Over the years I have attempted to answer that question again and again: Why do we need nature in an essential but non-utilitarian way – the way we need music or art or literature – or love? Today I’d like to give you just two of the answers I’ve come up with – knowing that, like all such answers, they are inadequate.
One reason I believe we fundamentally need nature is the physical contact that nature affords. For one thing, most of the best nature writers I know have begun their life-long passion for the natural world with just such playful, undirected interactions. But this, ironically, goes against the current environmental catechism. More and more we are told not to physically interact with the natural world. “Take only photographs, leave only footprints” is the contemporary environmentalist’s mantra – and as we know, in a sensitive place like Cape Cod, even footprints are looked down upon.
I have on more than one occasion been criticized for urging greater physical contact with the natural world, but even though I understand the reasons for such criticism, I believe we mistake the urge for contact – which I regard as inherently admirable, even essential – for the sins of numbers. In other words, most of what we regard today as environmental sins are not inherently bad – there are just too many of us doing them.
We are animals, and though we may have forgotten it, we learned our fundamental skills for survival through play in nature – or as Peter Matthiessen put it, At play in the fields of the Lord. Play in nature is our birthright, but, as in the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau, a birthright we have unwittingly bartered away for a mess of technological pottage.
Another reason I believe we need nature in some deep non-utilitarian way is that, despite our seemingly inbred xenophobia, we have an equal, if not greater need to encounter The Other, that which is not human, which is not us. We need to look out and see something other than our own faces staring back. Why? If for no other reason, because nature tests our beliefs about the world and about ourselves. Nature does not reflect human moral or ethical values – in fact it often seems to contradict them. If we didn’t know this before, the coronavirus has made this undeniably clear.
Nature does not care about us – in fact it doesn’t even care enough not to care. Nature simply is. It poses an existential threat to our human view of the world. And this is good, since, if, we accept an anthropocentric view of the world, that nature is simply there for our use, we are in the long run likely to act against ouown best interests.
So, after more than fifty years of writing about the natural world on Cape Cod, have I answered that fundamental question, if not for you then for myself? Well, yes and no. I think these are all partial answers, each one perhaps true in itself, but even cumulatively not adequate, not sufficient, not needful enough to change our hearts and minds as they need to be changed. We can no more explain why we love, and therefore need, the natural world any more than we can fully explain why we need the people we love.
In the end perhaps the answer to the question of why we need nature is as simple and paradoxical as the old joke that Woody Allen tells at the end of Annie Hall: “A guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, hey doc, my brother's crazy! He thinks he's a chicken. Then the doc says, why don't you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.”
I guess that's how I feel about our fundamental need for nature. It’s totally irrational and absurd, but we keep seeking it because, well, because - "we need the eggs.”