Does nature really matter in the 21st century?
By Mark Johnson, TWF director of communications
It happens as we cruise through our 21st-century life, and it’s nobody’s fault in particular.
It happens while we spend eight hours a day in our brick office buildings, five days a week, most of a year; as we’re driving our air-conditioned vehicles down wide swaths of pavement flanked by stacks of apartment buildings and expanses of strip malls; while we’re having our teeth cleaned in sterile dentist offices; and as we stroll through the aisles of Whole Foods or Publix, filling our carts with sustenance as easily as picking a flower.
It happens as we hold glowing Xbox controllers in our hands, wiggling our thumbs to manipulate the movements of a digital human on our TV screen; while we recline in the plastic chair of a nail salon as another person paints our toenails; as we stare at a two-and-a-half hour movie about elves in a darkened, cinderblock theater; and as we sit at a conference room table with our co-workers, devoting 30 minutes of our lives to planning another such meeting.
It occurs as we zip across the country, 35,000 feet up in an aluminum and fiberglass tube with cold, strange-smelling oxygen pumped in for our benefit; while we wait impatiently for a microwave to finish scrambling the molecules of our cup ‘o soup; and as we watch intently, stretched out on our faux-leather couches, as an Alaskan man inspects his trapline during a Saturday marathon of “Mountain Men.”
If I’m being honest, it’s happening as I write these words and as you’re reading them.
We are losing a little bit more of our place in the natural world.
Most of us don’t care because we don’t think it affects us. We operate in a world largely of our own technological making, and we’re comfortable here. Nature equals the trees and rain we take occasional note of out our windows. Nature equals the lawns we buzz with our John Deere riding mowers before retreating back inside.
And that’s about it.
If we actually gave it even a smidgen of thought, we would be amazed at what’s going on out there. Amazed that large animals — some larger than us, even — are born, live, and die in the woods just outside our suburban homes. That each year, tiny hummingbirds and feather-light butterflies make epic, thousand-mile journeys to exotic, far-off places, only to return to the exact Tennessee backyard the following season — without the benefit of GPS.
We would find it fascinating that each creature in this ecosystem consumes another and is, in turn, consumed by another. That with no technology at all and with no human assistance whatsoever, living things soar miles above the earth on thermal updrafts, swim at unthinkable depths in pure blackness, and construct intricate underground passageways and thoroughfares using their noses and feet as perfect tools. Comedies and tragedies to which Shakespeare could only aspire are daily played out in a square-foot patch of ground on a South Dakota prairie or a Louisiana bayou, likely never to be viewed by human eyes.
And what about those prairies and bayous? Or the extremes of the Rocky Mountains or the rolling Appalachians? Or the alien beauty hidden just beneath the surface of the Caribbean Sea, or even the vast gorges, wetlands, and waterfalls beyond the sight-lines of the interstate highways right here in Tennessee?
Sure, there are some unpleasant things outside. There are mosquitos, snakes, spiders, thorns, wasps, and horseflies. (I’m scratching at chigger bites as I type.) There are even cougars, bears, wolves, and coyotes, depending upon where you live.
That’s OK. I’m not suggesting you embark upon an exploration of the great outdoors without preparation and a little common sense. But as humans, we have been purposefully equipped with the intelligence— for the most part — to deal with these things.
In my view, people were placed upon this earth to be a part of nature, not apart from it. I believe that God expects us to appreciate its majesty, utilize its renewable resources wisely, and pass its treasures along to our children and grandchildren. It is our responsibility to serve as conscientious stewards of this, perhaps the greatest of His gifts, rather than to ignore it, keep it at arm’s length, and to leave its care to somebody else or to some government agency.
So, does nature matter these days? You may have your own answer, but here’s mine:
Nature matters because it reminds us that there is something — or somebody — else infinitely more clever and creative than we. Man can make some pretty impressive things these days, but we still can’t make that.
While we often do our best to manipulate, circumvent, or hide it, nature nonetheless provides us with awe-inspiring beauty despite our best efforts, certainly not because of them. The only price of admission is acknowledgement and a little TLC, and that’s the least we can do.
So tomorrow, spend a little more time looking out rather than down. Devise a way to get yourself outside, if only for a few minutes more than usual.
And if you’re worried about mosquitoes, put on a little bug spray. I’ll bet that Mother Nature won’t hold it against you.
(Note: We’d love to hear why YOU believe nature does or doesn’t matter. Write it in the comment section!)
Photo: The rainy day bear image was shot by TWF friend David Olive in Cades Cove.