Nature is speaking. How do we hear?

Covid19 and the climate crisis call us to engage with the natural world and each other with greater humility and care, lest the world continue to face pandemics, droughts, suffering. The natural world itself offers solutions to some of our challenges. But we need to know how to look and listen for them.

Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.’ -- Proverbs 6:6

I live in Devon, in the south west of England. It’s a bit like living in The Shire from The Lord of the Rings. Or Teletubbyland. There is much to look at: swelling and sinking hills covered in green grass blankets; ever-watchful weathered oaks; diving gulls and soaring swallows and chirring nightjars; moorland trees conforming to the authority of the wind; mists that rise and descend and confuse; water that starts meekly then moves confidently, coursing into whitewater, and finally crashing and finding release in the sea.

Whatever Devon is doing -- the macro and the micro, the major and the minor -- its natural realm is shifting, forming, dying, rebirthing, living. I can look big at vistas and whole ecosystems, or go small and look at the lone butterfly, or the new shoot.

And when I look, I learn. Biomimicry is the process of learning from nature and applying these lessons in -- most often -- design and architecture. But the patterns, processes and pictures that we see in nature can be applied beyond architecture. With imagination and curiosity, they can infuse and inform our human systems, our communities, our organisations. But before we can imagine, we first need to look, and to really see. How do we look at new things, or with new eyes, in such a way that we look beyond what we take for granted and see things we’ve never seen?

Author Herman Hesse said, “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.” There’s a Ted talk that regularly inspires me, and that seems to give weight to Hesse’s quote. It’s called ‘Nature’s Internet: how trees talk to each other in a healthy forest’, by Suzanne Simard. Suzanne explains how forests are far more complex than first meets the eye. Trees do not stand alone. Via underground fungal networks, they are plugged into a wide ecosystem that connects them to relatives, to neighbours, to stress signals, to nutrients. ‘Mother trees’ are the cornerstones of the forest: they show the ropes to the younger trees. And trees connect between species, too. Birch talks to Fir. Trees and the forest ecosystems they’re part of show us how to be an individual whilst living in a community; how to collaborate; how to share resources.

Most of this we can’t see in a hurry, or by looking with the naked eye. But it’s there anyway -- in the same way that the stars still shine in the daytime, or in the way love is invisible but still known. In a forest, we can know by feeling, smelling. We can understand by hearing. Scientists and ecologists become our eyes, too: by listening to them and seeing through their knowledge, we get to experience worlds that we would never otherwise see. They show us where and how to look. They give us clues in an astounding and surrounding treasure hunt. At end of the treasure hunt, there's knowing, perspective, ideas, wonder, humility.

Just as Suzanne Simard studies forest networks, the biologist E.O. Wilson studies the ecosystems of ants -- not just the tiny scurriers that threaten our summer picnics, but also their supersized (and from experience, more aggressive...) equivalents in the tropics. He studies how ants live, and applies his findings to human behaviour, and even to efforts to protect the natural world.

And it’s not just scientists that can help us ‘see’ the natural world in a new way. Many spiritual leaders find their solace and guidance in nature, too. Jesus chose to spend much of his time outdoors, rather than in the temple:

  • “Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down” (Matthew 15:29)

  • “Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God” (Luke 6:12)

  • “At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him” (Mark 12-13)

  • “Once again Jesus went out beside the lake” (Mark 2:13)

What did Jesus find in nature that he could not find in the crowds and temples? Do we have ears to hear it?

Our world has gone through almost 4 billion years of research and development. And vast as it is, the natural world offers intimate encounters too; acting at times as a mirror, or a comfort when we don’t like what we see in the mirror. And if we wait; patiently, quietly, that elusive animal understanding might emerge.

As we imagine a post-Covid19 world, we might look to the ideas found in nature. We know that being outside is good for our mental and physical health. But go deeper, and the natural world is also a map, a guide to what could be. We can use our senses and imagination on the journey -- after all, we evolved in and with nature; we are nature. We might also listen to scientists, authors and others who help us see what our own eyes and experience can’t. In doing so, we might find a way to sustainably and collectively synchronise with nature’s rhythms and lessons -- just as author, farmer and activist Wendell Berry seeks:

Teach me work that honors Thy work, the true economies of goods and words, to make my arts compatible with the songs of the local birds.