Nature, Wonder and Enchantment

How Nature Makes Us More Human

David Abram, in his book Spell of the Sensuous, makes a thought-provoking claim that nature makes us more human. Abram writes,

We cannot measure our humanity if we do not have the distance from it we gain from immersing ourselves in nature . . . Without the oxygenating breath of the forests, without the clutch of gravity and the tumbled magic of river rapids, we have no distance from our technologies, no way of assessing their limitations, no way to keep ourselves from turning into them (x).

Spell of the Sensuous is the most profound, life-changing book I have read in the last five years, and this quote especially captured my attention.

People often juxtapose nature and humans, as if the two are totally separate. So, it is surprising to many people that writers such as Abram suggest that nature helps us become more human. And, in fact, such thinkers argue that we cannot be fully human without nature.

Such a claim can seem surprising or even doubtful initially. But Abram makes a compelling case.

David Abram, Picture Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

He points out that early humans, especially hunter-gathers, spent almost the entire day (every day) outside, immersed in the natural world. As such, bird song and animal cries surrounded them constantly. Abram argues that as early humans listened to the language of nature, learning to decipher its meaning, it catalyzed their own language development. Interestingly, he notes further that people who study the language patterns of indigenous tribes today often hear inflection patterns influenced by the natural species surrounding that tribe. Our environment always influences our language patterns.

Abram also suggests that humans first developed their own early writing systems, largely pictorial, by noticing the marks and patterns nature left for them to read. Such patterns carried important messages about the natural world or the passage of the seasons.

One has only to imagine the skill early humans developed in reading the writing various animals left behind—e.g. animal tracks—in order to aid them in their various endeavors.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Or we can imagine the skill early humans developed in reading the writing of the sky in star or cloud patterns. Early humans used these patterns to navigate the seas or anticipate future weather conditions. And they later copied such patterns in their own early writing symbols.

Picture by Shelly P. Johnson

Abram’s point is that human language and writing didn’t develop in an intellectual vacuum. Or, to use an old saying, our language and writing capacities didn’t spring, like Athena, fully-formed from the head of Zeus.

Rather, our intimate interaction with nature catalyzed human thinking, speech, and writing: those abilities that we often believe make us most human. This suggests, interestingly, that rather than nature and humanity being complete separate from one another, nature is the very thing that catalyzes our human potential and helps us develop it fully.

One day as I was thinking about these ideas, I Imagined a scenario. The scenario was a strange experiment in which a young adult (we will call him Paul) volunteers to live for several years in a totally white warehouse. He is surrounded by machines like old phones, lamps, radios, cars, computers, etc. Paul can request any technology he desires, but he is not able to contact the outside world or see images of the outside world. Paul is well-fed and clothed and comfortable in his room.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, Paul could learn some interesting things from handling and dissecting these various machines. But immersed in human technology as he is, he lacks intimate encounters with the natural world.

Such encounter are wild, often unpredictable, and frequently strange. As such, they often catalyze the expansion of our senses and understanding.

Picture by Shelly P. Johnson

To be clear, human mechanical ingenuity is often amazing. I, personally, am very fond of my laptop and love discovering the cool things I can do through its various programs.

Nevertheless, there is a certain predictability and sameness to human-made artifacts. That predictability is very useful in many contexts. However, my experience with technology evokes radically different emotions than do my encounters with radiant skies, wild animals, trees, flowers, and other entities of the natural world.

Abrams writes,

The World and I reciprocate one another. The landscape as I directly experience it is hardly a determinate object; it is an ambiguous realm that responds to my emotions and calls forth feelings from me in turn (33).

In these encounters, I feel called out of my human condition towards something mysterious, profound, and Other.

Picture by Shelly P. Johnson

And at the same time, such experiences help me return to my human condition, feeling more alive, powerful, and at home in it. Nature helps us feel more human by encountering the more-than-human.

Perhaps this is because in our most beautiful encounters with nature, we recognize that we are meaningful part of a Great Adventure. In this adventure, we recognize that we play an important role. We are stewards, observers, explorers, and appreciators. But we also recognize that we are connected to a larger web of life that enriches, instructs, and cares for us every day.

This is both comforting and humbling.

Picture by Shelly P. Johnson

Abram alludes to something like this when he notes the way in which our perceptions of the world around us create a sense of stability for our lived experience:

It is this informing of my perceptions by the evident perceptions and sensation of other bodily entities that establishes, for me, the relative solidity and stability of the world (39).

And I think I better understand now why Abrams argues,

We cannot measure our humanity if we do not have the distance from it we gain from immersing ourselves in nature . . . Without the oxygenating breath of the forests, without the clutch of gravity and the tumbled magic of river rapids, we have no distance from our technologies, no way of assessing their limitations, no way to keep ourselves from turning into them (x).

It’s not that human technology is bad per se. Rather, it’s incomplete. It is proper to be grateful for human ingenuity and all that it gives me. But I also need to learn from the ingenuity of the clouds, the trees, and the butterflies. Such beauty and ingenuity both comforts us in our human condition and calls us out of it towards a wilder, greater whole. It is these very experiences that create the space for our human experience to unfold. And it’s these very experiences that call forth the flourishing of our full human capacities.

It’s important to remember that there is a difference between being biologically human and being fully human. All human beings are born biologically human. However, to become fully human is to develop all our constructive human capacities to their fullest extent. These are capacities like wisdom, creativity, kindness, compassion, generosity, awe, wonder, curiosity, and playfulness (just to name a few capacities).

Picture by Shelly P. Johnson

The more we do this, the more powerful and truly human we are. Abram suggests, among other things, that nature plays an irreplaceable role in helping us develop these most human capacities.

Maybe go outside today, Friend, and look at the sky and listen to the birds. Feel your heart and mind grow bigger and stronger. And feel yourself become more fully alive, powerful, and human.

*****

You might also like to read these posts: Butterfly Meditating: A Contemplative Practice; 10,000 Steps a Day for Two and a Half Years; Why You Might Be Nature-Starved and Not Even Realized It; Our Back Yard Has Become a Nature Sanctuary

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