After a decade of involvement in nature education with individuals and groups from widely differing socio-cultural milieus, we have noticed that a profound alienation from the natural and the wild has taken place, in all human societies, for various reasons and to varying degrees.
What do we mean by ‘wild’? Wild is the entire sensuous and living matrix to which we as a species belong: human bodies, human senses and sensibilities, other living creatures, ecological processes and landscapes, earth, water and sky. We have been distanced from direct sensuous reality. We have accepted, eagerly and uncritically, a life engineered almost entirely by human technologies and techniques that disorient us, make us narrow in our minds, bodies and hearts. As our landscapes get steadily flattened, so do our own sensibilities and multiple intelligences. We lose perspective and become incapable of assessing the limitations and dangers of our inventions. Rich or poor, we become estranged from our own humanness, a quality grown not only in relationship with other people but also, in reciprocity with the rich and textured living earth.
Urban India is completely divorced from the enveloping countryside on which it is totally reliant. The city shuts out everything organic, including the healthy functioning of our own bodies and senses, shuts out even the awareness of our dependence on air and water. Middle-class and slum dwellers alike have little interaction with other life forms. This push away from nature plays a role in the widely deteriorating conditions of emotional and physical health, which in turn relate to issues of belonging, selfhood, relationship, livelihood and community. The move to modern and urban lifestyles is not just evident in profoundly changed expectations and patterns of material welfare, but also in the transformation of ways in which individuals define well-being itself. Material prosperity cannot but be derived from exploitation of resources. This is accompanied by immoderate desires for individual fulfillment. In so doing, the very fabric of a person’s relationship with everything, including their families and friends and society, with resources, goods and services, also alters, as it becomes founded on a conscious or unconscious drive to exploit another for one’s own gain, regardless of the consequences.
Communities that live in more natural settings are not always caring of the environment. The lure of technology and the promised benefits of modernization are rarely looked at critically. In some cases the alienation is enforced; it renders them powerless to cope with the changes inflicted upon them. Once alienated, their world is broken. They cannot return, nor do they have the intellectual or psychological strength to deal with their new realities. Desensitization, at first a sheer survival necessity, a coping mechanism, becomes entrenched and leads to ugly new problems.
Thus, different communities need different ways of deepening their relationship with the earth and with each other. Urban folks need to be brought to their senses literally, taken out of their virtual realities, into the oxygenating interior of the forests. Rural people need to be brought to a more conscious relationship with the land; they need tools of understanding and communication.
We began with the intention to expose children to the forest in order to bring about a greater environmental awareness. We found ourselves, instead, observing the various ways in which alienation occurs and how this manifests in ill-health, fear, environmental degradation, commercialization of all resources, and eventually a disregard for other life forms including other human beings and finally ourselves. Many of the world’s problems arise out of our disturbing inability as individuals and as a species to truly care for the well being of another, possibly because we simply cannot perceive the connections anymore, because our lives are distanced from our own support systems.
This alienation arises in part from those things that we take for granted as being intrinsically good, such as literacy, or imagination. The phenomenon of literacy, ‘the worded life’, has numerous contradictory effects on our lives.
Turning inwards, becoming involved in interior mental phenomena, to the point of becoming oblivious to the immediate world around, is a (hidden) step towards self centredness, wherein a person’s imagination becomes more important than another living thing. A meaningful life in nature tempers that. We find that contact with nature, when facilitated well, develops synaesthetic and multiple intelligences, and redirects cognitive and linguistic abilities to bring about a greater and truer sensitivity in an individual, regardless of their background. Awareness of one’s own body and mind, awareness of other beings of the wild, awareness of landscapes as living unities, brings health back to our systems. Re-inhabiting the land, becoming a conscious participant in it, discerning those modes of being that are most appropriate to any given region is something that every person can learn and grow into.
Some school children are given exposure to outward-bound, nature-based programmes that focus on travel, adventure, and personal development. Most of these are consumer operations in disguise, tourism-oriented, corporate executive-centred. Few really address the complex problem at hand: the deepening severance of human beings from their own organic existence, working directly on body, mind, community and ecology.
What we need is to make the link with the wild more explicit, to grow a new alliance with our landscapes. In this era of globalization, with our visions of a common and unitary world, we need to root ourselves in local relationships, or else we will be carried away by abstract ideals that will prove themselves to be horribly delusory with time.
We need to live in meaningful relationship to the other sentient beings of our world, in order to truly flourish. The health, balance and well-being of each person are inseparable from the health and well-being of the encompassing earthly terrain. From our experience with children and adults from all walks of life, we find that it is possible to enter the domain of the wild, not so much by renouncing technology, but by opening consciously into the wild expanse and by allowing ourselves to participate intelligently in it.