It were a foolish and ridiculous arrogance to esteem ourselves the most perfect thing in this Universe. —Michel De Montaigne.
“In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.” —Henry David Thoreau
Yesterday it rained, a soaking rain that saturated the soil, sinking deep into the starving earth, and the air seemed to smell of deep and unknowable things, a sky leached of all color but heavy with the sibilant sound of the wind and water dropping steadily throughout the day. It was a moment when I became suddenly aware of the changing seasons, of the sudden shift from sleet and snow into softer days of showers and sun. There is something about this shift that makes me want to go into the mountains near my home, wander down dimly lit paths and feel the days get longer.
To be honest, it is not something that I do very often. Go into the woods to wander and wonder at the world around me. There always seems to be something else taking priority, a relentless busyness that I have allowed myself to be led into although I live in a state that is renowned for its natural beauty. I sometimes wonder why.
Despite living mere hours from a half dozen National Parks, it has been 30 years since I had taken the time to visit, to meander, to walk among the leafy canopies of forests set against the backdrop of stark and majestic mountain peaks, until this last summer, when my husband and I packed our car and set out for the weekend with our sons, driving through rain and sun and mist, following rivers, and traveling along the base of incredible mountain vistas. We saw deer and moose and bison, as well as a pack of wolves across a valley, so far away that they looked like tiny toys skulking in the waving grass of the sunlit afternoon.
There are moments, I think, that as a collective people we become aware of the tendency to believe that we are the center of everything—spaces where we recognize that not only all lives, but all environments are intrinsically valuable, and worth reclaiming and preserving. But those moments are few and far between and tied to the way we experience nature. To the way we feel the world around us. Our culture tells us, increasingly, that the worth of something can be measured only by the profit that can be gained from it, that all things must have a deliberate and measurable value. Commodification has become one of the most dangerous of contemporary issues, undermining the way we see the world, and the lens through which we value both our natural and our family ecosystems.
Instead of the natural interconnectedness with which we used to live in harmony with the world around us, we have become disconnected, reducing worth to the ways in which we can trade it, either for resources or entertainment value. This is dangerous—feeding into the falsehood that we are only worth something if we can be sold. How disconnected we have become from the environment that nurtures us, upon which we have built our lives.
This devaluation, I believe is inextricably tied to the way we see and value women, the care we take in raising children, the importance we place on the unpaid, uncompensated experiences—art, nature, and human connection. We have the ability to resist this cultural force, through a shift in the small holy moments we notice, and the way we honor time, space, and relationships. We can advocate for a return to a stewardship model of environmental policy, one informed by maternal influences, and rooted in nurture over traditional profit based models. But this paradigm shift cannot be accomplished if we continue to allow our worth to be determined by others—it will change only as we examine the way our personal choices place value on community, connection, and a larger view of the environment around us as an essential part of who we are.
We have been sold the lie that our environment is only worth something if you can put a price on it—that experience is incidental to value. But as communities, our values are more grounded in what money cannot buy, in the fabric of our lives. It is about home, and family, and the people with whom we surround ourselves. It is about the spaces and places in which we create. It is about the unmeasurable and indefinable. It is about how we shape out of our human lives something greater—a sacred space where we are all connected by the world on which we live.
I am a collection of my life experiences, shaped by the environments in which I have been raised. I contain the wide blue sweep of hot southern Utah skies, the gold slanted sun through fir trees in northern California, the damp of an Oregon spring redolent with the smell of wet leaves and the acidic edge of crushed ferns, the windswept North Dakota plains imprinted on the edges of my heart. I am a testimony of spaces. When we become witnesses for the world around us, advocating for policy that includes not only preservation but nurture, we disrupt the cultural forces at work that eliminate respect, wonder, and belief.
One of my students this semester is writing his final paper on the intersection between nature and mental health, but he is struggling. He knows what he wants to say—that when he finds himself outside, when he takes the time to connect with the world around him, he feels better, stronger, more whole. That there is something intrinsically sacred in the moments he spends in the outdoors that feeds his soul—that nourishes a connection to the divine. But the world in which we live no longer recognizes those personal miracles and memories, rejecting experience in favor of clinical observation and disconnected data. The human experience has become secondary to what can be measured, weighed, calculated, and calibrated, validated through nonsensical logic that severs our beliefs from the moments of unblinking honesty that can snap us awake and startle us into awareness.
We need to return to a view of the world as maternal, nourishing force, for the earth that is our rock and redemption, a body that has endured the unendurable, that hears our whispers and prayers, that feeds our stomachs and our souls, to which we run for solace and consolation as we advocate not only for conservation but connection—and long slow days walking in the rain.