlightenment. In a single teaspoon of healthy soil more than a billion living organisms interact and coexist. How cool is that! How humbling is that! As a living entity, soil is sacred and should be treated as such. Yet under the industrial paradigm that shapes, indeed dictates, modern agricultural practices we treat soil like an inert mass, mining it as an exploitable “resource.” We apply synthetic fertilizers and agro-toxins which destroy its natural productive capacity, despoiling and desecrating it in the act. Soil needs to be regarded and treated with the respect it deserves, because without it we are doomed – literally.

But just being in Nature and taking the time to do something as simple as get down on my hands and knees and peer into the tiniest of wildflowers; to open myself to the essence, indeed the soul, of that petite natural work of art – is perhaps the most profound way I experience myself as inextricably part of, even one with, Nature. These moments of transcendence, fleeting as they often are, are deeply felt but not easily captured in words.

On the action side, farming and gardening organically and working to conserve and enhance the natural biodiversity on the farm I co-steward with my partner, Deborah, also have helped me to span the human-Nature divide. Equally important is my involvement with the National Farmers Union-Ontario Grey County Local, the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, and other farm- and Nature-related groups. They all espouse values that locate humans not above, but within and as part of, Nature. These contemplative and action-oriented experiences have taught me humility and compassion.  Without these two attributes, my life would be greatly impoverished.

The dualism between humans and Nature that I experienced as a boy wasn’t a perfect, absolute dualism. That’s because the human-Nature divide doesn’t really exist. It’s something we humans have created to mask our myriad insecurities and, in the case of some, to acquire power and wealth. Indeed in my boyhood rural community there were many farmers who, while they perhaps couldn’t give it voice, inherently experienced or felt an intimate relationship between themselves and the land (read Nature). My Uncle Eddie was one of them. While he was in part captive to the industrial agricultural model, he demonstrated and passed on to me an almost child-like exuberance toward all things Nature, especially when it came to farming which he loved so completely. For farmers like Uncle Eddie, there was no real gap, no bridges to be built between the human community and Nature.

It is this holism, this fundamental unity of humanity and Nature, that each of us is called to make explicit and the very center of our lives.  It is a matter of the utmost urgency. As American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer Wendell Berry has written, “To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival.”