Climb up to nature

In the Sticks: A regular column by Shirley Clerkin 

Patrick Kavanagh wrote that “It takes a lifetime to know a field” .  I like to imagine that he was referring to a hay field, with yellow rattle, orchids and fine grasses jostling for space between the hawthorn quicks.  Observation and memory are vital to know the poet’s field, the type of skills more often used for X-box and Nintendo games in today’s Ireland. However, the architecture of our brain has been created by human experiences in nature over millennia. This, the main principle of eco-psychology is predicated on the idea that although the human mind responds to the modern social world, it is adapted to the natural environment in which it evolved.  Survival necessitated a deep knowledge of place, for shelter, for water, to forage.

The ash tree in the hedge of my childhood garden was a favourite climbing frame and roost for me. A large step up was required to clamber into its reaches but once I got my foothold, a series of convenient forks and branches allowed me to shimmy up to its highest and skinniest bough so I was a sail clinging to a mast in the wind.  It was bliss swaying with the tree in the breeze, smelling and feeling the fresh air and the skin of the ash tree.  Nature provided me with a thinking space, a castle, a refuge for fauna and allowed me to be one with nature.

Richard Louv in his American bestseller Last Child in the Woods discusses the importance of close contact with nature for human development, and the impact of nature-deficit disorder in inculcating depressions and  anxiety. The plugged-in generation may be storing up emotional and physical ailments which a dose of scratching along in the outdoors would benefit. “Unlike television, nature does not steal time, it amplifies it”.

I was reminded of Louv’s book in the aftermath of the dreadful killings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The fraught debates at PTA meetings in the direct aftermath discussed the removal of playgrounds and banning school windows; pretty much incarcerating the children we seek to protect. Keeping children away from evil people with guns and keeping them from nature in equal measure. With fear as their guide, they forget that children grow into adults.

Seamus Heaney beautifully mines the language of our ancestral landscape – “We are hunters and gatherers of values “and if children do not experience the outside world directly through touch, sight, sound and smell it will be hard for them to gather that value and use it as a buffer in stressful times. Sadly too, if guns are valued they too will gather that value to themselves. Biophilia, used as a title by the Icelandic composer Bjork for her most recent and innovative album  was popularised as a term by biologist Edward O Wilson to represent that deep urge we have to affiliate with other forms of life. When the links have been severed and our ecological perception has been dulled this urge creates a reaction: the urge to destroy.

The Irish psyche, says psychologist Elaine Martin, is trapped in a narcissistic system and suffers from a low self esteem due to our colonial legacy. This psyche often insults and derides our character, landscape and nature.  We resist compliments about its worth because as an extension of ourselves it is not worth it. The European Commission placed a value on our nature in the 1992 Habitats and Birds Directives, stating that our biodiversity was of European importance, but we took it as an insult and an imposition:

European Commission: Your nature is so beautiful!

Ireland: Nonsense, this old thing! You must be kidding.

Negative actions follow from negative thoughts and language. It is almost a defiant act of self-defence to destroy nature when it reminds us of what we are missing.  It now seems as we increasingly destroy our biodiversity that we are destroying the very things that taught us how to think.  We are eating ourselves alive.

So, as a start for 2013 we should hunt out “the sticks”, whether that is the corner of the street, the backyard, park or garden and try to get some viable contact with the natural world into our lives.   Louv quotes Vincent Van Gogh “It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which we should listen to…”.  This year I am going to try to get into a tree again, for nostalgia and to feel the freedom of the air up there.