When humans return to more-than-human places, we remember our deep-time connection and kinship with all of life. In my own experience as a city dweller, returning to wildish places allows me to silence the din of my human preoccupations, and hear the sacred pulse of what Earth scholar Thomas Berry once called “the great conversation.”
Humans seek to preserve wild places, care for them, and love them because of this essential sacred pulse, this need to converse beyond the human, to reinstate our innermost rhythmic synchronicity with life’s biodiversity. I have always cherished wild places, and I experience immense grief watching those places dwindle through disrespect and desecration. I say desecration, because to me, wild places — more-than-human expressions of connected creativity — not only symbolize the sacredness of nature: they nurture it in all of us.
Wildness, and the desire to remain fluent in it, haunts those of us raised in human-constructed places, concrete places like the one I inhabited much of my adult life. The need to reconnect drives us city folk into the dusty hills and canyons; seeking the smell of chaparral, chance encounters with a coyote or bobcat, or perhaps just to hear one’s own thoughts beyond the clamor and congestion of cars. The fact remains that the wild places are unavailable to most urban-lived realities. Many people in urbanized worlds will rarely enjoy the sacred experience of wilderness; sometimes because there is no affinity, but more often because there is no opportunity. Children growing up in urban and suburban concrete spaces suffer deeply from the absence of this connection, exhibiting the symptoms of what John Muir once cautioned against: the loss of “inherited wildness.”
Healing the Biophilic Heart
In spite of oppressive systems that impair people’s connections to the more-than-human world — that world that created and surrounds us, dwells within us. My work as an environmental educator reveals to me that most young people desperately need and want these connections. I have seen children who have never before experienced more-than-human ecosystems marvel at them and long to come back. Sadly, they may not have the opportunity to return though they live only a few miles away. But I have also seen the healing held in communal gardens that green concrete places, reviving the heart of community through connection to plants and pollinators.
What biologist E.O. Wilson once called biophilia, an innate love for diverse lifeforms, seeks expression in many ways. Sacred connection to the more-than-human world happens not only in wild places, but also in tending to our biophilic hearts. Current prison gardening programs heal the biophilic hearts of inmates, while dog rehabilitation programs provide both inmates and shelter animals with healing interspecies connections. Green cities have been shown to reduce anxiety and violence, and children who live among pets (and plants) are healthier and happier; the biophilic heart wants to connect. Cultivating relations with diverse life that makes up the more-than-human world, reconnects us to our greater planetary family. Noticing and attending to the activity of more-than-human creativity around us — whether practicing shinrin-yoku (forest-bathing) outside the city, or watching sparrows flitting around an urban café tabletop — helps us heal our biophilic hearts.
Family in Flourishing and Finitude
All humans require this sacred connection, this sense of belonging to the “family of things” as the late, great ecopoet Mary Oliver put it in her poignant poem, “Wild Geese.” Cultivating connections to our Earth family means that we belong to each other in flourishing and finitude; we are not alone. Especially at this time of great loss, extinction and migrations, we need each other, to be there for and with each other. When we let our canine companion walk us and wonder at their sense of smell ten-thousand times greater than ours; when we plant flowers in the city that innately know how to grow according to the principles of the golden ratio; when we encounter a coyote, possum or skunk, on garbage night and wish them well with their foraging, we are connecting with, we are belonging to, the family of Earth — even if it isn’t perfect, perhaps especially because it isn’t; it is sacred.