Why Being Loved by Nature Matters

[Greetings friends. This week’s blog is being written by a guest author, Erin Pratt. Every so often we will ask folks who are on the front lines of some of the key issues HCG addresses to share their thoughts, reflections, expertise, and / or hopes for the future. Erin organizes around climate justice issues and shares here her thoughts about nature, youth education and our climate future. We’d like to thank Erin for her blog contribution and for her larger body of work on this important issue. Please look in October for another guest blog from one of our favorite classroom teachers, and next week HCG blogs resume with Part II of “The Courage to Teach”. – Heather]


I grew up swimming in the lakes and waterways of northeast Florida.  On summer afternoons my father would point with wonder to the building cumulus clouds, noting their direction, the intensity of the lightning and how much rain they were sure to gift us with. We would listen and watch with awe as the storm made its way over our heads and on down the coast and out to sea.  We breathed in the smell of the ozone, of soaked earth and steaming pavement, and the sight of a newly scrubbed sky, bright blue, white and silver.


On one of these magical afternoons my brother and I held hands, our mouths full of root beer.  We were standing with our toes curled around the muscled limb of the mighty live oak that hung gracefully over Black Creek.  Crouching, we tensed, then sprang into the air, falling 12 feet into the tannic acid brown, shockingly fresh clean water.  Underwater it was almost silent, bubbles haloed around our heads.  Our floating hair was illuminated by the sun’s rays piercing the mysterious underworld. We watched each other, eyes wide, as we swallowed our fizzy root beer, delighting in how the colors and textures of our drink and the river matched. Clearly this was a summer ritual as beloved as the thunder rolling through the sky.


It was not so many years later, home on a break from college, that I sat at an outdoor restaurant with my family.  The ashes of live oaks from nearby forest fires fell around us. Florida was in the middle of its third year of drought.  The graceful summer thunderstorms that we could once set our clock to were now rare and sporadic.  When they did visit they were often extreme, fueling the fires instead of calming them.  Looking for solace, we headed through the forest to Black Creek. Instead of the familiar live oaks, cypress trees and palmetto plants, there was a neighborhood of newly built houses, that were ironically situated at the base of the now defunct fire tower that had once stimulated my imagination as a child.


It seemed that everywhere I turned I found evidence of injustice, suffering, and loss of life, all pointing to the perilous danger we are in as a planet.  And yet I could see that interwoven with this in all of life was courage, beauty, innocence, creativity and strength.  The pain I experienced was in direct proportion to the love I felt.  This was a love that came from the fertile earth of a childhood enriched with full-bodied relationships with the animate world of nature and with my human community. And out of that sense of belonging, came a conviction to act.


It was the apparent disconnection from nature and resulting pain many people experience that led me to become a wilderness therapist.  For I know, and have lived into, the truth that connection to nature is an important source of healing on an individual and societal level. Thankfully, the importance of nature to psychological health is not only my personal experience, but evident in a growing body of research that documents the importance of the human and nature bond including the works of David Sobel (Place Based Education) and Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods, The Nature Principle).


In his book Nature and the Human Soul (2007), depth psychologist Bill Plotkin describes how we can raise children, support teenagers, and ripen ourselves so we might engender a sustainable human culture.  He offers an ‘eco-centric’ model of human development as a strategy for cultural transformation, a map for moving from our violence prone and unsustainable society to one that is just, sustainable and imaginative.


At each stage of development Plotkin describes qualities of being and experiences that are essential to healthy human development.  These include:  wonder, enchantment, exploration, success, betrayals, discovery, skill building, belonging culturally and belonging to the more-than-human-world. Plotkin teaches how these can be nurtured in children by parents, teachers and community members.  He offers a guide for raising new generations of humans that are in touch with their own nature, each other and uniquely capable of meeting the challenges we face.


Based on Plotkin’s work my mother Alice Pratt, a long time educator, and I have designed a Creative Arts and Nature camp for close to 60 children grades K-8, 12 youth counselors and over 40 adults from the St. Luke Church (Minnetonka, MN) community. With the help of dozens of volunteer musicians and artists from St. Luke’s and the surrounding community, campers explore nature and their relationships with each other, their families and community. We use the mediums of story, music, Heart of the Beast style puppet and mask making, and nature-based play (picture: mud, water, animal home building with sticks, “all senses” forest walks!). Each day the children sit in councils to reflect on their experiences and practice the interpersonal skills of how to live out the three rules of camp:  1) Be Kind 2) Be Kind and 3) Be kind.


Bob Klanderud a Lakota Elder, is one of our most important volunteers.  Bob has a long standing relationship with St Luke.  For many years, he has brought urban native youth to the sweat lodges he built on St Luke grounds.  And he has participated in each year of the camp.


Nearing the end of camp, Bob came to sit with the 3rd and 4th graders in the willow lodge he constructed with the middle school group.  He had come to share his personal, spiritual and cultural wisdom with the group.  He wanted to hear about their experiences at camp, and to place them in a larger web of meaning.  When he arrived this day, it was hot.  The kids, who had just been running around covered in a camouflage of mud, grass and leaves to try and outsmart their counselors in a wild game of “kick the can”, were sweating big time


The lodge was in direct sunlight.  Under the burlap and willow, the temperature was soaring.  I was concerned, wondering if we needed to relocate.  But after a few minutes of re-arranging, restless twitching, and the slapping of bugs, everyone grew still.


Looking around the circle I saw children and their beloved youth counselors piled on each other.  Sweat was running down their arms, legs and faces.  Their feet were covered in dirt.  Their eyes were bright, faces relaxed.


They were giving all of their attention to the person who was telling them, in a loving voice, how utterly they belong to each other.  How they belong to the mother fox who had visited, to the hawks we saw circling overhead, to the white squirrel who lives in the old oak outside the lodge, and to this green living earth.  And in that shining, quiet moment it was clear- this was something they already knew…


I wonder is this belonging something you know?  Know in the sense of experiencing it?  Being loved by nature and each other led those children to lean into that moment in the willow lodge- to show up and press past what on the surface felt undesirable and uncomfortable.  We will need a similar conviction to experience the pain and discomfort that meets us when we recognize the loss we already face with respect to the coming climate realities and the need to act in bold new ways. If we are to live fully into this moment and save life on this planet, we must engender those practices that connect ourselves and our children to each other and to nature.


And I believe that in doing so, just as for the children, what was once uncomfortable may in fact become our experience of utter belonging.