Our relationship to the natural world is ambiguous. On the one hand, we are drawn to landscapes. We love to visit national parks; we like to build lakefront homes surrounded by woods; and even an overwhelmingly urban space such as New York needs Central Park. The biologist Edward Wilson has a term for this: biophilia.
What is behind the instinct? One possible explanation – Wilson’s, not mine – is that humans, for hundreds of thousands of years, were inextricably part of the natural world: it is where we evolved. Our survival demanded an intimate and practical knowledge of the flora and fauna around us. We probably developed our innate fear of snakes, aggressive carnivores and heights then; these reactions are still hard wired in us. We developed also an appreciation for the environment. That too is still with us; that is why excessive development at the expense of forests and the wilderness provokes a reaction.
But even as hunter gatherers, we were always constantly tinkering with our habitats, trying to figure out ways to use it more effectively: controlled burning, deliberately dispersing certain seeds, slow attempts to tame certain animals. Around ten thousand years ago – and this seems to have happened independently within a few millennia in different parts of the world – we developed or “chanced upon” agriculture.
Agriculture fundamentally changed our relationship with the natural world. We no longer needed to be jointly involved in the process of creating food. The farmers were there to do that. We could follow other passions – the arts, the sciences. The time we gained for these pursuits has brought “progress”, to where we are today. But we still are very much part of the natural world. It is just that we don’t look at it that way. We feel the environment is something on the outside, to be enjoyed during walks or excursions.
Cultures interact in distinct ways with the environments they inhabit. The United States is famous for its stunning national parks. The dedicated rangers, caretakers of these parks, are passionate about their work. They convey their wonder of the natural world, but their curiosity is mainly scientific. The ranger will likely be excited about the park's geology, botany and details of what might have happened during the Paleolithic era.
Then there are the trekkers, the mountain climbers, the campers. Their motivation comes from the need to experience nature up close or to get away from the world of work and stress, or the thrill of a daring feat.
In this sense, the American relationship to the natural world is “secular”. Religion resides not in nature but in the church, synagogue or mosque and their associated communities. That is understandable: Christianity is after all a Middle Eastern religion; and the Middle East is where all the holy places are.
Contrast this with how American Indians looked at the land. For them, the connection was much deeper, inextricable. I don’t mean this in a shallow, “hippie” way; neither do I think there was something consciously “environmental” about it. Rather, the land was part of their origins as a people. The mountains, rock formations, rivers, the birds, the animals, waterfalls and natural landmarks were sacred. Stories about them were relayed across generations through oral tradition.
This aspect is not unique to American Indians of course. Plenty of cultures where the religion is homegrown and old have it too. But India is perhaps – to me at least – the most illustrative modern example. Hinduism is about as homegrown and diverse as any religion can be; and it is intimately connected to the land. While traveling through Tamil Nadu last year, I was struck by how temples were used to commemorate natural landmarks – be it the Cauvery River, or a cave, or a hilltop.
If the Grand Canyon had, by some accident of geology, been in India, it would have been a national park, yes, but it would also be a sacred place, where millions of pilgrims might visit a certain time of the year.
Perhaps, in the beginning, all human religions were necessarily religions connected to the earth. Agriculture led to an increase in societal complexity, and paved the way for the more social religions: the world conquering monotheisms of the Middle East. And in recent centuries, economic ideologies and science have created their own worldviews. We seem, in the process, to have lost the instinctive spiritual connection we once had with the earth. Now, the environmental conservation and biodiversity movement is trying, using the framework of science, to make us aware of what we are losing. That may be the correct way in this time and age. But who knows; we’ll just have to wait and see.