Recently I met the astronomer Pascal Oesch, an assistant professor at the University of Geneva. Professor Oesch and his colleagues share the distinction of having discovered the most distant known object, a small galaxy called GNz-11. That galaxy is so far away that its light had to travel for 13 billion years to get from there to here. I asked Professor Oesch if he felt personally connected to this tiny smudge on his computer screen. Does this faint blob feel like part of nature, part of the same world of Keats and Goethe and Emerson, where “vines that round the thatch-eves run; to bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees”?
Oesch answered that he looks at such distant smudges every day. Sure, they’re part of the universe, he said. But consider the abstraction (thought I). A few exhausted photons of light from GNz-11 dropped on a photoelectric detector aboard a satellite orbiting Earth, produced a tiny electrical current that was translated into 0s and 1s, which were beamed to Earth in a radio wave. That information was then processed in data centers in New Mexico and Maryland and eventually landed on Professor Oesch’s computer screen in Geneva. These days, professional astronomers rarely look at the sky through the lens of a telescope. They sit at computer screens.
But not only astronomers. Many of us invest hours each day staring at the screens of our televisions and computers and smartphones. Seldom do we go outside on a clear night, away from the lights of the city, and gaze at the dark starry sky, or take walks in the woods unaccompanied by our digital devices. Most of the minutes and hours of each day we spend in temperature-controlled structures of wood, concrete, and steel. With all of its success, our technology has greatly diminished our direct experience with nature. We live mediated lives. We have created a natureless world.
It was not always this way. For more than 99 percent of our history as humans, we lived close to nature. We lived in the open. The first house with a roof appeared only 5,000 years ago. Television less than a century ago. Internet-connected phones only about 30 years ago. Over the large majority of our 2-million-year evolutionary history, Darwinian forces molded our brains to find kinship with nature, what the biologist E. O. Wilson called “biophilia.” That kinship had survival benefit. Habitat selection, foraging for food, reading the signs of upcoming storms all would have favored a deep affinity with nature. Social psychologists have documented that such sensitivities are still present in our psyches today. Further psychological and physiological studies have shown that more time spent in nature increases happiness and well-being; less time increases stress and anxiety. Thus, there is a profound disconnect between the natureless environment we have created and the “natural” affections of our minds. In effect, we live in two worlds: a world in close contact with nature, buried deep in our ancestral brains, and a natureless world of the digital screen and constructed environment, fashioned from our technology and intellectual achievements. We are at war with our ancestral selves. The cost of this war is only now becoming apparent.
In 2004, the social psychologists Stephan Mayer and Cindy McPherson Frantz, at Oberlin College, developed something called the “connectedness to nature scale” (CNS), a set of statements that could be used to determine a person’s degree of affinity for nature. After answering “strongly disagree,” “disagree,” “neutral,” “agree,” or “strongly agree” to each statement, each participant would have an overall score computed. Some of the statements of the CNS test are:
I often feel a sense of oneness with the natural world around me.
I think of the natural world as a community to which I belong.
When I think of my life, I imagine myself to be part of a larger cyclical process of living.
I feel as though I belong to the Earth as equally as it belongs to me.
I feel that all inhabitants of Earth, human and nonhuman, share a common “life force.”
In recent years, psychologists have undertaken a number of studies to investigate correlations between scores on the CNS test and well developed methods for measuring happiness and well-being. In 2014, the psychologist Colin Capaldi and his colleagues at the Public Health Agency in Canada combined 30 such studies, involving more than 8,500 participants. The psychologists found a significant association between nature connectedness and life satisfaction and happiness. Capaldi and his team concluded that “Individuals higher in nature connectedness tend to be more conscientious, extraverted, agreeable, and open … nature connectedness has also been correlated with emotional and psychological well-being.”
There are many examples of such correlations in particular contexts. Hospital patients in rooms with foliage or windows looking out on gardens and trees do better after surgery. Workers in offices with windows that open up to pastoral-like views have less anxiety, more positive work attitudes, and more job satisfaction.
One does not have to look far to find literary expressions of the “well-being” brought about by immersion in nature. In his famous 1844 essay “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes: “There are days which occur in this climate, at almost any season of the year, wherein the world reaches its perfection, when the air, the heavenly bodies, and the earth make a harmony, as if nature would indulge her offspring … We have crept out of our close and crowded houses into the night and morning, and we see what majestic beauties daily wrap us in their bosom.”
In the more frenzied and tech-heavy times of today, we require more effort to creep out of our close and crowded houses. But the poet Mary Oliver succeeded. In her 1972 poem “Sleeping in the Forest,” Oliver writes that she “slept as never before, a stone / on the riverbed, nothing between me and the white fire of stars / but my thoughts, and they floated / light as moths among the branches / of the perfect trees … By morning / I had vanished at least a dozen times / into something better.”
The woods are particularly restorative. Japanese doctors and psychologists have developed a mental therapy called “forest bathing” (shinrin-yoku). The idea is that spending time in nature—specifically walking through forests—might improve mental health. And it does. Research with hundreds of healthy volunteers, using standard psychological tests of mood and anxiety and comparing mental states of people who “bathed” in a forest for a day with those of the same group on another “control” day, away from the forest, have shown that hostility, depression, and stress are significantly decreased after a day in the forest. The effects are apparent not only on such psychological tests as the Multiple Mood Scale and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. Measurable body chemicals sing out our levels of anxiety and stress. Numerous studies, recently summarized and published in the International Journal of Biometeorology, have shown that forest bathing significantly reduces levels of cortisol, the body’s principal stress hormone. It’s little wonder. Hormones are messengers between the brain and the rest of the body. And our brains evolved over the millions of years that we lived in the savannas and plains, not in the covered constructions of the past few thousand years.
My most intense experience with nature occurred a number of years ago on a small island in Maine. A family of ospreys lived near our house on the island. Each season, my wife and I observed the birds’ rituals and habits. In mid-April, the parents would arrive at the nest, having spent the winter in South America, and lay eggs. In late May or early June, the eggs hatched. As the father dutifully brought fish to the nest each day, the babies would grow bigger and bigger and in mid-August were large enough to make their first flight. Throughout the season, my wife and I recorded all of these comings and goings. We noted the number of chicks each year. We observed when the adolescent ospreys first began flapping their wings, in early August, a couple of weeks before having the strength to become airborne and leave the nest for the first time.
One late August afternoon, the two juvenile ospreys of that season took flight for the first time as I stood observing them from my second-floor circular deck. All summer long, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them. The circular deck was about nest high, so to the fledgling birds, I must have seemed to be in my nest, just as they were in theirs. On this particular afternoon, in their maiden flight, they did a wide, half-mile loop out over the ocean and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed. A juvenile osprey, although slightly smaller than a full-grown adult, is still a large bird, with powerful talons. My immediate impulse was to run for cover, since the birds could have ripped my face off. But something held me to my ground. When they were within 15 or 20 feet of me, the two birds suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. It was a look that said, as clear as spoken words, “We are brothers in this place.” After the two young ospreys were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day, I don’t understand exactly what happened in that second. But it was a profound connection to nature. It was a feeling of wholeness.
In a remarkable study several years ago, Selin Kesebir of the London Business School and the psychologist Pelin Kesebir of the University of Wisconsin at Madison found that references to nature in novels, song lyrics, and film story lines began decreasing in the 1950s, while references to the human-made environment did not. First, the researchers carefully selected a list of 186 words that reflect nature and the human connection to nature, excluding scientific terminology. Examples of nature words in the general category were animal, snow, soil, autumn, river, sky, star, and season. Examples in the bird category were hawk, heron, and robin. Examples in the tree category were elm, redwood, and cedar. In the flower category: bluebell, lilac, rose. For comparison, the scientists chose words reflecting the human-built environment, such as bedroom, street, and lamp. Then the researchers used online databases, such as Google Ngram, Songlyrics.com, and IMDb to track the frequency with which nature words, and the comparison “natureless” words, appeared in various cultural products since 1900. (I can’t help but point out the irony of using technology to document the less pleasant effects of technology.) Of course, new words are constantly being added to the lexicon, driving down older words. However, the Kesebirs did not find a decreasing frequency of older words related to the human-built environment. Another competing effect they also ruled out: that people have been moving from rural to urban environments over time. Although that trend is real, the growth rate of urban populations did not suddenly accelerate in the 1950s, in contrast to the deceleration of usage of nature words at that time. The researchers conclude that the decline of cultural references to nature, and thus the dwindling of nature in the popular imagination, must be associated with technological changes beginning around 1950, especially indoor and virtual activities such as television (1950s), video games (1970s), computers connected to the internet (1980s), and smartphones (1990s–2000s). In other words, the created world of the screen. Indeed, a 2018 Nielsen study found that the average American adult spends more than 9 hours a day looking at a digital screen. That’s more than half of our waking hours.
So exactly what have we lost in this natureless, digitized world we’ve created, besides the psychological dissonance with our ancestral selves? First, there’s the mental health of living with nature versus the increased stress of living without it, as I have described. Then there’s the psychological damage to our young people, resulting from disconnection from nature combined with excessive screen time. In his influential book Last Child in the Woods, the journalist Richard Louv coined the word nature-deficit disorder to describe the increased mental illnesses and depression of children deprived of immersion in nature. Studies recently summarized in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing show that while children are spending more time indoors, their mental-health problems are increasing. By contrast, the studies also conclude that more time spent in “green space” increases children’s attention, moderates stress, and even correlates with higher scores on standardized tests.
Then there is the artificial world of the screen itself. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, and her colleagues, in a survey of more than 44,000 caregivers of children and adolescents in the United States, found that increases in screen time that exceeded one hour a day were accompanied by less and less psychological well-being, including less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, and less ability to finish tasks. Adolescents in the oldest group, ages 14 to 17, spend an average of 4.6 hours on the screen per day.
All of this is alarming and demands intervention. But I think we have lost something else in our removal from nature, something more subtle and harder to measure: a groundedness, a feeling of connection to things larger than ourselves, a calm against the frenzied pace of our wired world, a source of creativity, and the wholeness I felt in my eye-to-eye communion with the ospreys. Nature nourishes our spiritual selves. And by that I mean a feeling of being part of things larger than ourselves, a connection to something ancient and true in this fleeting world, an appreciation of beauty, and an awe of this strange and wonderful cosmos we find ourselves in. All of us feel that unnameable thing when we walk in the woods or sit by the ocean or stare at the heavens on a luminous night. Somehow, we are reconnecting with our ancestral selves and the long chain of lives stretching back to primeval oceans and unblemished land.
Technology, in its broadest sense, has brought about these dislocations. Of course, there are many different kinds of science and technology, most of which have improved the quality of life. The printing press, the steam engine, antibiotics, the automobile, the vacuum tube, silicon chips, electricity, the birth-control pill, anesthesia, the refrigerator. Televisions, computers, and smartphones have also improved the quality of life when used in moderation, when not preventing us from experiencing wind, rivers, sky, meteor showers, trees, soil, and wild animals. Technology itself does not have a mind. Technology itself does not have values. It is we human beings who have minds and values and can use technology for good or for ill.
I am not so naive as to think that the careening technologization of the modern world will stop or even slow down. But I do think that we need to be more mindful of what this technology has cost us and the vital importance of direct experiences with nature. And by “cost,” I mean what Henry David Thoreau meant in Walden: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” The new technology in Thoreau’s day was the railroad, which he feared was overtaking life. Thoreau’s concern was updated by the literary critic and historian of technology Leo Marx in his 1964 book, The Machine in the Garden. That book describes the way in which pastoral life in America was interrupted by the technology and industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries. Marx could not have imagined the internet and the smartphone, which arrived only a few decades later. And now I worry about the promise of an all-encompassing virtual world called the “metaverse,” and the Silicon Valley arms race to build it. Again, it is not the technology itself that should concern us. It is how we use that technology, in balance with the rest of our lives.
Many years ago, I took my then 2-year-old daughter to the ocean for the first time. As I remember, we had to walk quite a distance from the parking lot to the point where the ocean slid into view. Along the way, we passed various signs of the sea: sand dunes; sea shells; sunbaked crab claws; delicate piping plovers, which would run and peck, run and peck, run and peck; clumps of sea lavender growing between rocks; and an occasional empty soda can. The air smelled salty and fresh. My daughter followed a zigzagging path, squatting here and there to examine an interesting rock or shell. Then we climbed over the crest of a final sand dune. And suddenly, the ocean appeared before us, silent and huge, a turquoise skin spreading out and out until it joined with the sky. I was anxious about my daughter’s reaction to a part of nature she’d never seen before, vast and primeval. Would she be frightened, elated, indifferent? For a moment, she froze. Then she broke out in a smile.