An ongoing series on connecting your life to nature by author and naturalist, Ken Lassman.
Part IV: Your body as the connecting link to the universe
Everything comes through your body’s senses
Look around. Everything you see, hear, smell, feel and taste comes through your body’s senses, which construct a sphere of awareness that surrounds your body and includes the parts of the planet that you can feel, see, hear, smell and taste.
Like every other animal, plant, bacteria and other life forms on the earth, you create a map of the world based on how your senses interact with the sensible surroundings, sending the results of these interactions to your brain where your mind creates your perceptual reality that is a mix of what you perceive and what you remember.
Your body is the planet’s gift to you
Before you learn how to read, look at a screen, or go to school, your body is growing and orienting to the planet’s gravitational field, to the cycle of day and night and temperatures, to sounds and nurturing food sources, and so on.
This is a process that begins before you are born, based on a process that has been honed through genetic and environmental selection that literally goes back billions of years, through the collective wisdom of the myriad of life forms that preceded our human form. If something goes wrong within the growing embryo so that, for instance, it isn’t able to sense up from down in the gravitational field, the embryo aborts or is born with developmental disabilities that require external supports to lead any kind of meaningful, participatory life in ways that most people take for granted.
Spheres of awareness
Each living species develops a unique perceptual sphere of awareness. Each individual within that species is constantly bathed in a sensory world of physiological, reproductive, nutritive and communicative interactions with their surroundings.
As a result, other species perceive and interact in a very different world than we humans do.
Many other animals, for instance, have much better and/or different eyesight, hearing, touch, smell and taste than we humans have.
- Plants have a much more specific chemical sense that allows them to react when animals begin to eat them, to emit aromas and display colors and patterns that attract pollinators to their flowers and to create progeny (seeds) designed to interact with animals who transport their seed.
- Plants react to the lack of water in a drought and adapt to other local weather extremes, and react to the influences that affect an entire plant community.
Dancing with the Planet
Regardless of the nature of that sensory sphere, we all have the capacity to interact with our surroundings through that sphere as we grow, develop and are sustained. We all need to know who it is we are dancing with, where it is and what it is doing, regardless of what that dancer is.
We live embedded not only in a landscape of ecologically linked species of plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, archaea, viruses and the rest; we live embedded in a quilted blanket of awareness, in a landscape of sensations being perceived by a wide range of biological sensors, if you will, that range from microscopic to regional, on the ground, in the waters, soil and air.
Each sensing being is after the same thing: a comfortable healthy life. And despite the seemingly chaotic, competitive fang-and-claw depictions of how nature works – sometimes presented to us by the media – ecosystems work amazingly well, efficiently and sustainably distributing limited resources that are available in ways that support a stunning network of diverse species with a resilience and adaptability to both short term and long term changes.
Technology has extended our sphere of awareness
As humans, we have greatly enhanced our spheres of awareness through the use of technology, where into our sensory sphere we insert books, radios, screens and more that display information gleaned from other sensors that extend well beyond our normal sensory sphere, enabling us to perceive what other species perceive and more.
We can tease out what is happening in parts of the universe billions of light-years away and within the realm of subatomic particles and the very vibrating fabric of the space-time continuum. While this technologically enhanced awareness has resulted in huge leaps in our understanding of how the universe works, it has not provided us with instructions on what to do with this understanding.
Learning how to perceive the planet’s awareness again
We have cluttered up our sensory sphere with so much externally generated perceptions–stories, news, work-related information and entertainment designed to grab our attention– that most of us have can no longer perceive the world that is inhabited by the rest of the world: that original sensory sphere our bodies have evolved to pay attention to.
As sensing beings, we have used this understanding to create comfortable, healthy lives, but with little regard to the consequences for all the other sensing beings we share the planet with, human or otherwise. The quilted web of awareness that exists through the presence of other forms of life has disappeared in the hailstorm of our own sensory inputs.
This technologically based, human-focused cocoon of awareness we’ve woven around ourselves dominates our focus without telling us much if anything about the rest of the room and blinds us to other things that could help us in our quest for happiness if we just turned down the volume of our own music and drew back the curtains to let the light pour in from outside.
Opening the doors of perception again
We don’t have to completely get rid of that cocoon of awareness that technology has provided us, but in order to draw back the curtains to let that ancient, ever-renewing planetary intelligence back into our lives, we have to knock on the door of creation and ask if it will return to our room, using our body’s senses to sense the world anew, to rejoin the planet on its own terms.
The theologian Thomas Berry has provided us with a good set of rules that remind us how to reinhabit the landscapes we live in, re-joining all the other sentient beings so that we can benefit from their awareness of our planet and not lean so heavily on the web of life when we meet our own needs.
Berry’s insights include the following:
- The universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not primarily of objects to be used. As a subject, each component of the universe is capable of having rights.
- The natural world on the planet Earth gets its rights from the same source that humans get their rights, from the universe that brought them into being.
- Every component of the Earth community has three rights: The right to be, the right to habitat or a place to be, and the right to fulfill its role in the ever-renewing process of the Earth community.
- All rights in nonliving form are role-specific; rights in living form are species-specific and limited. Rivers have river rights. Birds have bird rights. Insects have insect rights. Humans have human rights. Difference of rights is qualitative not quantitative. The rights of an insect would be of no use to a tree or fish.
- Human rights do not cancel out the rights of other modes of being to exist in their natural state….Property rights are simply a special relationship between a particular human “owner” and a particular piece of “property” so that both might fulfill their roles in the great community of existence.
- Since species exist only in the form of individuals, rights refer to individuals, not simply in a general way to species.
- These rights as presented here are based on the intrinsic relations that the various components of the Earth have to each other. The planet Earth is a single community bound together with interdependent relationships. No living being nourishes itself. Each component of the Earth community is immediately or mediately dependent on every other member of the community for the nourishment and assistance it needs for its own survival. This mutual nourishment, which includes predator-prey relationship, is integral with the role that each component of the Earth has within the comprehensive community of existence.
- In a special manner, humans have not only a need for but a right of access to the natural world, to provide for the physical needs of humans and the wonder needed by human intelligence, and the intimacy needed by the human emotions for personal fulfillment.
From: “A Bill of Rights for the Planet Earth,” in Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as a Sacred Community, San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 2006, p. 149
As you can see from this last point, Berry validates the role of nature as a replenishing source in our lives, providing us with the resilience that we need to do the hard work we are called to do as activists in our communities.
And as our most direct connection to the universe, our bodies have evolved to be the perfect vehicle for us as a species and as individuals to nurture our relationship with the other sensing beings that we form a community with.
Finding our literal common ground is just the first step, as we jump out of our human constructs into the ecological space and time that all other species live in, to observe what they are doing and perceiving and to learn from their interactions with each other and ourselves.
Exercising your gifts
Paying attention to this “here” and “now” directly connects you more closely to every other animal (and plant) on the planet, a habit that has atrophied for most of us, in our technological cocoons of screens and sounds that are so informative and yet take us away from our surroundings.
Just as with using a muscle that hasn’t been used in a while, your “attending muscles” might be wimpy and not able to perceive much initially, but with a little persistence and compassion, you’ll become surprised at how your perceptual body will get stronger by reconnecting with the unscreened sights and sounds that surround us every day.
You can do lots of different things to reinhabit your earth senses; here are just a few that have worked for me:
- Spend time outdoors doing activities with plants, whether it be gardening, harvesting, planting, pruning–whatever. In a similar fashion, spend time outdoors with animals, whether it be pets, observing birds, tracking wildlife, etc. At the end of the day, when you lie in bed with your eyes closed, invite those plants and animals into your consciousness. It is not uncommon at the end of the day if I have been interacting with plants, that the images of those plant leaves will appear in my mind’s eye after I’ve closed my own. See if that happens to you, and if it does, build on this sensory gift from whatever plant or animal gives you that image.
- Sit quietly outdoors in a comfortable spot where you can be for at least 30 minutes without moving much, if at all. Not only can this be a good context for a mindfulness session, where you are paying attention to your breath and the thoughts that enter, pass through and leave your mind, it also gives time for the local spot to accustom itself to your presence. After at least 10 minutes of immersing yourself quietly in the landscape, you may very well notice that the landscape starts becoming more active. Birds and squirrels come back or get closer. An otherwise invisible deer may relax enough to move. Something is hopping in the leaves. You may notice something about the tree 20 feet ahead and to the right of you that you’ve never noticed before. Maybe the apparently random nature of a butterfly or bird may begin to make sense as you notice which flower it prefers or which species of tree that woodpecker likes to hunt for bugs in the bark of. The possibilities are there, ready for you to take the time to notice.
- Time your walks and sits around sunrise and sunset and you’re much more likely to see animal activities, whether it is that blue heron flying to or from the southeast where the heron nests in a large sycamore, or flocks of waterfowl heading away from/toward the large lake/reservoir where it overnights. If you are up before dawn, you can witness the ending night sounds and the beginning calls of the morning, and witness a similar transition around sunset. See what changes you see during these times as the seasons progress: a fall sunrise is very different from a spring or winter sunrise.
- Consider taking a night hike and see if you notice the difference between a moonless night, a night around the full moon, or a cloudy overcast night, and what characterizes each monthly cycle of the moon’s phases. I think your sense of hearing and awareness is heightened while walking at night–see what you experience and maybe you can figure out why, and at the same time figuring out if what you are experiencing is random, cyclical and/or repetitive from night to night.
Keep that smartphone in your pocket for now
Notice that I’ve not said anything about using your smartphone or any of the many apps that have been developed to “enhance” the experience of nature.
It’s not that many of these can’t enrich your experience outdoors; I just think that almost everyone benefits from experiencing these things directly through your sensory channels first.
Once you are both familiar with how well your senses can be attuned to the outdoor world, and are not so afraid or uncomfortable, then you are ready to “supplement” your senses if you want.
Sometimes it is great to take a photo of a track in the mud to identify what kind of animal made it, or make an audio recording of that weird call so that you can identify whether what you’re hearing is a katydid or a tree frog in the dark.
But once you’ve identified what you’re seeing/hearing/tasting/feeling/smelling, go ahead and put that smartphone back into your pocket so you can continue to use your own senses to see, hear, taste, feel and smell.
And remember that you can develop relationships with plants and animals that can be as long term, deep and rewarding as your circle of close humans.
The Resilient Activist site contains articles and EnviroTips on this very topic. To learn more, check out EnviroTip #8: Spend time noticing nature. And take a moment to listen to the 13-minute guided visualization, Time in Nature: Embodying the Seasons.