I have three nature stories:
First story: I will never forget my first visit to BASECO, an urban poor settlement sitting on reclaimed land near the Manila Bay (Philippines), nine years ago. We had to pass through narrow alleys between the shanties, and in some areas, we had to walk sideways to get through. Though it was noon time, the alley was dark and the air was stale. The ground felt a bit springy and looking down, I saw that the ground was made of packed garbage mixed with mud. Even from a distance, I could already hear the lapping of the waves on the shore, but what I saw later was truly shocking. Wave after wave of heavy, viscous, consistently black-colored water washed onto the shore throughout the length of the entire beach. I stared dumfounded. I gaped at the two children swimming in the toxic-looking water. I have always thought that oceans are so vast they’re capable of recuperating from the various pollutants poured into it. Seeing the waters of Manila Bay, the hard truth is that oceans could only take so much abuse. Our planet could only take so much abuse.
Second story: In 2006, I had the rare opportunity of stepping into an old-growth forest in Polillo — rare because the Philippines has less than 3% old-growth forest cover left. For someone who is unacquainted with forests in general, I did not know how to tell where the forests actually began or where it ended. One could tell, in part, by the density of the foliage. It is almost impossible to walk through the forest without getting your clothes hooked by branches and other thorny plants, or without scratching your skin. You also know that you have entered a virgin forest when you still see gigantic old trees whose wood is very much prized. Just to give an idea of how dense the foliage is – We heard rain coming and so quickly packed up our cameras in waterproof cases. The sound of the rain continued, growing louder, but it took some five minutes before we even felt raindrops touch our skin. Even in less than pristine conditions, the forest is still remarkably dense.
Third story: In 2008, I had another opportunity to spend some time in the forests, this time in Bohol. We were there to observe tarsiers in the wild. One morning, we woke up at 4 a.m. and headed to the patch of forest where we had set up mist nets the previous day. It was very dark. For the next hour, we just stood quietly in our posts, listening. Twice during this vigil, I smelled tarsier scent strongly. I think the tarsier passed us by twice but it was too smart to get caught in the net. While we were waiting, I was busy listening to the sounds of the forest. I can’t believe I didn’t get bored in the one hour we waited. The forest floor was lighted with what looked like nonmoving fireflies. It was explained to me later that these were some kind of luminous fungi. It was almost magical to see the forest floor glowing with these little lights that looked like fairies. There were so many different sounds — birds, lizards, frogs, mosquitos, crickets, bats, owls… there was something that sounded like a computer game (toink toink!) and another something that sounded like clockwork because it make a shrill sound every 7 seconds (yes, I counted!). Before we knew it, the sun was up and we had to fold up our nets and go for breakfast. We were able to catch a glimpse of the orange sky as the dawn gave way to bright skies.
My experiences with nature have affected me deeply. On the one hand, there’s an almost spiritual kind of awe at the beauty, richness, and wisdom of nature. On the other hand, I feel a strong sense of urgency to respond to the senseless environmental destruction. Our experiences with nature form the basis of an emotional connection with nature. When I interviewed some of the well-known environmentalists in the Philippines, including the former First Lady Ming Ramos, all of them identified particular experiences in nature that motivated them to pursue their passion. There are positive experiences such as growing up in the countryside and living a simple life in harmony with nature, or being intensely struck by the beauty of butterflies. Negative experiences can also stir an emotional reaction to nature, such as witnessing the murder of dolphins.
Many people wonder why a psychologist like myself would be interested in environmental issues. Doesn’t psychology just deal with psychotherapy, psychoses, neuroses and disorders? I attended a forum in which I was the only psychologist in a roomful of over a hundred wildlife biologists. I asked myself what psychologists can do to contribute to the conservation of wildlife and habitats. Thinking about it, practically all our environmental problems are caused by maladaptive human behavior. And human behaviors, in turn, are shaped and influenced by thoughts, feelings, motivations, beliefs, attitudes, and values. In the words of American Psychological Association President Alan E. Kazdin, any societal problem that involves human behaviors has a place “wildly right in the middle of psychology.” The discipline is useful for understanding the human face of environmental issues. Since then, I have worked towards making psychology useful in understanding and solving environmental problems.
Fast forward a few years and now here I am in Japan. I was struck by the city-ness of Tokyo: the grayness of the cityscape, the layers of elevated highways, the glaring neon lights at night. And yet I was gratefully surprised to find huge nature sanctuaries like the Meiji Jingu, where it is almost possible to forget about the city and sink deep into the soothing quiet of towering trees that have been standing long before we were born. Every now and then I find a strong desire to go to these green spaces to connect with the nourishing energy of nature. The beautiful natural spaces in Japan present an invitation for us to commune with nature. Only when we experience nature firsthand would we know what we’re missing if these were gone. What is your nature story?
The terrifying earthquake and tsunami last March 11 made us rethink our relationship with nature. We spend a lot of energy and resources controlling nature to make our lives more comfortable and convenient — we warm buildings in the winter and cool them in the summer; we push back the sea with reclaimed land; we trim down the trees till they look like poodles on sticks so that the branches and falling leaves do not interfere with our activities, etc. But the recent events demonstrated the incredible power that nature can unleash, leaving us with profound respect for that which we cannot subdue. We were unnerved when the ground heaved — the earthquake literally shook the foundation of our lives. My husband has been delivering food and other supplies to the tsunami-ravaged areas. He described how the fishermen sang traditional songs as they helped unload the boxes. I asked whether the people will still return to their homes after this or will they relocate somewhere else. He said that this is the third tsunami that has destroyed their town. Each time, they simply rebuilt their homes and their lives. They have embraced both what nature can give and take away. I was moved by what my husband shared and thought that perhaps this is our true human nature, or what it means for humans to be living with nature.
First appeared on Eco+Waza’s now defunct webzine.