I discovered a new word today, one that I wish to throw around with wild abandon and share with everyone. Biophilia. A word first used by Erich Fromm, a German born American psychoanalyst in his 1973 treatise The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a word he categorized as being, “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.”
This word is brilliant. This is a word that explains everything about the choices I made as I've moved forward and deeper into the world I define as my own. It encompasses everything I believe in. That I am happiest when I am able to walk on the beach with my toes digging deeply into the sand. That when I'm out of sorts I can go outside and stroke the leaves of my trees and change my mood. That just noticing that my tulpelo tree (Nyssa sylvatica) is a female and thus is covered with tiny black fruits with which the birds are celebrating will lift me to a different place than where I was before I spotted them. That no matter how stressed I am, spending a moment or two scratching a furry critter's head will make me breathe easier. It’s why carrying a twig of the electric fall foliage of a witch hazel around the garden and sometimes sticking it behind my ear changes my outlook on everything. I’m thrilled to possess this word.
According to Edward O. Wilson, the entomologist Curator of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and a Pulitzer Prize winner, who wrote a book titled Biophilia in 1984, this condition is, "the urge to affiliate with other forms of life." It is this urge, he posits, that when followed, brings us to places of great joy. And it is an urge that every human on the planet feels. In his book Wilson hypothesizes that it is this innate relationship we have with the natural world that will allow us to perhaps save it. He talks about how we not only have a practical dependence on nature (without clean water and usable soil we would all die) but that we also find solace and peace and emotional sustenance through our direct interactions with nature.
The natural world inspires us to make art, we find it’s sounds soothing and it’s visuals beautiful. Thus landscape painting and ocean recording to send us to sleep. I challenge anyone to find the sound of rain on a tin roof upsetting. We mimic its smells to make both ourselves and our homes more enticing, and are uplifted by the appearance of a rainbow for no other reason than it is beautiful. We create strong emotional attachments with both the land and with it’s other many creatures, and it’s all of this combined that makes us whole.
But many of us have grown disconnected from that wholeness, especially our children. They don’t have the same easy way with their natural surroundings that I, and many of their parents did. And it’s sad. It’s easy to blame technology, especially when you watch people you love staring at their various screens instead of watching the clouds rapidly shape shift on windy days. I want to drag those kids into the garden with me. I feel like an old person whenever I start a sentence with, “When I was that age….” But it’s true. When I was that age my world was accessible only by bicycle and I didn’t have a computer to play on. I had the back yard or a park or a garden or fields, woods and the beach. I knew that fall was not far away when the dragonflies thickened above my head and that winter was coming because of the smell in the air. I burned leaves, I climbed trees and I played in the dirt. I picked up caterpillars and tried to get butterflies to land on my nose. I had an intimate relationship with my outdoors, whether pressing fall foliage in the family’s heaviest dictionary, or cuddling with kittens in a farming friend’s hayloft. I wish I could force these experiences on the children I know and love, but it doesn’t work that way. They have to be coaxed, not dragged.
I was in a bad mood this morning, having not slept well and having worriedly spun myself up over all sorts of mental noodles, and I was irritated that I had to get up extra early to forage for a class I was teaching on how to decorate with things you can find outdoors. The trunk of my car wasn’t working and I couldn’t find the clippers I wanted and I broke a dried allium seed head I had hoped to use for this year’s Christmas tree as a star, so I started off the day pretty cranky. Gathering armfuls of purple and red foliage, slicing aged, faded, pink tardiva like panicle hydrangea flowers on arm length long stems and clipping branches ladened with berries helped. Noticing the bees leaving the hives in their endless search for sweetness helped. Smelling the errant mint that was captured by mistake with handfuls of purple flowered monkshood helped. The sky being electric blue helped as did the wind that blew all the anger from within my soul as it whipped my hair around my head like a wound up basket of cobras being directed by an overly enthusiastic snake charmer. By the time I got to work and started assembling all my pieces into an enormous vase I was calmer. And thankful. And happy.
I want to share this feeling, this biophilia, with everyone. I want to scream from the rooftop that everything is better when we stay connected with the natural world. I want to take each and every one of you out on the same walk I made through my garden this morning and share the way my brain’s song changed from strident and jagged to melodious. Let us all get muddy together, let us walk through rivers up to our knees and have the socks in our boots get soggy. Let us rub up against another living thing that isn’t human and whisper to it all our secrets, both fabulous and burdensome. Let us breathe deeply of this fresh fall air and embrace all that nature has surrounded us with. Let us reek with gratitude.
Paige Patterson has seven nonhumans cuddled up with her on the couch this evening and couldn’t be happier.