Biophilia: the love of nature

by frankbeswick

While nature is for some traditional economists a resource for the economy, it is source of spiritual, mental and emotional well being.

I love walking, as many of you know, but it has always been the case that I prefer walking in parks and countryside to walking in urban areas, though there are some cities,such as Rome, where walks are delightful. But I am not alone, just one of a multitude of humans, for human nature seems to need natural beauty. So one important human quality that must be respected by all public health programmes is biophilia, the love of nature.

The Experience of Nature

There are some golden memories, moments of experience when you are immersed in the loveliness of nature. I recall one such time. I was hiking in May 1968 through the North Downs, the chalk ridge south of London, and had just passed Charles' Darwin's home at Downe. It was an English Spring day, warm and wet, as the intermittent May showers came through the leafy canopy through which I hiked. The overwhelming memory of the wood was of the glorious profusion of bluebells that dominated the ground. The rain came down on me, and I reckoned little or nothing of it, for the overwhelming sense was of the beauty of the scene. I felt that I was not just looking at it, as happens when we see a picture, but that somehow I was part of it, immersed in the experience; and I was renewed, rejuvenated, and refreshed,  filled with a sense of joy. That I still remember the experience joyfully after 49 years speaks of its power to impress and entrance me. 

Coincidentally, years later when I was reading Springtime in Britain [see below] the author, an American Anglophile, told of how in the same year and the same month he had enjoyed walking in the same woodland. Did we miss each other by minutes, hours or days, we shall never know. But what is true is that we both were entranced by the beauty of the scene, and this indicates that beauty is not merely a subjective preference, as the apologists for modern art claim,but something real and deeply rooted in nature. It has an impact on our minds and implications for our well being.  

The term biophilia was coined by the psychologist Erich Fromm to indicate the instinctive bond that humans have with the natural world. We are not just beasts to be watered, fed and housed, or consumers to be courted and seduced by goods and services. We do not just need material goods, we need the great trilogy, The True, the Good and the Beautiful, for our total well being, spiritual, emotional and physical. Richard Mabey wrote Nature Cure, which detailed the role of the natural world in curing his deep depression. 

Furthermore, Dr Wiliam Bird, an English medic, spent  several years researching the role of nature in healing not just the body, but the mind. Much of his work involved collating research, some of which shows that merely fifteen minutes in quality green spaces lowered blood pressure, stress and toxin levels in the blood and made improvements in cognitive performance and memory. Any physical exercise taken provided added advantages, but you could get the beneficial effects by just sitting and looking. Interestingly, looking at pictures of natural beauty provided some beneficial effects, but  not to the level of being present  in it. It is as though our minds need immersion in the total environment rather than just a facsimile of it that we get in books and art. Bird's study shows that hospital patients who can see green space from their wards recover significantly faster than those who cannot. 

Theories

Several explanations of biophilia have been given, some of which are influenced by neurology. This information was taken from an article by Bernard Sheridan in The Horticulturalist, the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Horticulture, of which I am a member.

Edward O.Wilson, a well-known biologist claimed that humans  are "hard wired" to be happier and function better in nature. He links this with his beliefs that our species  evolved for millennia living in natural surroundings. Like many evolutionary explanations it is a contribution to a broader philosophical explanation that includes it, but is not reducible to it. Note the computer analogy, which indicates that Wilson is assuming that the mind is in some way analogous to a computer. This may be an error, as it treats the mind as a self-contained machine, whereas it is in interplay with the world in which it is immersed. 

Attention Restoration Theory claims natural environments allow human brains to recharge. Our urban activities may be economically necessary, but they drain us. For example, I make several thousand pounds a year from marking examination papers, but they drain me and there are only so many that I can do in a day, whereas I find working on the allotment, while it physically tires me, is mentally refreshing.So I think that there is some truth in this theory, but as I said previously, it is part of a wider explanation that deals with the whole of our humanity. 

Psychological Stress Theory focuses on the facts that there is a recognized lowering of blood pressure,pulse rate, stress and toxin levels and anxiety in people exposed to fifteen minutes of presence in quality green space, by which I mean  space which is safe and not litter strewn. Again the given explanation is genetic hard wiring. 

My own view is that we must begin from the principle that mind and body interact in an intricate and subtle way, with mental stress causing bodily illness and physical hardships having mental consequences, so clearly, exposure to pleasant experiences will have beneficial consequences for physical health. We can chart the chemicals involved without making the reductionist error of thinking that chemicals are the full explanation. Philosophy and Science are moving away from the reductionist approach which regards bodies as explicable in terms of their parts and are taking up the view that we need to see the human psycho-physical system as an integral whole, a view promoted by Rupert Sheldrake, whose works are well worth reading.

We must realize that some activities are performed not because they are meaningful in themselves but because they are instrumentally useful for making wealth. While they are necessary, I believe that they can be an emotional drain; whereas activities that are good in themselves are emotionally satisfying and refresh us. The True, the Good and the Beautiful are good in themselves, and all that is truly worthy is reducible to these three values, and one great source of beauty in our lives is nature. It is for this reason that we turn to nature to refresh our spirits. We drink from the great well of divinely provided beauty. The Blessing for our minds spills over into a blessing for our bodies. 

  

Implications

So how can we make the  most effective use of this knowledge? Nature can range from wilderness to a park or garden. Wilderness is inspiring, but not many can cope with it, and you do not need it to enjoy nature. We  have little wilderness in Britain, but there are areas of mountain country, sheep range, that come close to it. I find that I can enjoy a walk through a one of these areas, and enjoy the solitude, for example the North Carneddau in Wales, where I once walked for four hours without seeing another human being. But you don't need wilderness to enjoy nature, and you need not have absolute silence, just quietness is enough. 

Today I enjoyed nature at the allotment. There were some people there at first, and I  conversed with some of them, but most of the time I was working alone, watering my potato drills and young onions against Britain's dry Spring, then planting peas and stripping dead twigs from the plum tree. Perhaps the secret of enjoying nature is not to be content to blend it with human living, with the cultural activity that we call gardening and with encounters with people. We cannot enjoy nature as much when we are crowded with people, but having a few round makes the occasion more satisfying. 

To enjoy nature we need to walk and shed our concerns, just let go of what is worrying us. Recently as chair of an allotment society I have had to deal with a potentially serious administrative problem, now thankfully near resolution, that has been worrying me.  So when I go to my own plot I try to let go and enjoy the contact with nature.

Our enjoyment of nature can range from delighting in the panorama down to delighting in the microcosm of a single flower. We can enjoy by sitting or we can relish nature while walking. We can enjoy the sights, the sounds and the scents. There is such a variety of richness awaiting our relishing. 

"Man does not live by bread alone"says Jesus to the  tempter, [Matthew 4:4.] There are needs more than the merely material and higher than it. Society needs to ensure that it protects  areas of natural beauty, for they nurture the Spirit.

I finish with a quote from the Jesuit poet, Gerald Manley Hopkins from his poem Inversnaid. Hopkins, like his fellow Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin combined a deep religious faith with a devotion to the natural  world and love of its wonder and beauty. 

"What would the world be once bereft

Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,

Let them be left,wildness and Wet;

Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

1881 

 

Frank Beswick
Frank Beswick
Updated: 04/12/2017, frankbeswick
 
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happy room 12 days ago

That sounds good, Angela. I sometimes delight in viewing an insect type that I have not seen before. But to do this you have to be alert to the small life that thrives in the undergrowth.

frankbeswick 21 days ago

I have not met many frightening animals, though being charged by a cow that must have weighed a few hundred pounds was the incident that made me quickly clamber over a gate: foot on rung two, hand on the top bar, and then vault. But I was eighteen then! I have also encountered the infamous Scottish midges! Not as frightening as a very heavy cow, but when you see a cloud of midges zooming in to attack exposed skin you are not happy.

Perhaps going through a severe snow storm at three thousand feet in the Carneddau one February and walking back through the hills in the night was not a pleasant experience. Walking up Skiddaw in the English Lake District and seeing lightning strike the hillside a hundred yards ahead was scary. My brother and I got down the mountain fast as more bolts slammed into the rocky summit.

There was no single most reassuring aspect of nature, but what strikes me is the awareness that nature is fundamentally good, Sitting on top of Pen Yr Oleu Wen, aged twenty three and experiencing the light shining on the summer landscape was an inspiring experience. At this moment I had a Wordsworth-like experience of sensing the divine in nature. Walking along the Northern Irish border on February and seeing the snow clad mountain Cuilcagh perfectly reflected in a still lake was very memorable. Exquisite beauty! Experiencing perfect silence just for a few moments was so exquisite that it reassured me of the wonderful goodness of the created world.

What I would like to grow, successfully, would be sweet potatoes. I tried planting five this year, but only one germinated, and my friends are very pessimistic that I will get a tuber from it. We are too far north, they say! I would like to grow chickpeas, but they require a climate warmer than the one in North West England.

DerdriuMarriner 21 days ago

frankbeswick, What are the most frightening (mine would be mosquitoes) and the most reassuring aspects of nature that you've encountered on your walks? Also, what would you like to grow in your allotment but you cannot (for whatever reason)? I ask the latter because of a portrait that I keep remembering of Charles II being shown an introduced pineapple and looking at it most quizzically.

frankbeswick on 04/17/2017

Ideally, but in a place like Britain, so crowded, wild life often has taken to disused industrial sites, such as clay pits and disused factories, so it is difficult to dispense with human traces.

blackspanielgallery on 04/17/2017

When I take a photograph I try to not include humans, or any trace of human activity. Nature is best when in pristine setting.

frankbeswick on 04/15/2017

That sounds good, Angela.

AngelaJohnson on 04/14/2017

I love to walk and mostly walk alone. I like to think and listen to the birds. I usually carry a small notebook and a pen with me because this is when I often come up with some good ideas. Besides walking, I enjoy sitting under a shade tree reading a book or using my laptop - anything to get me outside.

frankbeswick on 04/13/2017

It is always nice to read your comments, Dustytoes. Yes,it is last year's corn because at the moment in N.W. England plants are just getting going. Even if your garden is little, it is still a garden and can have the same effect as a larger one. I was due to plant some salad vegetables and cauliflowers yesterday, but for the first time in a week or so we got rain, so I left the garden to enjoy a drink.

I sometimes delight in seeing an insect type that I have not seen before. But to do this you have to be alert to the tiny life that thrives in the undergrowth.

dustytoes on 04/13/2017

I agree with all you've said here Frank, and you've made me realize that I need more of this. Often I've counted on nature to lift my spirits. Even my little garden out back can bring me peace. There is always something new and wonderful to see, if we look close enough. What nature does for me is to make me feel closer to another world.
Your corn looks great! I imagine this photo is from last year.

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