This article was published in issue 94 of YES! Magazine.
It’s afternoon in the middle of the work week, and our local park is filled with people as if it were a holiday. There are little kids wildly chasing pigeons, and slightly bigger kids carefully stalking beady-eyed herons. There are teenagers racing on foot along the pond, and families sitting on rocks taking portraits. Watching from the sidelines, several calm-looking old men are drinking beer. Typical denizens of the park on most weekday afternoons, the old men seem unfazed by the extra commotion.
Of course, all stay a distance from each other.
We’re in the middle of a pandemic.
During a time when our familiar rituals—visits to restaurants, shopping malls, sporting events, and office cubicles—are no longer a thing, people in our neighborhood on the edge of Osaka seem to be taking leave of their home offices early, heading out into urban nature to play with their families and the birds.
It’s not unique to this neighborhood, of course. The choice to spend more time in nature is a phenomenon taking place in nearly every industrialized country where the economic and social shutdown is occurring, subject to varying logistical and governmental constraints.
When I talk of such news to friends in rural Japan—a group highly saturated with farmers and artists, mind you—most aren’t surprised. What is happening, they say, is that humans are remembering now something that we had forgotten during our “pre-corona” days, sitting in traffic or at desks in climate-controlled cubicles.
We had forgotten that we are ecological beings.
As I watch the increasing number of people standing under trees, next to streams, or sitting on rocks watching herons, I can’t help but think that many of us are using this time to connect with a part of ourselves that we had been neglecting for a long time.
“Everyone has the ability to know nature, to listen to nature, and to follow nature.” This is a common refrain from Japanese natural farmer and author Kawaguchi Yoshikazu. “Listening to nature” is the basis of everything that happens at his farm. As a result, he and thousands of other like-minded farmers in both rural and urban areas across Japan accept and embrace weeds, bugs, and other parts of the natural ecosystem to degrees that would be unthinkable to most of us. For them, however, it works.
If farmers can learn such ways from nature, what about the rest of us—can office workers, educators, and politicians listen and find answers in similar ways?
Some psychologists claim that all humans are gifted with “ecological perception” and that our ecological crisis has its roots in ignoring this gift. Perceptual psychologist Laura Sewall says this perception can be regained simply by practicing, for “if one chooses to listen, the landscape speaks.”
In these difficult circumstances, whether we are aware of it or not, it seems many of us are already practicing.
If we listened in this time of slowness, a time where bird songs triumph in place of what used to be morning rush hour, might we learn how to live and work more sustainably once this pandemic is over? If legislators, activists, and business leaders listened to the winds, as the skies turn deep blue and the bellows of smog-generation subside, would they hear the story of a world where we feed, house, and care for all living beings?
Or, if sitting in the park with our children and the birds is important now, will it suddenly become unimportant when we all go back to the office—when the skies are brown again, and the cars have out-shouted the birds, and things are back to normal?
It seems for too long, we’ve called this normal.
The fact is, we knew a long time ago how to accomplish social and environmental well-being. There exists today no technological barrier to a world where both humans and our environment are healthy and thriving. There is no functional barrier to a world where the song of birds in Manhattan is louder than the rush of cars. There is no economic barrier to a world where the air in Beijing or Los Angeles or Oakland is clear and safe to breathe. At the root of these issues, there are only social barriers—decisions that you and I and our leaders make each day about what is important in our lives, and what we put our energies toward.
This might feel an overly simple, far-away thought in light of the heavy, tangible barriers we encounter each day in our social, economic, and political systems.
But these barriers can only exist in a society whose social, economic, and political structures rest on foundations of abuse and extraction in the first place, structures which assume nature is a resource rather than a living, breathing, cohabitant with which our success as a species is inextricably intertwined.
Within our current framework, a majority have undoubtedly lost far more than others. All of us, however—from corporate CEO to starvation-wage worker—have equally lost a fundamental piece of what it means to be human on this Earth.
Now, at a time when the phrases “shelter in place” and “social distancing” have come into the public lexicon; when a chorus of fear and worry drones and glows from every smartphone, tablet, and television; and we’re sitting in a park with kids and families and the old men and the birds, somehow we feel a puzzling comfort we can’t remember feeling in this life.
No one knows what the damage to human life will be when the coronavirus subsides. Through all the hardship we are now encountering, one hopes, at least, that this pandemic will have slowed us down just enough to help us listen deeply, to care more, and perhaps to ask ourselves what, exactly, we are working in service to anyway.
Is it to technology, industry, progress, and gross domestic product? Or is it to pigeons and herons in the park, to blue skies, to our neighbors, and to living fully and truthfully this precious life?
With this time in relative isolation—a time during which I hope we can all find ways to reach nature—at least we have a chance to practice listening.
With luck, we might even figure out a few answers from what we hear.
This article was written by Patrick M. Lydon for YES! Magazine, and appears in their Summer 2020 issue in print and on their website.
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