Among my favorite places to visit is the Fakahatchee Strand in South Florida. About an hour west of Miami, the Fak (as we call it) is a narrow swamp forest about five miles wide and about 20 miles long. The shallow swamp sits beneath soaring royal palms, bald cypress trees and tropical hardwoods while its near-crystal waters slowly drain southward into the Ten Thousand Islands region of Southwest Florida. The Fak is home to the Florida panther, alligators, river otters, fox squirrels, Everglades minks, native bromeliads, as well as the fantastically rare Ghost Orchid that was highlighted in Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief and its ensuing film, Adaptation.
It is primordial.The Fak is both close to the city and, like much of Southern Florida, refreshingly and dangerously wild in the word’s deepest sense. In winter, the Fak is crisp and covered in migratory birds. In the summer, you venture with full-body netting and repellent; the mosquitoes are the least of your worries. Spending time in the swamp, whether hiking dry trails or slogging the water, is a constant marvel. Animal noises are punctuated by deafening bursts of silence. You are immersed within the wild; its tangible danger as well as it thick and overflowing life. You become as vigilant as our ancestors in these treacherous places, yet reassured back into modernity as your cell phone makes a weak and random connection. No matter how long you stay or how often you go, you leave transformed.
The experience is a far and away a contrast to the security of our homes and the usual life that we inhabit in cities. Most of us live in spaces designed by humans to maximize both our safety and our comfort. In many ways, however, the Pagan identity is built upon the reconnection with the natural world and, as we have all heard, there is much magic outside our comfort zone.
Many of our rituals address our connection to nature in one way or another; and many of our spiritual traditions place nature as the center point of reverence. Indeed, most of our festivals intentionally pull as away from the familiar, urban life into natural spaces. They help remind us that we are strengthened when we occasionally break away from the structured lives of the city into the randomness and freedom of nature. This is a familiar Pagan pattern: live in the city, renew in the wild.
To be sure, mainstream Western Society has affixed itself to severing connections with the natural world. In the 8th century, Charlemagne’s violent campaigns to Christianize Pagan Saxons culminated in, what the Royal Frankish Annals refers to as, the destruction of the central seat of the Saxon religion, the Irminsul. The Irminsul is described as a large hollow tree trunk clearly connected to Yggdrasil, the sacred tree of Odin that connects the Nine Worlds. The location of the Irminsul appears to have been near modern-day Obermarsberg, Germany towards the Teutoberg Forest; but nothing remains of the location, only the references.
While Charlemagne’s more obvious motive for destroying the Irminsul was to shatter the connections that Pagans had with their religion and ultimately convert them to Christianity, an additional interpretation is that its demolition had the supplementary effect of severing the Saxon connection with nature. Violent and forced conversions are one thing, but if you truly want to permanently decimate a community, disconnect them from the well of their strength.
The Irminsul represented that strength, but urbanizing Pagan communities was the key: that would cap the well. Sever the connection with nature, and the city would subordinate Pagans. The church at the city center would become the new pillar of society and the promised safety and ease of urban life would silence the call of the forests. Indeed, in Latin, Urbanus (city dweller) is the opposite of Paganus (country dweller). Creating city dwellers is the act of destroying country dwellers and, more critically, their values.In time, nature would be seen as wild and ultimately dangerous. The place we came from would become the place we see as alien. Twelve hundred years later, mainstream society continues to embrace Charlemagne’s vision and to villanize nature in many ways. Although we hear occasional Romantic yearnings for the natural world, urbanites constantly, and often inadvertently, whisper to one another the dangers of the wild (not parks, those are “secure” nature”). The mainstream world in which we live collectively encourages urban, modern lifestyles while discouraging people from visiting the wild, reminding us of the risks, hazards and threats “out there.”
Nature is dangerous but it is not a place to dread. Despite the fact the vast majority of people are injured or die in cities, that mainstream world is very invested in us fearing nature to maintain power and profit.
So why keep us from visiting nature? Because visiting nature is unimaginably rebellious. It causes us to question how we live. It reminds us that the future is only possible through sustainability. It exposes us to how we are part of a web of life and, perhaps most importantly, how we humans can uniquely make choices that strengthen and weaken that web. Being in nature helps us recognize that our human strengths involve cooperation and acceptance, rather than control and suppression.
And science has taken notice. In 1984, myrmecologist, professor and “father” of biodiveristy, Dr. E. O. Wilson proposed the Biophilia Hypothesis (later more fully developed by Wilson’s colleague, Dr. Stephen Kellert in 1993). Broadly and simply stated, the hypothesis proposes a human urge to “affiliate with other forms of life.” It was a development from the work of Psychologist Dr. Erich Fromm who first coined the term and proposed the subconscious psychological attraction to be immersed in and have a deep affiliation with nature. To Pagan ears, that probably sounds so obviously self-evident it would merit sarcasm. To urbanites, it is heresy.
Indeed, the Biophilia Hypothesis actually leads to some interesting questions in evolutionary psychology, the subfield of psychological science that explores the evolutionary advantages of our psychological and behavioral characteristics. Because we evolved in a natural environment, that natural environment must also expose those characteristics that represent our optimal functioning. In other words, does being in nature somehow reveal our nobler sides that are possibly hidden by modern urban existence?
As it turns out, yeah it does. In one study, UK researchers examined panel data from 10,000 individuals. Panel data refers to information collected in the same way but at multiple times (pre- and post- testing is an example of simple panel data). The researchers found that after controlling for individual and regional differences, individuals living in urban areas that had more green spaces also reported lower levels of mental distress and higher levels of happiness.
Now there are other factors there that need to be explored and understood more completely, but the interesting point is that an effect was still detected (White, Alcock, Wheeler & Depledge, 2013). In other words, all things were expected to be equal, but they noted a difference. And, that points social science in an interesting direction.
Recently, Canadian researchers conducted three experimental studies to explore more carefully the causal direction of some of those nature findings like the one described above. They presented participants with a “commons dilemma.” It is a specific kind of problem that pits people’s short-term self-interests against longer-term group interests. In this case, it was a fishing simulation that basically boiled down to whether you would harvest fish competitively to make a profit for yourself now or harvest fish cooperatively with others to sustain the group for the future.
Before participants entered the simulation, they were randomly assigned to two groups. One group watched a nature video prior to entering the simulation, and the other group watched a city-building video. The Biophilia hypothesis would predict that watching nature would make you feel more part of it and make you more aware of your actions. And that’s just what happened: the group that watched the nature video exhibited significantly more cooperative behaviors and fished sustainably. The groups that watched the city-building video behaved more competitively. When the study was repeated by introducing a third group that viewed a neutral video, the same cooperative behaviors were still demonstrated (though somewhat more weakly in statistical terms) by the nature-exposed group. In other words, exposure to nature leads to more human cooperation.Now in a third study, the same researchers used a similar design but replaced fishing with a questionnaire on perceived important social values and sustainability. They also changed the videos with generic videos of nature and generic videos of cities. They altered the experiment because they wanted to eliminate the association between fishing and nature, to still see if the effect on cooperation was present.
Instead of the fishing exercise, the participants completed the questionnaire after being randomly assigned to groups and viewing the videos. Again, participants who watched nature videos were more likely to endorse cooperative decision-making and sustainability than their counterparts who watched urban-focused videos (Zelenski, Dopko, & Capaldi, 2015).
The findings speak very loudly: Exposure to Nature is transformative. It reinforces those aspects of ourselves that strengthen our society like cooperation, mutual support, collective good, and sustainability. Those values create collective wealth and sustainable enterprise that expands- not exploits– our relationship with Nature. What science underscores is something that Pagans know: Nature exposes that which makes us Human. Nature reminds us of the human social powers that helps us make collective and positive decisions without needing a central authority, whether that be king or gospel. That is something, I think, Charlemagne could never have come to terms with. Simple, and so very Pagan.
Kellert, S.R. (ed.) (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press.
White, M.P, Alcock, I., Wheeler, B.W., & Depledge, M.H. (2013). Would You Be Happier Living in a Greener Urban Area? A Fixed-Effects Analysis of Panel Data. Psychological Science, 24, 920-928.
Wilson, E.O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Zelenski, J.M., Dopko, R.L. & Capaldi, C.A. (2015). Cooperation is in our nature: Nature exposure may promote cooperative and environmentally sustainable behavior. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 42, 24-31.